The illustrations above depict Claire Sennegon in 1837 and, in a self-portrait,Christen Købke in 1832, both of whom I imagine Sophie and twin brother Simon might have resembled in the mid-1830s when Dido Twite finally reconnected with them in London. Simon of course was a talented artist while Sophie was equally adept at taking proactive roles.
In this post we will start looking at the characters who feature in Joan Aiken’s alternate history Wolves Chronicle Dido and Pa, some of whom (as we will discover) belong to an informal group known as the Birthday League. They’ll be introduced according to principal places in the novel, and as there is much background information the post comes in two parts: this is . . . part one.
In Dido and Pamuch time is spent in the East End of London, in the docklands area of Wapping. But the narrative ranges more widely than this, and this post looks at the bigger picture. The role of Dido Twite’s father (Abednego/Desmond/Denzil/Boris) in this novel is huge, though his peregrinations in the capital — as we shall see — aren’t as extensive as some of the other characters.
We’ve now arrived at the next point in our explorations of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, an alternate history fantasy set during the 1830s in a parallel London. A review of the novel appeared here and a discussion of the convoluted chronology was posted here. I’d now like to introduce you to the geography of the locations the author puts into Dido and Pa and how they compare and contrast with what existed in our London then and how it is now.
The East End of London was a rapidly developing area of London between the late 18th and early 19th century. The Ratcliffe Highway (named from red cliffs above the Thames) overlooked the Wapping marshes on the north bank of the river. Here new docks were carved out in a series of basins, with new warehouses to house the goods brought upriver to the capital. The area also attracted shady characters and gained an unsavoury reputation: the famous Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811 (examined by P D James, co-author of The Maul and the Pear Tree) were, in terms of notoriety, just the tip of the iceberg.
It is here that Joan Aiken chose to set most of the action of Dido and Pa.
This is the first in a series of occasional posts discussing Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, one of the instalments in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (otherwise known as the Wolves Chronicles). Yes, it features wolves too!
Here however, I wish to examine the vexed question of how the novel fits into the Chronicles timeline, and why the answers we seek may not be straightforward or even resolved in a satisfactory way; it won’t be a short post, sorry.
If you are new to Dido and Pa — or indeed to the Chronicles — you might want to look away now. (Links are to posts detailing various attempts to justify my conclusions on chronology.)
Joan Aiken: Dido and Pa Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1987)
No sooner was Dido Twite back in London for the coronation of Richard IV (in The Cuckoo Tree) then she found herself back in rural West Sussex, and all this after long eventful years crisscrossing the globe. And now, no sooner has she met up with Simon — the boy who had taken care of her when she was a Cockney guttersnipe — then she is snabbled by no less a personage than her musical yet nefarious father … back to London! What plans does he have for her, and for what purposes?
On the banks of the Thames, in London’s East End, Dido is forced to associate with a rum lot of naffy coves, from the cigar-smoking slattern Mrs Bloodvessel via havy-cavy types with fungoid names to the slumguzzling nob the Margrave of Eisengrim, truly the most vulpine villain Dido has yet to meet. And then there are the fresh waves of wolves coming through the tunnel under the English Channel, overrunning Kent and nearing London with every day…
We’ve been holidaying in East Sussex, near the historic town of Rye, seeing sites, such as gardens and buildings, and sights, such as the sea and countryside. Amongst them all is beautiful Rye itself.
Rye is also a veritable literary mecca. Natives and residents have included playwright (and sometime Shakespeare collaborator) John Fletcher, Henry James (who completed The Spoils of Poynton near Rye, and then wrote his remaining novels in Lamb House, Rye), E F Benson (author of the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels), and Conrad Aiken (poet and author), not forgetting Joan Aiken, his now more famous daughter, born here ninety-four years ago on 4th September 1924.
Aiken celebrated her birthplace in her fiction, sometimes obscurely. For example, the short stories in The Monkey’s Wedding feature towns called, variously, Rohun, Rune or Ryme. The Wolves Chronicle entitled Midwinter Nightingale, first published the year before her death, was partly set in marshland reminiscent of Romney Marsh, the coastal area between Winchelsea and Dungeness, and accessible from Rye. And, of course, The Haunting of Lamb House, her supernatural novel from 1991, is specifically set in Rye.
Forgive me but please be indulgent, for I shall in due course be posting a little bit more about this part of East Sussex and its literary links; for now it seems a good time to celebrate the genius of Joan Aiken and draw attention to her Sussex birthplace.
Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House. Jonathan Cape, 1991 ~ Midwinter Nightingale. Red Fox, 2005 (2003) ~ The Monkey’s Wedding. Small Beer Press, 2011
Dorothy Eagle and Hillary Carell (eds): The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles. OUP, 1977
Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton. Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)
Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life.
The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.