Someone of her own

A Carriage and Pair, with Coachman (1774) by Paul Sandby (Yale Center for British Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Joan Aiken: The Cuckoo Tree
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1971)

Our young heroine, Dido Twite, has finally returned to England after years away in “furrin parts overseas” but instead of a calm steady progress from the south coast to London, her place of birth, we find her hurtling in a death-defying dash — in the dark — on a mission of the greatest urgency. When the carriage-and-pair she and her fellow passenger, Captain Owen Hughes, are travelling in is stranded in the middle of nowhere after an accident, she is precipitated into an adventure involving conspiracies, inheritances, smuggling, witchery and, of course, danger.

Naturally this is almost everything that one expects to find in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, but we also hope we’ll encounter friendship, loyalty, bravery, honesty and resourcefulness, especially when we know that Dido is involved. She’ll need all those virtues in this further instalment of the alternate history series in which the Hanoverian monarchs are the pretenders to the British throne rather than the Stuarts.

In addition, for Aiken fans there’s the draw of knowing that much of this story is set in a corner of the world Joan knew very well — part of the South Downs now in West Sussex, on the road running northeast from Chichester towards the historic town of Petworth. Not only can we feel the genuine sense of place that comes with a novel set in real locations but also the emotional connections the author may have had for here — albeit with frequent dark shadows obscuring our view.

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“A small slipshod girl”

Screen grab from http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

I’m about to begin (again) The Cuckoo Tree, another of the titles in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles also known as the James III sequence or, as I like to think of it, the Dido Twite series, after the character who takes a lead role in all but four of the novels. This particular instalment is one that will have been particularly close to the author’s heart, being set in and around the area where Joan and her family lived a good part of their lives, namely the South Downs in West Sussex.

So I was particularly pleased to read “Who was Dido Twite?”, a recent post on the ever delightful Joan Aiken blog in which we are introduced to a number of part-inspirations for the character of the irrepressible Dido: one real-life human for definite, a literary predecessor and of course the late author herself.

What I especially liked about this post was that two of the people mentioned (one now an Australian granny, the other an American writer called Jackie Hedeman) are still living, and that Joan’s daughter Lizza was recently able to make connections with both.

The unnamed Australian woman made a significant contribution to Dido’s character when the Aiken family moved to Petworth in Sussex (where some of the action in The Cuckoo Tree was to take place); Jackie Hedeman was to gently pester the author as to the literary influence, but to no avail — until she recently spotted a clue on the official Joan Aiken website, an experience which she then described online in an entrancing post.

If you haven’t encountered Dido Twite before — and longtime followers of this blog will hardly been able to avoid her — then you should take the opportunity. I hope to persuade any ditherers in a future review (with its associated posts) of The Cuckoo Tree.

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Chalking it up to experience

Detail from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855–64) in Tate Britain

Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men
Illustrated by Paul Kidby
Corgi 2012 (2003)

‘The thing about witchcraft,’ said Mistress Weatherwax, ‘is that it’s not like school at all. First you get the test, and then afterwards you spend years findin’ out how you passed it. It’s a bit like life in that respect.’

Terry Pratchett listed his recreation on Who’s Who as “Letting the mind wander” — which is as good a description of young witch Tiffany Aching’s hobby in The Wee Free Men as any. Better, in fact, since Tiffany’s thoughts and experiences are loosely based on Pratchett’s own early memories of growing up. Tiffany’s story is set on the Chalk, an allusion to Pratchett’s adopted county of Wiltshire — where he finally settled, near Salisbury and not far from Stonehenge. You won’t be surprised to know that trilithons like those of the monument feature in The Wee Free Men, nor that wandering shepherds and their sheep, once a common sight on the Wilshire downs, are also a prominent motif in the novel.

Stonehenge and shepherd’s flock, from an old print

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Troublesome games

Jain version of Snakes & Ladders called Jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, gouache on cloth (image: public domain)

Games, thought Dido, they sure cause a lot of trouble.
Limbo Lodge, chapter 8

Joan Aiken’s 1999 novel Limbo Lodge was entitled Dangerous Games in the 1998 US edition, and this gives us one clue for a singular way to approach this instalment in the Wolves Chronicles. In the novel Lord Herodsfoot is James III’s roving ambassador on the hunt for new and entertaining games, but as well as the games that get mentions in these pages there is the game that is life-or-death, the winning of which Dido Twite and her companions must clinch. It could be argued that Joan Aiken fashions Limbo Lodge as a board game metaphor, with Aratu as the board and individuals as pieces. Is it possible to justify this?

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Forest peoples

Map of the Moluccas by N Sanson (1683)

There’s too much blame mysterious about this island.
— Dido’s observation in chapter 6

This is another post in the series giving the background to one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge. This instalment focuses on the islanders of Aratu, the island that Dido finds so full of mysteries. I can’t help being reminded of some of the issues that are raised in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Alison Croggon’s The River and the Book, issues about land exploitation and deforestation and the effects they have on local populations and ways of life. In Limbo Lodge we sense there may be some rapprochement between communities towards the end, a rapprochement that sadly doesn’t seem to be common in our own world.

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Who’s who on Aratu

The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.  A steam-powered frigate similar to the ThrushHMS Vulture is here seen passing Weiyuan Battery, Anunghoy Island near Canton (Guangzhou) April 1847 (image: Royal Museum Greenwich)

In Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge we meet with a number of individuals who haven’t appeared elsewhere in the Wolves Chronicles. Joan (see, we’re all on first-name terms!) is adept at making these individuals distinctive so that we don’t get too confused as to who’s who on the island of Aratu. Linking it all together is of course Dido Twite, whom we first encountered as an 9-year-old London urchin in Black Hearts in Battersea but who now dresses as a young sailor lad after more than two years at sea.

Here follows a prosopography of the main named characters in the novel, a sort of index raisonné in which I try to account for Joan’s choices for her dramatis personae. Remember, look away now if you don’t want massive plot spoilers revealed!

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Dido and the Spice Islands

A display of Vintage children’s books on offer in Book-ish bookshop, Crickhowell

We last left Dido Twite in South America, about to finally sail back home to England. But Dido is finding out that things don’t always go to plan when she sets off on her voyages. She had been shipwrecked in the North Sea, transported whilst in a coma via Cape Horn to north of Alaska, thence to New England. With the promise of a return to England her passage was diverted to the east coast of South America. And now, surely, she must be deserving of that homecoming? No, for now she finds herself heading to the Spice Islands in the South Pacific!

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