Croopus…It’s March the First – Happy Dido Twite Day!

cuckoo Tree Dido Susan Obrant

Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, who was her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion, so the first day of March is a very special day for Aiken fans to celebrate.

Dido the scrawny ‘brat’ with jammy hair who first appeared in the streets of Battersea in the sequel to Joan Aiken’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has become the unlikely heroine who has taken over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often villainous family, the Twites.

Dido and the Twite family

But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido is lost at sea, and her friend Simon sadly fears she has given up her life for him.

But if this was the original plan, Joan Aiken was forced to change her mind… Letters from readers poured in, begging her to bring back their beloved Dido, and so a new book was born:

Dido letters

Night birds on Nantucket, book three in the series was where Dido came into her own; waking up on an American whaling ship, she finds a new identity, and the costume that becomes her trade mark:

Dido Midshipman's Outfit

Dido & Holystone on the Thrush

Her costume is not the only thing that makes Dido so special – her whole character and the way she expresses herself have endeared her to readers and made her especially memorable, here she is, watching with horror the sailors at work on the whaling ship after the capture of a whale:

Dido on the Whaler

But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, with the murksy-capsy criminals who endlessly kidnap or scrobble her and try and get her to follow their evil plans, she finds herself sympathising with their human frailty, crying:

“Oh, why do I have to feel sorry for people all the time, however nasty they are?”

The answer perhaps, is that she shares the mind of her creator, Joan Aiken:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

And she took root in the minds of readers too, many of whom sent in their own ideas for adventures Dido might have, or their own drawings of how they imagined her:

Dido the key

And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to read another piece of her history!

So when did we find out about her Birthday? In a later book in the series – Dido and Pa she has been kidnapped and is looking to pass a message to someone who might be able to help; she thinks of a tip a sailor friend gave her:

Dido's birthday

And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!

And find out about ALL the Wolves Chronicles here

Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)

Memories of Joan Aiken’s mother, Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

This little picture shows Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, at the age of about one.  She was born in Montreal in 1889, to parents whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; from them she inherited a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she eventually returned to live in England, spending the last half of her life in Sussex,  where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become, and what a devastating effect this would have on her future. 

Many years later her younger sister Grace in a family memoir wrote:

“Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she caught the eye of a young man called Conrad Aiken, and she fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.” (Near the family home.)

In the 1920’s the Aikens, Conrad attempting to support his family as a struggling poet, moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, hoping to further his career.  Joan was born there, in Rye, so she was the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

However times were hard, and when teaching work was offered back in Boston he returned to America. Sister Grace writes, curiously matter-of-factly, that not very long after Joan’s birth:

“Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her, as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (another writer and an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.”

It was the time of the great Depression, Jessie had three children to support, and ever practical, had turned to a friend. So it was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie decided that the little village school would not provide much of an education for her. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ – in this case a girl called Winnie – as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

This impersonal and unjudgemental attitude, described by Joan in her own memories of childhood, came back to me last year, when, remembering it was almost Jessie’s birthday, on the first of March, I went to look at this small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece, and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box, a curiously touching gift that she had given me near the end of her life – which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’ – was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the oil lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could so easily be restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity in the line down from mother to daughter and grand-daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me. It was my daughter who had given me the small oil lamp.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, from Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken gave her favourite heroine the same birth date as Jessie of March 1st. The two shared the same indomitable spirit, and sense of optimism that carried them through all kinds of troubles.

Joan Aiken’s Feeling for Snow…

Opening

‘It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels.’

The opening of Joan Aiken’s classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is famous for the snowy landscape it depicts, and soon the element of snow becomes as important in the story, and as threatening as the wolves in the title.

Orphaned Sylvia enduring a terrifying train journey through snow covered, wolf infested miles of empty English countryside, with only a strange man in her railway carriage for company, is haunted by a terrible nightmare:

‘She dreamed, without being really asleep, of arctic seas, of monstrous tunnels through hillsides fringed with icicles. Her travelling companion, who had grown a long tail and a pair of horns, offered her cakes the size of grand pianos and coloured scarlet, blue, and green; when she bit into them she found they were made of snow…’

But presently, within the safety of Sir Willoughby’s carriage, the falling snow adds to the cosy closeness of the two little girls,  riding home together:

‘There had been a new fall of snow and their progress was silent as they flew over the carpeted ground, save for the muffled hoof-beats and the cry of the wolves behind them.

There was something magical about this ride which Sylvia was to remember for the rest of her life – the dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’

snow

At first they are safe within Bonnie’s grand home, and happy to explore and play in the snow outside, even skating for miles down a frozen river, knowing they have a warm refuge to return to:

‘Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared-for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’

But when the ‘wolves’ take over, invading inside their refuge, even the weather takes on a different aspect:

‘The next morning dawned grey and louring. Snow was falling fast out of the heavy sky, the flakes hurrying down like dirty feathers from a leaking mattress.’

Or like feathers from a wandering goose, seized unaware by a wolf?

Soon, on another carriage ride through the ever present snow, they are being carried away to another kind of home, as cold within as it is without, and away from every kind of shelter…

‘At last they drew near the great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare of Blastburn, where the huge slag-heaps stood outlined like black pyramids against the red sky.’

Blastburn

‘Young ladies!’ said Miss Slighcarp sharply. They caught sight of her face by the swaying carriage light; the look on it was so forbidding that it made them shiver. ‘One word from either of you, and you’ll have me to reckon with! Remember that you are now going to a place where Miss Green of Willoughby Chase is not of the slightest consequence. You can cry all day in a coal-cellar and no one will take notice of you, if I choose that it shall be so. Hold your tongues, therefore!

Long before the end of the trip they were almost dead of cold, and their feet were like lumps of ice, for Miss Slighcarp had all the fur carriage rugs wrapped round herself, and the children had to make do without. They were too cold for sleep, and could almost have wished for an attack by wolves, but, save for an occasional distant howl, their passage was undisturbed. It seemed that Miss Slighcarp was right when she said that the wolves feared to attack her.’

Wolves and snow are images that Joan Aiken drew from the European Fairy Stories and Folk Tales she read as a child, and uses to conjure images in her own books, which bring a sense of warmth and comfort from a place of safety, or can be employed to send a shiver down your spine when you imagine you are outside and far from home…..

Chase

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Illustrations by Bill Bragg from the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Read more about this edition and Joan Aiken’s fascination with wolves here 

 

 

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’  This was a story she was determined to complete.

Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age, with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants; the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of Our Island’s Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

The solutions to dangerous situations in all  the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.

In the previous book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now, by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the ether.

At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers, despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her endless adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

  “Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,  ‘stories don’t have a tell by date…’

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?