‘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.