Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion. The first of March is a special day for Aiken fans to celebrate. But lately she has been celebrating some more glory days while taking part in the online #WorldCupofChildrensBooks, and has become one of the few ‘unknowns’ to break through the old guard of early twentieth century staples into the finals.
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 went on to take over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often wildly villainous family, the Twites.
But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that early 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:
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 sailor costume that becomes her trade mark:
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:
But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – whether with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, or 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, sighing:
“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:
And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to
So when do 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:
‘When you talk to a native or a stranger,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself – your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food – tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit you can be friends.’
And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!
Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)