Croopus! A Dido Twite Lexicon

Young Joan Aiken (photo: http://joanaiken.com/pages/gallery.html)
Young Joan Aiken (photo: http://joanaiken.com/pages/gallery.html)

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) has already achieved recognition as a modern children’s classic, and quite rightly too. It spawned a dozen or more sequels, all set in an alternate history universe (“uchronia”) in a world a little like ours but with some alternative geography (“paracosm”). The majority of them feature that wonderful Cockney sparrow Dido Twite, though she didn’t appear till the second volume, Black Hearts in Battersea, only to seemingly drown.

I started taking notes on the sequence in 2012, fifty years after the first story appeared, but never got round to reviewing all the titles. In preparation for a re-read I intend to publish some of those notes on this blog in the hopes they may be of interest to diehard fans as well as to new readers yet to fall under Aiken’s spell. This first occasional post is about Dido’s colourful lexicon, and here I acknowledge the influence of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (this first appeared in 1870, though my edition dates from the 1980s) and The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (re-issued in facsimile in 1994). Here it is then:

Dido’s Dictionary of Phrase and Lingo
Continue reading “Croopus! A Dido Twite Lexicon”

Dido Twite and the idée fixe

google
How Google celebrated The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Joan Aiken really was an extraordinary author, one whose work I’m still exploring but for whom I have the greatest of respect as well as fondness. She had a gift for composing in different genres and for different audiences, displaying now a sense of poignancy, now a touch of mischief, by turns sprinkling magic dust or holding a mirror up to human nature. And she accomplished all this with no hint of the grandeur or hauteur often associated with the archetypal Great Writer.

Though she frequently wrote for adults Joan remains best known as a children’s author, especially for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. I’ve promised myself a reread of all twelve titles but I’ve been an ardent fan for some years now, making copious notes, some of which I’ve already included on this blog.

Attached are some draft notes on common motifs I’ve noticed in the series; they’re not complete, and I know there must be mistakes, but you can see where I’m heading with this. Joan will have been familiar with international folktale types and motifs, but I’ve not consciously followed these; instead, I’ve just listed some of the more obvious patterns Joan seemed to reiterate in most of the books. Now I know that throwing motifs together is not a substitute for good storytelling, rather a way of structuring the narrative to conform to audience expectations; used clumsily it too often smacks of cliché and lazy authorial habits. Nevertheless, when employed in conjunction with wit and imagination and peopled with characters you can really care about (like the near ubiquitous Dido Twite) a solid framework of motifs can only help a story’s architecture to withstand all the withering attention that the critic will condescend to heap on it.

Whether you’ve read any — or indeed none — of the Wolves Chronicles (also called the James III sequence) you might still enjoy seeing how the idées fixes I’ve identified permeating the series are echoed in other literature, from myths and legends through fairytales and classics to modern novels and films.

WARNING: by nature most of these entries constitute spoilers. If you don’t want your future enjoyment ruined by having denouements revealed and villains unmasked please look away now.
Continue reading “Dido Twite and the idée fixe”

A fine modern classic

Eurasian Wolf By Mas3cf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian Wolf: Mas3cf (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Illustrated from drawings by Pat Marriott
Puffin Books 1968 (1962)

The action of this book takes place in a period of English history that never happened — shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832 …

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fits into no one category. From the introductory note one might assume it belongs to the genre called Uchronia (“no time”) in which it becomes clear that at some stage in the past history diverged from its familiar course; in this case the Jacobite rebellion succeeded and the Stuarts continued to reign in Britain from the middle of the 18th century. It is also on the frontiers of Utopia (“no place”) in that the England described includes places and distances which only by a large stretch of the imagination co-exist in our own world: Willoughby Chase House and the town of Blastburn seem to be located somewhere around Humberside, and yet we’re told the walking distance from Blastburn to London is about four hundred miles (in reality from the Humber to the capital is only around 200 miles by modern roads).

On another level the novel is a Dickensian parody: orphans (real or assumed) have to cope with bitter winters, reversals of fortunes and conniving villains with quirky names only to — one hopes — overcome their plight with a mixture of natural cunning, kind helpers and a measure of good luck. But this is also a children’s book and, as such books usually confirm, events are seen almost entirely through the eyes of youngsters. It lingers somewhere on the continuum between fairytale and fantasy, albeit that there is no magic involved, but with a large pinch of Gothick thrown in for good measure, complete with secret passages and rambling suites of rooms.

And where do the wolves come in?

Continue reading “A fine modern classic”

Dido Twite’s World

winter sleepwalker
Winter landscape

Here I was promising a companion piece or two to my review of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and yet I’ve gone and entitled this post “Dido Twite’s World” when Dido doesn’t even appear in the first title of the sequence! What’s going on?!

Well, there’s no real agreement what to call this series of loosely-related books. They’re often called The Wolves Chronicles, but wolves don’t always appear — in fact I can at this moment only recall two or three of the books making reference to them. Occasionally, inspired by the introduction to Wolves, reference is made to ‘the James III sequence’, perhaps in the same way that we often refer to our own 19th-century as ‘Victorian’ even though that monarch ruled only for a little over sixty years of it, and despite it sometimes being applied to countries outside the British Empire.

Now I shall be calling this sequence the Dido Twite series as much as I talk about the Wolves Chronicles, simply because Dido appears in at least eight out of the twelve novels officially in the canon — thirteen if you include Midnight is a Place, but that’s another discussion! There’s another reason for me to think of it in this way: because, you see, I have a theory that Dido became a sort of alter ego for the author. Joan Aiken was born in 1924 and, I surmise from a bit of teasing out of details, Dido Twite was born a hundred years before, in 1824. But I anticipate myself, Continue reading “Dido Twite’s World”

Mapping Willoughby Chase

Nostell Priory, Morris's Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons
Nostell Priory, Morris’s Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons

I’m sure I’m not the only person to wonder about the placenames scattered throughout the Dido Twite series and particularly in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Some places certainly have correspondences in our world, viz. London, or the Canary Islands. But others appear on no modern A to Z or guidebook to Britain. So, if it hasn’t already been done it’s certainly high time to begin compiling a gazetteer to Dido’s World, which naturally I shall be adding to as we make our royal progress through the sequence (courtesy, of course, of James III).

Continue reading “Mapping Willoughby Chase”

The naming of names

Regency couple planning trip
Emil Brack ‘Planning the Grand Tour’ (Wikipedia Commons) — a vision of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green before their trip to the Canaries?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is set in the early 1830s, the period between the novels of Jane Austen and those of Charles Dickens. The names of her principal and supporting characters haven’t yet reached the baroque proportions that they were later to, but already we have inklings of character-full epithets amongst the more genteel Austenesque names like Willoughby (from Sense and Sensibility) and Green (from Emma). What are we to make of Mrs Shubunkin, its Japanese origin lurking behind a name straight from the pages of a Dickens’ novel? Or Mr Grimshaw, surely grim by nature as well as by name? Mrs Brisket who takes her name from a cut of meat? And of course Letitia Slighcarp, who is both sly and apt to carp at her poor charges?

The avid reader can have fun with the remaining names, with their lively mix of Biblical forenames, funny-sounding old English terms and inappropriate or incongruous sobriquets. A few of the personages reappear in the sequels — most touchingly in the last title of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws — but for the moment we may rejoice in the feeling that here is created a whole world of individuals identified by name, many with significant parts to play and identifiable characters to match. Continue reading “The naming of names”

Botheration on Bankside

southwark1859
Bankside, Southwark, London in 1859, not much changed from 1833. Bottom left: Rose Alley is where the Twite family lived, just to the west of Southwark Bridge; on the edge is Bear Gardens

Joan Aiken Black Hearts in Battersea
Illustrated by Pat Marriott

Red Fox 2004 (1964)

Late summer, 1833. The second in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles opens with Simon, the orphan who helped cousins Sylvia and Bonnie Green to regain Willoughby Chase, looking for his friend Gabriel Field in London: Dr Field has offered him space in his Southwark lodgings so that Simon can attend an art academy in Chelsea. But Simon is encountering difficulty finding Rose Alley, having been misdirected a few times. When he does eventually find No 8 it is to discover no sign of the good doctor, only a streetwise little urchin called Dido and her rather strange family.

The mystery of Gabriel Field’s disappearance is only one of several puzzles that Simon meets during the course of this inventive novel, a good example of a sequel that is not only the equal of the first novel but in some ways almost surpasses it.

Continue reading “Botheration on Bankside”

Heroes and villains

Sketches_by_Boz_-_The_Streets,_Morning
The Streets, Morning, illustration by George Cruikshank for Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (1839): Public Domain

In this post I shall be discussing the personages we meet with in Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea. If you have no idea what I’m talking about you’ll find my review here. If you do know what I’m talking about but haven’t read the book yet you may want to look away now do avoid massive spoilers. If you’ve read the novel already then it’s mostly safe to continue your journey — except there’ll be hints about what may be coming up further in the Wolves Chronicles. So tread carefully …

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Dido Twite’s London

Rose Alley
Detail from Christopher Greenwood’s 1827 London map (http://users.bathspa.ac.uk/greenwood/) Rose Alley appears here as ‘Horse Alley’

Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea is, as well as a rip-roaring adventure story with vivid characters, a novel rich in sense of place, both real and imagined. In particular London features strongly (as it does in a couple of other Wolves Chronicles) so, with the help of Greenwood’s Map of London from an Actual Survey made in the Years 1825, 1825 and 1826, I shall be exploring Dido Twite’s London as it was in this alternate history in 1833, with other places to be detailed in another post. As well-known supermarket might say, I do the research so you don’t have to … Continue reading “Dido Twite’s London”

Loose Chippings to Battersea

OR, Dido Twite leaves London

Thames 1814
“View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf when frozen, Monday 31st January to Saturday 5th February 1814, on which a Fair was held attended by many Hundred Persons” (contemporary etching and aquatint dated 18th February 1814)

Imagine the scene: it is Christmas Eve, the date for the traditional Mince-pie Ceremony at Battersea Castle. An unfamiliar London custom? It’s not surprising as this is 1833 in the alternate history of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, also known as the James III sequence. James III is the Stuart monarch and he has travelled by sled from Hampton Court to be at the ceremony. On the frozen Thames.

If that seems unlikely, consider this: for two centuries we had a Little Ice Age when rivers regularly froze over. So deep and long lasting were these conditions that Frost Fairs were held on the Thames, when it was even possible to light bonfires on the ice without repercussions. The last great frost fair occurred during the winter of 1813 to 1814. A famous print shows people and tents on the ice: to the left is Three Cranes Wharf near Blackfriars in the City, and in the distance we see a bridge with around twenty stone piers; this must be Old London Bridge (Southwark Bridge wasn’t built till 1819) which had had its old houses and shops demolished in the mid 18th century.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Black Hearts in Battersea begins one “fine warm evening in late summer” with Simon leading his donkey over Southwark Bridge in London. Joan Aiken isn’t more specific than this so I’m guessing this might be at the tail-end of August. Alternatively it may be that late September is the period she means. Why? Here’s my thinking.

Continue reading “Loose Chippings to Battersea”

Triumphing over unbelievable odds

Wolves original
Bonnie Green: the first draft of what became The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/wolves-the-beginning/)

August 24th 1953. I’ve just had my fifth birthday and the family are preparing to up sticks from Bristol in the West Country back to Hong Kong on the other side of the world; here I will spend the next five years, having already spent three years previously on Kowloon, that peninsula pointing like a finger to the island that was once a Crown Colony.

September 4th 1953. On her twenty-ninth birthday Joan Aiken installs an old table in a corner of her bedroom in Kent, and sits down to write the first chapter of her projected novel Bonnie Green in an old exercise book.

“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever!  I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”

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Blow me, it’s Dido again!

J T Marston's Cannon, from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon
J T Marston’s Cannon, from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

Joan Aiken Night Birds on Nantucket Puffin 1969 (1966)

Writing a successful novel is sometimes a little like inventing a recipe for a special dish. Take a dash of Jules Verne, add essence of Charles Dickens, several pinches of Herman Melville and season with adventure. Would that it was as simple as that. What you need is the main ingredient, the protein in the dish, and in Night Birds on Nantucket that is provided by the indomitable figure of Dido Twite.

When we last saw Dido she’d been lost at sea somewhere off the northeast coast of England, presumed dead. That was December, 1833. It is now ten months later, and the poor lass has lain in a coma after having been picked up by the whaler Sarah Casket. Like an amalgamation of Snow White and Moby Dick‘s Ishmael she is found in a wooden straw-filled coffin-like box on the other side of the world, north of East Cape on the Russian side of the Bering Straits (the East Cape — Cape Dezhnev since 1898 — was then popular with whalers). She has been looked after by young Nate Pardon all the while, and when she finally awakens it is to find it could be months before she is in a position to head back to England. And while she waits she finds that those on board the Sarah Casket are a very strange bunch indeed.

Continue reading “Blow me, it’s Dido again!”

Globetrotting with Dido

sarah-casket-chartIn a previous post I mentioned that in Night Birds on Nantucket our young heroine Dido Twite would go a-voyaging from her native London all around the world. In this, the third instalment of the Wolves Chronicles, she manages to cross the equator four times — though two of those occasions were while in a coma. In this post I intend to look at the places visited by Dido, while further posts will focus on people, themes and Dido’s use of language.

Continue reading “Globetrotting with Dido”

Of people and pink whales

19th-century whaler
19th-century whaler attacking a Right Whale around 1860 (public domain)

Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket is the second of the Wolves Chronicles to feature the irrepressible Dido Twite and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, features more and more of the author’s virtuoso play with themes, scenarios and words, not to mention sheer fun! This post follows the pattern of my previous responses to the series with a discussion of particular (and often peculiar) aspects of the volume already reviewed. As always, spoilers follow …

Continue reading “Of people and pink whales”

More Dido lingo

whale-ships
19th-century whalers processing whale blubber

In “Croopus! A Dido Twite Lexicon” I listed some of Dido’s colourful language in the Wolves Chronicles, some of it genuine — variously Cockney and from other parts of Britain — and some of it Joan Aiken’s own invention (which, oddly enough, often seemed perfectly genuine). There undoubtedly were the inevitable omissions and, as further novels in the series are read, there’ll naturally be additions. Here’s the first of what will probably be part of an ongoing exercise (expect more addenda as time goes by) listing terms used by Dido in Night Birds on Nantucket. Continue reading “More Dido lingo”