‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’

Every year, the anniversary of the 4th of January takes me further from my mother’s death, but since I have been with her every day ‘looking after the books’, it is also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given, and for the wonderful task she left me…

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter, and curator of her estate, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books – sometimes fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the Joan Aiken website, and replying to some of the letters she had kept – shown on the webpage above.

On that page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

One of these, is that the books themselves provide a lifelong companionship.

What I know readers feel, what I feel when I read my mother’s books, is that I am alone with her, while she is alone. Joan Aiken put so much of herself, her thoughtful personality into her books, that you will never be completely without her guiding vision again. In the same way, she filled her books with the memory of her own mother, here appearing as Masha, in Blackground and she describes the same powerful feeling:

That young correspondent, now a writer herself, did see her own letter on the website and so was able to get in touch, describing her devotion to the books, and the importance of her letters to Joan, and saying something I completely understood, and that I possibly could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness.”

When she came on a visit from America, having arranged to meet me, I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before.

Afterwards she wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on, amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, nearly twenty years later, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I still am…

And below in the comments are some more grateful messages about Joando add your own?

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there? http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life –


11 thoughts on “‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’

  1. Such a lovely post, Lizza. I don’t think any author can know the extent of her impact on readers — neither how far, nor how deep — because not all fans write fan letters (guilty!). The Armitage family stories inspired a recent project of mine that is, as yet, without a publisher. If that novel ever sees print, it’ll include her name among my grateful acknowledgements.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I will always love Dido especially – and wrote about her in a book Kate Figes edited called Bitch Books (unfortunate title). But I also adored Felix in Go Saddle the Sea trilogy, and Arabis in The Whispering Mountain. She was terrifically good at showing you how to survive in adversity.

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  3. As one of those who happily writes “random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the Internet” (that may be my slogan now!) particularly about the ever effervescent Dido I wish I’d plucked up courage to write and thank Joan when she was alive for the sheer joy her magical tales gave me and my partner. They wrapped up sweet melancholy and a nostalgia that I never knew I had, the wide-eyed wonder of childhood and the wisdom that comes with experience, a family of one’s own and a life lived. I will continually carol her praises to anyone who cares to listen—thank you, Lizza, for keeping her memory in the public consciousness.


  4. Joan Aiken has always always been my favourite author. I wrote to her a couple of times and treasure the long and personal letters I received back from her. She certainly influenced my life hugely and her stories are in my subconscious. Believe it or not I hadn’t realised until they were 4 and 2 year old why I had named my oldest children Simon and Owen – the names just seemed right somehow.


    • Her characters do begin to seem like real people, how lovely that you now have two of your own!
      Half way through the Wolves stories in a letter to another reader, Joan Aiken wrote:
      ‘Dido has now become practically a member of my family, and I always enjoy getting back into her company.’


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