Dido Twite

‘Never heard of her’, said Daughter as she passed my laptop, but I won’t disown her just yet. Her brother and I read our way through Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence about seven or eight years ago, and we still grin at the mention of ‘Died of Fright’. It’s one of the many names the mad butler in book six, The Cuckoo Tree, calls her.

‘Her’ being Dido Twite, who must be one of the most fascinating heroines in children’s books. How I hated her to begin with. I wanted her to die at the end of book two, Black Hearts in Battersea, and I’ve since heard that Joan Aiken intended her to. She was infuriating. I was so annoyed when she kept turning up and making demands on Simon, the lovely boy from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

When Simon arrives in London, he meets “a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eye lashes 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.” To put it bluntly, she’s not good enough for him. Simon lodges with the Twite family, and Dido keeps popping up all the time.

Simon is kind, so he lets Dido ‘hang out’ with him, if that’s what they did in the early nineteenth century, during the reign of James III. This is a good example of how being with someone better than yourself can improve you and change your life.

Joan Aiken didn’t kill Dido off, but made her the main character in Night Birds on Nantucket, much to my dismay. Dido grew on me, though, at about the rate I managed to lay my hands on the next book. I only found one bookshop which stocked the books, where I went about once a month to buy another one.

Then it gets confusing, because The Cuckoo Tree comes next. Came next. But later on Aiken went on to write two more books, The Stolen Lake and Limbo Lodge, which are now fourth and fifth in the sequence. The Lake one is somewhat Arthurian, featuring a still not dead Queen Guinevere. The infuriating thing about Limbo Lodge is that I wanted to read more about Lord Herodsfoot in book six, but as he hadn’t been invented when that was written, I had to go without.

Dido grows up beautifully through these books, never losing sight of the canny London girl she once was, but learning a lot in her travels. She’s brave, she’s intelligent, she’s kind, she’s resourceful.

She meets up with Simon again, who has been astonishingly successful while still so young. In Dido and Pa, the ghastly Mr Twite turns up in a story reminiscent of Tiger in the Well. Lots of goings-on in London, and the wolves are coming.

In book eight, Is, we meet Dido’s little sister Is, and she is as spunky as Dido. Cold Shoulder Road, book nine, is also about Is.

The last two books were published posthumously, Midwinter Nightingale and The Witch of Clatteringshaws. In the former Dido and Simon are almost adults when they find each other after some time apart, and they have a dying king on their hands. The last book is too short, but Aiken knew she wouldn’t have time to write the whole story, so preferred to make it briefer and actually get to the end.

And now I want to re-read the whole lot. Croopus.

Why isn’t Joan Aiken more of a household name? Her books are all so good, and a feisty heroine of Dido’s calibre you don’t find every day, even if Dido was a bit of an accident. I sometimes think those are the best.

30 responses to “Dido Twite

  1. I adore, adore, adore these books. I had been a big Wolves of Willoughby Chase fan as a child, but only came across the Dido Twite series some years ago when one of my students was reading them. They are so, so, so wonderful and I agree that more should know them.

    I don’t know if it is available in the UK, but a small press (Small Beer) in the US recently published The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories. It is absolutely wonderful. (Wrote about them here: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2008/12/20/joan-aikens-the-serial-garden-the-complete-armitage-family-stories/) One of the stories is at their website to read.

  2. yes Joan Aiken’s short stories are fabulous – even better than her novels I think. ‘the serial garden’ manages to be about freebies in cereal packets and absolutely heart-breaking at the same time…
    I haven’t read the more recent Dido books – I think its often disappointing when authors revisit characters they created years before – but maybe in this case I’d be proved wrong

  3. I haven’t revisited these for absolutely years, and I only knew about the first three and Limbo Lodge. Perhaps I should give them another go.

    Two things always used to annoy me about them:

    1) Yes, I see what you mean about Dido being spunky and so on, but her mannered dialogue used to drive me nuts. It was exhausting trying to decode what she was saying.

    2) With an AU, I want to know why, where and how it departed from history. I could never figure this out. Did 1689 just never happen? (I wouldn’t be in favour of that), or did one of Queen Anne’s children survive?

  4. I’ve never understood British history anyway, so have simply accepted that it’s a little different. All these kings and their numbers, and sometimes not the same number in Scotland, but same person.


    Queen Anne. I know her. She has a gate in London somewhere.

  5. Think of this as a parallel universe kind of British history which has diverged from the original as a result of certain events not occurring. Rather like the Diana Wynne Jones/Chrestomanci view of a series of worlds where we each have our counterpart, but the Bookwitch in that world might be exclusively reviewing books on string theory, or farming, or wind turbines. 🙂 I’m delighted to find out that I have 2 more Twites in store. I came to them late and long after childhood, having always read the blurbs in the back of my Puffins and never quite dared to venture into the assumed scariness of Willoughby Chase. They have an oddly gothic but endearing tone for me, and in some ways remind me of Gormenghast. I shall look forward to exploring–thanks, Witch. You always do come up trumps!

  6. Wind turbines… Hmm.

    You’ll find the last book disappointingly short, Lucy. The reader gets an idea of what should happen, and then Joan Aiken ties all the bits together and stops. And knowing why she did it makes you feel even worse.

    Dido for Queen!

  7. Oh, well. I’ll give it a go anyway. And I agree, Dido for Queen. But only in that alternate universe. Croopus–I LIKE our current queen, unfashionable as I am.

  8. well… she’ll be a household name in one more house if i like them as much i think i will- but goodness nine more books? i don’t have any more shelf space, and i only just put it up today.

    I also love the idea of a story based on cereal box freebies.

    Consider this a pledge to find atleast one of her books.

  9. Just posted about Sara Paretsky. Now I´ll just have to wait and see what my guests think.
    She seems really nice.

  10. Think of this as a parallel universe kind of British history which has diverged from the original as a result of certain events not occurring.

    Yes, but with other AUs, such as Fatherland or The Years of Rice and Salt, you know the actual point at which history diverged. Here, I have no idea. Did one of the Jacobite risings succeed? All I know is that the Stuarts (biggest idiots ever to run this country) are apparently still on the throne, and oh, hey, look at that, the North of England is overrun by wolves. (The words ‘piss-up’ and ‘brewery’come to mind.)


    Oy … only about the most important date in British history since 1066! In so far as this is a free country, 1689 is the reason why. It’s also what the Northern Ireland Troubles were about. Get a copy of Macaulay’s History of England or google ‘Glorious Revolution’.

    Queen Anne. I know her. She has a gate in London somewhere.

    She was a lesbian with a Danish husband and had about 17 children (damn persuasive, those Scandinavians), but they all died, and that is why British monarchs spoke with German accents up to the 20th century.

  11. You mean I have to buy a whole book (can one buy part of a book?) to find out about 1689? I’m as foreign as royalty, you know.

    Cereal box freebies? I’m very lost here. Sorry.

  12. Lily above referred to “cereal box freebies” which are in the title story of The Serial Garden story collection I mentioned.

  13. I should pay attention, shouldn’t I? Thanks, Monica.

  14. No problem! By the way, Small Beer has one of the Armitage stories on their website. You can download and read it to get a taste of what they are.

  15. Hello. I stumbled across your review when I was googling for Dido Twite and indeed, the Wolves Chronicles were some of my favorite books as a child as well. I reread them every time I’m back at my parents’ house for a visit and I love them even more as an adult.

    But one thing always bothered me – Aiken never really explicitly told us the ages of Simon and Dido in the later books and it was always very confusing for me. When Simon met Dido in The Black Hearts of Battersea, he was 15 and she was about 9. When they meet again in Dido and Pa, a few years had passed and Sophie was noted to be almost 18 at one point. I had always assumed that Sophie and Simon were paternal twins, so Simon must be the same age as well, putting Dido around 12?

    Then, in Midwinter Nightingale, it gets REALLY CONFUSING. At the end of Dido and Pa, King Richard was arranged to meet a Lady Adelaide of Thurinia, whom he was to marry. But then In Midwinter Nightingale, we’re told in the Foreword that Lady Adelaide was married to a Baron Magnus with whom they had a son named Lot. But Magnus had an illegitimate daughter with some other woman and that little girl – Jorinda – is 6 years younger than Lot. Flash-forward to Jorinda meeting Simon on a train. Simon describes her as being 17-18. Which means Lot must be in his early 20s. But Lot was 6 y.o. when his mother Lady Adelaide married King Richard and since Adelaide and Richard just met at the end of Dido & Pa when Simon was supposed to be 18, then wouldn’t Simon be in his mid-30s by now? But he is still being described as “no more than a lad” (by some of the people he encountered). That doesn’t make sense!!!

    I know I’m being really specific and if you’re wondering how I’m able to remember all of those details, it’s b/c I’m reading the books again right now, this time to my little niece. We’re in the middle of Midwinter Nightingale and she was confused about the ages of Simon and Dido, which made me even more confused as I attempted to find the answers to her questions.

    I’m not sure if you made more sense of their ages but I figured I’d ask anyway. 🙂

  16. Wow, you’ve worked hard! I honestly don’t know, and I suspect Joan Aiken didn’t either. In the last book it feels like Simon and Dido are hovering somewhere in their twenties; young but fairly mature. Maybe it’s hard to make sense of someone (Dido) who wasn’t meant to live, so there were no plans, and someone (Simon) with a place in history that never happened.

    Very pleased to find an ardent fan. I rarely search for facts like these, because I get thoroughly muddled.

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  18. Hi, I’m so sorry to have turned up rather late at this party, but simply couldn’t resist joining in! I’m Joan Aiken’s daughter, and have made a website for her at http://www.joanaiken.com/ – an online museum and hot pie shop would have been better but harder to do! So lovely to see all this dedicated readership – I have to say I am amazed and astounded by Lee’s researches – I am just working on a ‘Wolves’ Timeline for the site and hope to be able to solve some of these mysteries before too long, though it has to be said that her head was so full of a number of things that chronological consistency was not always one of them! I reckon Dido was about sixteen by the end of the series, and Simon six years older, so she has plenty of time for more adventures. For Lee – my theory about Princess Adelaide is that she couldn’t face being Queen either and fled back to Thuringia, only taking pity on the ageing King Richard many years later when she turns up at the end of Dido & Pa wearing spectacles and rather middle aged and dowdy – could she be modeled on Queen Anne? Oh and Lord Herodsfoot does turn up again later in Midwinter Nightingale, but in a way that is really hard to forgive. Dido had a lucky escape! There are so many questions to answer here I can barely begin, but yes it makes me want to read all twelve books again too – that’s including the long lost prequel The Whispering Mountain…..Happy reading! Lizza Aiken

  19. Very honoured to have you visit us here, Lizza! And you have re-awakened my wish to re-read, yet again… Where did that time go again?

  20. It’s an absolute delight for me to come across a coven of avid Aiken fans, and not just of Dido. I was so proud to get “The Serial Garden” stories published as it was very much on her last ‘to do’ list – the title story about a garden made from pictures on the back of Breakfast Brik packets had such a terribly haunting ending that she left a promise to put it right in a final collection. Here’s a link about it, with the introduction I wrote about her early life and how the stories came to be written. http://lcrw.net/aiken/dontgofishing.htm
    Do get back to me with questions or requests and I’ll do what I can to help, as an avid fan myself of course!

  21. I love the website, Lizzie, and have been a fan for many many years. I was lucky enough to meet Joan once or twice. One of my nicest writing memories was walking into no 10 D St. with J. A. “Have you ever been here before?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she said. “I delivered some papers here for Churchill during the war!”

    Midnight is a Place is also a wonderful book, and The Shadow Guests includes one of my favourite heroes of all time. Dear Sim.

    Such is the extent of my fandom that I even cook things out of Joan Aiken books now and then. Chestnut porridge, orange flavoured apple pie, and cheese and apple pie.

    • Thanks so much Hilary, glad to know you are a fan – and I’m so pleased you got to meet each other – I didn’t know the Churchill story either!
      On the subject of pies, the whacky recipes are an inspiration – I should definitely put up a selection of Aiken feasts on the website, she was a rather inventive cook but most hospitable! She was quite wry about making the Puffin film where you see her putting a pie in the oven – actually lunch she had made for the crew – and then sitting down at her typewriter and apparently tossing off a novel or two. She said she was afraid it would be burned black as they kept re-shooting the scene over and over but she never got to take it out at the end!

  22. That’s hilarious, Hilary, if you don’t mind me saying so. Churchill, I mean.

    I was about to say something cheeky about the cooking, but on second thoughts I’ll be round for some cheese and apple pie, if I may?

  23. Yes, do come, but the cheese and apple pie as I make it is quite horrid so you can be as rude as you like. The cheese gums to the pastry and makes a desperate sort of glue. However, I persevere. Orange flavoured apple pie is much better and chestnut porridge (which I cannot force my family to eat) has lately morphed into chestnut soup, which they do accept with only a moderate amount of groaning.
    I am in Derbyshire and should you ever feel up to an homage to Aiken lunch I will gladly attack the oven. So few people volunteer to eating my cooking that it would be rather a treat.

  24. I’ll have the cheese on the side then, as it sounds like rudeness is out of the question with teeth firmly glued shut with pie. Soup sounds OK, you know. Is it my end of Derbyshire?

  25. I don’t know , Ann. Which half do you own?

  26. My other name is Duchess of Devonshire, if that helps?

  27. Pingback: Wolves, again | Bookwitch

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  29. Pingback: Dido Twite’s World – calmgrove

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