Who was Dido Twite..and what is her real story?

Simon & Dido

Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, heroic saviour (many times over!) of her King and country and a much loved inspiration of readers of The Wolves Chronicles, actually has her own background story. The character Dido Twite first appears in the second of these books – Black Hearts in Battersea, and from her humble beginnings, goes on to rule the series almost from the moment when she first accosts the newly arrived art student Simon and his donkey Caroline in Rose Alley:

“She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”

But readers may not know that there was a real life model for the character of Dido Twite, who thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way as she appears in the book…

In 1957, wanting to create a permanent home for herself after she was widowed with two small children, Joan borrowed £300 from her mother and put a deposit on White Hart House, a semi-derelict Tudor ex-pub in the little town of Petworth, five miles from the Sussex village where she had grown up. Joan Aiken had to sign an undertaking not to sell liquor as the town already had so many other pubs, so the pub sign came down.

Steam Engine 1908

On moving-in day, supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction and a good many orange crates, the family were met outside their new home by a nosey small girl who looked just like the one described above. Sitting on the steps up to their house, barefoot and enjoying a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she was totally intrepid and had the run of the town, and from then on would arrive at all hours, endlessly curious, and full of tall tales about running on the town’s rooftops, sailing around the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry at Petworth House, most of which turned out to be true!

After the book that this small girl had inspired was written and published, Joan Aiken famously told of the many agonised letters she received from fans who having reached the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, were aghast to discover that their newly found heroine had disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, Joan Aiken decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket off the coast of New England, home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so the young Dido was sent off on her extraordinary series of adventures.

Jacques Dido

But over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought more questions and fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave a mysterious clue about Dido’s origins.

The meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners Joan Aiken couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, a character who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this other mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?

The little marchioness

An illustration by ‘Phiz’  and perhaps an inspiration for the Twite Family?

Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until the end of Joan’s life.

Finding these letters after Joan Aiken’s death set off another quest – how to bring this almost impossible mystery to an end and send a message without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post some of the letters on the newly created Joan Aiken website, together with a key to the Dickens mystery and leave the internet to work its magic, which it did in more ways than one…

Dido Dickens clue

One day, the American Dido fan looking up her favourite author found the page, recognised her own letter and was able to get in touch; she even came to visit on a trip to London and saw her original letters, carefully kept by Joan Aiken through the years.

Also via the website, an old friend from those Sussex days, now living in Australia, was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who had also moved there, and nearly sixty years later she came from Australia to visit, and only then learned how she had inspired Joan Aiken’s fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures, and early inspiration with them for the first time.

More magical Aiken serendipity meant that this second visit happened on the very same day when the American reader, now grown up and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer herself, had posted an essay online about her long search for Dido Twite:

Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Readers have also speculated that Dido Twite could be an alter ego for Joan Aiken, which does ring true; certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined for herself as a small girl – sailing on whaling ships, climbing the mountains of South America, visiting the mysterious Island of the Pearl Snakes, putting spokes in the wheels of various villains, and even inhabiting the pages of novels by her favourite authors, such as Dickens. The character of Dido was the embodiment of many of that small girl’s dreams.

When Joan grew up to be a writer she was able to give Dido all the wonderful adventures she had imagined for herself, and encourage others to be bold and follow their dreams as well.

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Many illustrators have tried to capture Dido – these pictures above are from  American editions of Wolves Chronicles drawn by Robin Jacques

Want to know the answer to that Dickens secret? Click here for the Letters page!

More posts about Dido Twite and her adventures are here

‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’


Today, the 4th of January 2019 is, unbelievably, fifteen years since her death, and since I have been, as she asked me: ‘looking after the books’ on her behalf. A sad reflection, of course, but also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given.

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter and now representative, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books, fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the website, and replying to some of the letters above.

On the page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

And one of them, now a writer herself, answered with something I completely understood, and that I wish I could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness. I never quite managed to explain that I was a writer because of her…”

And then she herself came on a visit from America, and I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before. She wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I am…

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there?

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Letters from You…we love Mortimer!

Mortimer's Cross2

However badly he behaves Mortimer is still finding friends…

Some readers will always remember Joan Aiken for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or her heroine Dido Twite in later books in the Wolves series, but many of the letters that still arrive from her fans are about Mortimer – the ‘feathered fiend’ who worries the life out of Mr and Mrs Jones, a taxi driver and his wife  who live in Rainwater Crescent, London NW3 1/2,  but who is besottedly beloved by their daughter Arabel.  Somehow she always sees the right side of him, and in return he would do anything for her.

Here’s a lovely letter from a fan so devoted to these stories she’s even used them for her email address.

I am writing to you because Joan Aiken’s books are amazing! My love for her books all started when my mom was a kid and was sick in the hospital. My grandad bought Arabel and Mortimer and read it to her to cheer her up. She really loved the book and kept it until she was an adult. When I was around eight, my mom read me Arabel and Mortimer. I loved it so much, we got the whole series. In fact, my email address is inspired by Arabel and Mortimer!

One time, when my parents and I went camping, my Mom had to go to a store next to the campground because we were out of milk. When she came back to our car, she said, “I’m so glad there aren’t any RAVENS here…..” at that moment she made a weird noise and threw a black thing into the backseat. I picked it up and looked at it for a moment. Then I said “Thanks Mom!” because the thing that she threw back to me was a stuffed raven. She asked me “What are you going to name him?” and I said: “Mortimer.” and I’ve had that silly bird ever since.

Just a couple of months ago, my Mom crocheted Mortimer a scarf. (It looks handsome on him.)

In the book Mortimer’s Cross, Mortimer has a special box that is labelled Mortimer’s Cross, H.A.R.R.I.S (Hush, A Resting Raven’s Inside! Shh!). Arabel’s Great-Aunt Olwen mails it off by accident, thinking that it is a box with the same address with clothing inside! I have re-created that same box and Mortimer likes to sit in it.

We also read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and loved it. So now we are reading Blackhearts in Battersea.

Joan’s books have made such an impact on my life, I just really wanted you to know how special and funny they are!

Sincerely,

Sarah

sarahs-mortimer

Sarah’s Mortimer & Box!

Many more letters used to arrive asking where, oh where can they get hold of

the  CBBC TV Mortimer and Arabel PUPPET series that came out in the 1990’s?

Your wish was my command – You can now download them HERE

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AND NOW NEW PUFFIN BUMPER STORY COLLECTION!

ArabelAndMortimerStories NEW

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