I've finally arrived at Joan Aiken's Dido and Pa, my very favourite of the Willoughby Chase novels and the point at which I stopped reading the series.
The book opens at the very end of The Cuckoo Tree with Dido Twite and her old friend Simon, now Duke of Battersea, retreating to an inn in Petworth to catch up on everything that has happened since Blackhearts in Battersea. But when Simon briefly leaves Dido alone, she finds herself all-but abducted by her unscrupulous father Abednego and dragged off to Wapping to meet his new patron: Wolfgang von Eisengrim, the Margrave of Nordmark and the Hanoverian ambassador to London. Hustled off to Mrs Bloodvessel's grotty boarding house, Dido decides to go along with her shifty father's scheme, part of which involves caring for a heavily bandaged Dutchman, in the hope of putting a spoke in his wheel.
Simon, meanwhile, returns to London and to his duties: arranging a ceremony to mark the opening of a new tunnel under the Thames and combatting the ravenous wolf packs troubling the home counties. To his surprise Simon finds that he has caught the attention of the Margrave, who has various suggestions for the tunnel ceremony including the use of chapelmaster — Abednego Twite in a thin disguise. Unable to take the time to attend to the Margrave, Simon persuades his twin sister Sophie to disguise herself in his stead only for Twite to see through the ploy, causing the Margrave to advance his plans to deal with King Richard IV.
Dido and Pa is probably the best novel of the entire series, with its excellent plot, liminal magic, and strong cast of characters. The setting is also excellent: a version of London that owes more to the 18th century than the 19th, especially when the Thames freezes over, with the Margrave's salons and Twite's Eisengrim Concertos deliberately invoking Bach's Brandenburg Concertos as shorthand for their quality.
The Margrave, cold-hearted and ruthless, is an excellent villain who is saved from cliche by his great love of music and his desire to share the apparent healing properties of his chapelmaster with the widest possible audience. But it is Abednego Twite who is the amoral heart of the book. Despite his brilliance as a composer, he only seems to value people in as much as the forward his own interests and he treats those who can't help him with a monstrous indifference. Thus his new-found paternal affection for Dido appears to be entirely down her familiarity with the King and her potential to make an advantageous marriage, whereas Penelope seems to have fallen out of favour following her elopement in Black Hearts and Is, Mrs Bloodvessel's scullion and, it's strongly implied, the Twite and Mrs B's illegitimate daughter, is beaten & starved & kept locked in a cellar for most of the time. In fact Twite comes across as no-one quite so much as an evil version of George Frideric Handel!
The plot is strong and resolves an number of plot threads from Black Hearts in Battersea, including the great Hanoverian conspiracy to put one of the Georges on the throne. Thus Simon and Sophie reappear and we get to see just how the discovery that they're both aristocrats has complicated their lives; what happened to Penelope Twite following her disappearance with a traveller in button hooks; and just how Abednego Twite has been spending his time since his wife died — and presumably before, judging by Is's age.
It is this sense of completeness that probably explains why I stopped the series at this point when I was a child. Because Dido and Pa closes the story and resolves most of the character trajectories in such a satisfactory way — I like the way it ends with Simon's proposal and Dido's rejection — that I didn't feel a need for more. And by the time Is came out in 1992, I was content with the resolution of the books and my attention had moved on to other things.
Tags: book reviews, willoughby chase