‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’


Today, the 4th of January 2019 is, unbelievably, fifteen years since her death, and since I have been, as she asked me: ‘looking after the books’ on her behalf. A sad reflection, of course, but also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given.

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter and now representative, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books, 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 website, and replying to some of the letters above.

On the 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… “

And one of them, now a writer herself, answered with something I completely understood, and that I wish I could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness. I never quite managed to explain that I was a writer because of her…”

And then she herself came on a visit from America, and I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before. 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, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I am…

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 – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

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Joan Aiken & Pa – writing family memories.

Dido&Pa pic.

Like Dido, in her book Dido & Pa, Joan Aiken was separated from her father as a small child, but recognised him at once when she met him again. The American poet, Conrad Aiken spent half of his life on the other side of the Atlantic, but for many years still kept and came back to the house they both loved, and where she had been born, Jeake’s House in Rye. Aged two, when her mother and father divorced, she went to live with her mother and new stepfather, on the other side of Sussex but after a few years Joan went back with her older sister on a visit to the house that she could just remember, and, as with Dido, what really sparked her memories was the music:

CA Tune Raining raining

Conrad had also lost his father in childhood, but Joan was able to revisit hers, and had a chance to rebuild the relationship with him; it is probably significant that especially in the early days this was mostly conducted by letter, and both of them saved their correspondence all their lives. He encouraged both her reading and writing habits, often sending her books, and she was keen to impress him by sending back early poems and stories.J & Jane at Jeake's & Conrad Joan & sister Jane on a visit at Jeake’s House – Conrad in the USA in his garden on Cape Cod

After a few Summer visits, and a gradual re-acquaintance on both sides, the father and daughter were separated again, this time by the second world war; as an Alien he had to return to the USA and the house near the coast was requisitioned for the services. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that they were able to meet regularly again – Joan was by now a working but fairly impoverished writer, and fares across the Atlantic were not cheap. Finally with the publication of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase she was able to visit Conrad in his house on Cape Cod, and impressed by her obvious talents and her growing success  he arranged for her to meet agents and publishers in New York.

As a father and serious writer himself, Conrad could be sharp and critical, but he took his daughter’s work very much to heart. Joan Aiken’s Dido & Pa, which concludes the dangerous and dubious career of Dido’s father, wasn’t written until ten years after the death of her own, and perhaps this freedom allowed her to express a very dark side of that father daughter relationship – did his needs as an artist always come first?

There are very few pictures of Conrad and Joan together, but this one captures both well:conrad-joan-jpgJoan who for most of her life had very long hair, had just had a fashionable sixties’ hair cut, and they are surrounded by the tools of their mutual trade – books, manuscripts and of course a typewriter…

The only thing missing is a piano – they both played, and enjoyed singing, and you may have recognised the title of one of Conrad’s tunes mentioned above, as one that Joan gave to a song by Dido’s Pa – Raining, raining all the day – this is the title of one of his popular and catchy songs which come to play a significant part in Dido & Pa, and also in her very last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws. Joan Aiken’s final book ends with a joyful scene, paying tribute, and celebrating the musical and poetic skills of both fathers, real and fictional, despite the difficulties and distance there may have been in their relationships with their daughters – as the marching armies sing, it is the music that conquers all:

Raining,raining end of Witch

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See also Conrad’s letter  of celebration about Joan

And a further taste of Conrad Aiken – a jokey “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 

 

Who was Dido Twite..?

Simon & Dido

Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, future saviour (many times over!) of her Kingdom and much loved inspiration to readers, Dido first appears in the second of the Wolves Chronicles, Black Hearts in Battersea, but from her humble beginnings, she goes on to rule the series from the moment when she first accosts the hero Simon in Rose Alley:

“She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”

Dido’s real life model thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way.

In 1957, determined to create a permanent home for herself and two small children after the death of her husband, Joan borrowed £300 from her mother and put a deposit on White Hart House, a semi-derelict Tudor ex-pub in the little town of Petworth, five miles from the Sussex village where she had grown up. On moving-in day, (supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction!) the family were met in the street by a small neighbour who looked just like the description above. Sitting on the steps up to their new house, barefoot and clutching a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she had the run of the town and from then on would arrive at all hours, endlessly curious, and full of tall tales about running on rooftops, sailing the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry, all of which turned out to be true.

After the book was written, Joan Aiken famously told the story of the many agonised letters she received from fans who reached the end of Black Hearts, the first Dido story, only to discover that their newly found heroine has disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, she decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket in New England, home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so sent her off on an extraordinary series of adventures.

Jacques Dido

But over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought many more fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave a mystery clue about Dido’s origins. Her meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord for her, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners she couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, and who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?

Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her now avidly faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until Joan’s death. Finding these letters after Joan Aiken’s death then set off another mystery – how to bring this almost impossible quest to an end and send a message to her without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post the the various readers’ letters on the new Joan Aiken website, together with a key to the Dickens mystery and leave the internet to work its magic, which it did in more ways than one…

Dido Dickens clue

The American Dido fan looking up her favourite author found the page, recognised her own letter and was able to get in touch, she even came to visit on a trip to London and saw her original letters, carefully kept by Joan Aiken through the years. Also via the website an old neighbour from those Sussex days, now living in Australia was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who nearly sixty years later also came from Australia to visit, and learned for the first time that she was part inspiration for an incredibly well loved fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures with them for the first time.

Even more magical Aiken serendipity meant that this second visit happened on the very same day when the American reader, now grown up and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer herself, had posted an essay online about her long search for Dido Twite:

Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Many readers have speculated that Dido is even an alter ego for Joan Aiken, which does ring true, and certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined for herself as a small girl. She dreamed of sailing on whaling ships, climbing the mountains of South America, visiting the mysterious island of the Pearl Snakes, putting spokes in the wheels of various villains, and even inhabiting the pages of novels by her favourite authors, such as Dickens. The character of Dido was the embodiment of many of that small girl’s dreams; when Joan grew up to be a writer she was able to give her all the wonderful adventures she had imagined for herself, and encourage others to be bold and follow their dreams as well.

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Many illustrators have tried to capture Dido – these pictures are by Robin Jacques

Want to know the answer to that Dickens secret? Click here for the Letters page!

More posts about Dido Twite and her adventures are here

 

Meet Joan Aiken…

JA Movie

Would you like to go for a walk with Joan Aiken, and hear how she came up with the ideas for her most famous books, the Wolves Chronicles,  or visit her in her home?

Well you can!

This short film was made by Puffin Books, and shows her on the Sussex Downs, near the village where she grew up, and in the little town of Petworth, where she bought her first home – an old pub called The White Hart.

You can also see her visit the real Rose Alley where she imagined Simon meeting Dido Twite for the first time, on the banks of the Thames, near the new Globe Theatre and opposite St.Paul’s Cathedral.

And finally see the real Cuckoo Tree that inspired one of her titles – quite famous locally, and even visited by fans from as far away as Japan… but extremely hard to find!

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Click here to watch

 Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE