Miss Dido Kent is the seventh child and elder daughter of the Reverend Mr Augustus Kent and his wife Elizabeth Mary Kent (nee Manners). Born on the 7th August 1770, she claims the dignity of being the Miss Kent of her father's household by a margin of only four minutes. For her sister Eliza followed her into the world after that interval – very much to the alarm and surprise of their mother and her attendants. The arrival of a second baby threw the confinement of Mrs Kent into disorder and the unfortunate mother was found to be in need of such assistance as made it impossible for any of the women to spare time for the first child, who was, by now, demonstrating the excellence of her young lungs.
This was a circumstance which perhaps changed the life and formed the character of the infant Dido. For, since her screams were adding to her mother's distress, she was carried out of the bedchamber and hastily consigned to the arms of her bewildered father – who had never, through six previous confinements, found himself required to do more than hide in his library and pen the letters of announcement. However, the Reverend Mr Augustus Kent was not an unresourceful man and, having some unformed idea that children liked to have stories told to them, he carried the wailing infant away into his library and began to read to her from the first volume which came to hand – which happened to be a favourite of his – Virgil's Aeneid.
Family legend – that great preserver and distorter of facts – reports that the child stopped crying immediately and looked up into her father's face 'as if she understood every word.' Whether the infant was interested or only exhausted, it is impossible to tell, but Mr Kent himself was enraptured by such precocious taste. And, by the time the nurse came to relieve him of his charge, he had not only related a large part of Aeneas's sojourn at Carthage, he had also determined upon the name of his eldest daughter. She was to be Dido – for the sake of the queen of Carthage.
The two little girls proved to be as unlike in character and looks as they were in name. Morning callers always spent a great deal of time exclaiming upon the dissimilarity and tirelessly canvassing the highly original opinion that 'to look at them one would hardly suppose them to be sisters, much less twins.'
The chance which had thrust young Dido so early upon the attention of her father, affected her early education, and if to her quick mind she had added the habit of application, she might have become one of those extraordinary female prodigies who learn Greek and Latin alongside the fingering of the pianoforte and the stitching of samplers. For she was often to be found reading in the library with her brothers. The praise of her beloved father was a great encouragement; but, as her mother frequently observed, it was not to be expected that a girl should have any aptitude for prolonged study. And so, while the boys were kept to their books whether they would or no, Dido was at liberty to absent herself whenever she felt over-taxed. Then she would happily take herself back to the drawing room where her mother and sister were busy with scales and needlework.
After eleven years this blissful existence came to an abrupt and painful end, with the death of Mrs Kent. The entire household was plunged into a chaos of grief from which it was forcibly rescued by the arrival of Mr Kent's formidable mother. Grandmama Kent did not approve of girls studying in libraries and she was almost as shocked by what Dido did know as what she did not. Grandmama, by her own account, 'took the girls in hand' – rather as if they had been a restless carriage team – and began to prepare them for marriage.
The gentle good natured Eliza was rather plain and inclined to be shy in company, but Dido was high-spirited and universally acknowledged to be a 'fine girl' (some even said 'pretty'). Grandmama Kent had high hopes of her forming a very creditable alliance – until the results of her father's early indulgence appeared in a regrettable tendency to, 'have opinions'. Dido could, 'argue with any man in existence. And gentlemen,' warned Grandmama Kent darkly, 'do not like to be contradicted.'
Perhaps Grandmama Kent was correct. Perhaps no man can continue to love and esteem a woman who disputes with him on every conceivable point. Perhaps that is why, in 1805, at the age of five and thirty, Dido finds herself still unmarried: dependent upon her brothers for maintenance and a hopeless spinster in the eyes of all her family…
This was not Mr Kent's first attempt to introduce classical names to his nursery. In the past Hector, Paris and Julius had all been firmly vetoed by Mrs Kent in favour of Charles and James and Edward. But on this occasion he felt a nearer interest, a stronger claim. And his wife felt too tired for prolonged argument. The child was christened Dido and it was her younger sister who took their mother's name.