Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, future saviour (many times over!) of her Kingdom and much loved inspiration to readers, Dido first appears in the second of the Wolves Chronicles, Black Hearts in Battersea, but from her humble beginnings, she goes on to rule the series from the moment when she first accosts the hero Simon 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.”
Dido’s real life model thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way.
In 1957, determined to create a permanent home for herself and two small children after the death of her husband, 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. On moving-in day, (supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction!) the family were met in the street by a small neighbour who looked just like the description above. Sitting on the steps up to their new house, barefoot and clutching a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she 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 rooftops, sailing the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry, all of which turned out to be true.
After the book was written, Joan Aiken famously told the story of the many agonised letters she received from fans who reached the end of Black Hearts, the first Dido story, only to discover that their newly found heroine has disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, she decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket in New England, home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so sent her off on an extraordinary series of adventures.
But over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought many more fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave a mystery clue about Dido’s origins. Her meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord for her, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners she couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, and who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?
Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her now avidly faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until Joan’s death. Finding these letters after Joan Aiken’s death then set off another mystery – how to bring this almost impossible quest to an end and send a message to her without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post the the various readers’ letters on the new 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…
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 neighbour from those Sussex days, now living in Australia was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who nearly sixty years later also came from Australia to visit, and learned for the first time that she was part inspiration for an incredibly well loved fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures with them for the first time.
Even 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
Many readers have speculated that Dido is even an alter ego for Joan Aiken, which does ring true, and certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined for herself as a small girl. She dreamed of 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 her 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 are 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