Who was Dido Twite..?

Simon & Dido

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.

Jacques Dido

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…

Dido Dickens clue

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

 

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Meet Joan Aiken…

JA Movie

Would you like to go for a walk with Joan Aiken, and hear how she came up with the ideas for her most famous books, the Wolves Chronicles,  or visit her in her home?

Well you can!

This short film was made by Puffin Books, and shows her on the Sussex Downs, near the village where she grew up, and in the little town of Petworth, where she bought her first home – an old pub called The White Hart.

You can also see her visit the real Rose Alley where she imagined Simon meeting Dido Twite for the first time, on the banks of the Thames, near the new Globe Theatre and opposite St.Paul’s Cathedral.

And finally see the real Cuckoo Tree that inspired one of her titles – quite famous locally, and even visited by fans from as far away as Japan… but extremely hard to find!

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Click here to watch

 Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE

 

 

 

Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

…is she Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

This cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the witch brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen – artist Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice ‘double double’ …!  Just as there is a lot of the young Joan in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older self in Malise, title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is the unwilling author of an unfinished story; she has set a mystery in motion but is still seeking the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…

  What she was supposed to record and pass on was his prophecy about the future of the Kingdom…and now the Kingdom is in trouble.

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind, knowing that she didn’t have the energy to go on writing much longer, she was determined nevertheless to bring a conclusion to her own alternative history of England, and to the story of its enduring heroine, Dido Twite and her friend, now ‘King’ Simon.

The harrowing ending of Midwinter Nightingale,  penultimate story in the series, which was written at a time of personal darkness, had broken many of her own rules. She was particularly haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, perhaps to run away with Dido to new adventures. The obvious way would be to invent a new branch of the Royal Family Tree, create a long lost heir, someone with a better claim to the throne of England who would free Simon and therefore Dido, to return to their own lives…  This was like finding the last piece of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle of her own making over the last fifty years.  Her last task,  like that of Malise was to come up with the right words…

The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores throughout at their cost. There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, and the long suffering Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and now in the person of Malise another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

 Joan Aiken’s English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock, did not perhaps tie up all the loose ends, or clear up all the conundrums set up over the years in The  Wolves Chronicles, and so she was persuaded to add a postscript, a letter to her readers, a last word of her own, which sadly was not included in the American edition.

So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.

Afterword1

Afterword2

Afterword3

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With the recent publication by Open Road  of the missing three novels in

The Wolves Chronicles Series

readers in the USA can now collect the complete set!

  Find them all on the Joan Aiken Website

P.S.

I was interested to see similarities between Joan Aiken’s last book, and that of Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown, which he wrote ten years later.  Both have Witch heroines devotedly caring for their societies and shouldering enormous responsibility – perhaps speaking for their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?

Read about it here – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/joan-aiken-stories-without-a-tell-by-date/

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Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

 Littlest House2

To celebrate Thanksgiving here’s a post about Joan Aiken’s American childhood.

Joan Aiken, best known for writing her classic almost Dickensian novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,  has always seemed absolutely English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose ancestors went back as far as the Mayflower.
The Aiken family, with her older brother and sister, who had been born in Boston Massachusetts, moved to England just before Joan was born in 1924, to the little Sussex coastal town of Rye.   Although her parents were divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, strange and mysterious though some of it might be to an English child.

Her mother supplied her with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus, with his stories of Brer Rabbit, and Huckleberry Finn to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did such extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch!  This would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key. Or they pulled Taffy, chewed sassafras sticks, went coasting – sledging apparently – and slept in truckle beds. The confusions were endless, but only added to the magic.

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And it didn’t end there… the real thing was even more mysterious. I had a major culture shock the first time I visited my American grandfather for a summer on Cape Cod in the 1960’s and encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps) let alone meeting long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there still expecting to find pumpkin pie and mockingbirds!
And the mystery of a foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully the other way round; writers like E.Nesbit or Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote quintessentially English stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan’s own very English adventure – set as it was in an imaginary time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, a Delano from one of the first voyages over from England, and later sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on a mysterious American island where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this book was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated, as on the cover above by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet,  in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

See Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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