Joan Aiken took her characters very much to heart, rather like her favourite predecessor, Jane Austen, and it could be said that for both writers their heroines have taken on a life outside their books as well. It is easy to forget that before Jane Austen, literary heroines were rather one dimensional – idealised, passive characters who simply suffered all sorts of misfortunes, and so the fact that Austen’s Elizabeth or Emma were in fact far from faultless makes them more attractive and sympathetic, and many readers have taken them to their hearts as real friends. Austen clearly preferred her heroines to have a bit of character; in a letter to her niece Austen said jokingly, ‘Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked.’
Dido Twite, Joan’s enduring heroine, is also far from perfect, in fact she starts out in Black Hearts in Battersea as a perfect pest, or ‘Brat’, as Simon calls her. But it is her fallibility, even her neediness, her cockiness and stubbornness that in the end make her sympathetic, and just as Simon softens towards her and begins to see her true spirit, so do we. Joan confessed that she had considered letting Dido disappear at the end of this first book, but she had one particularly anguished letter from a fan, saying ‘please please write a book having Dido come back,’ which made her relent.
Austen’s family related that Jane had all sorts of plans for her characters’ future lives, and described what might have befallen them in later years, many of them were engaging enough to encourage readers to write their own Austen sequels – Joan Aiken produced six of them herself! Sometimes it is as hard for the reader as it is for the writer to part from characters they have grown fond of in the course of a book.
Joan, towards the end of her life was deeply troubled that she had left the two main characters in her Wolves Chronicles in an impossible situation. She felt she owed it not just to her readers, but to Simon and Dido themselves to extricate them from the plight where she had left them, and give them the possibility of a happy ending.
Joan Aiken wrote an afterword to her last book, The Witch of Clatteringshaws explaining that reading Jane Austen’s unfinished book The Watsons had been ‘very, very teasing. You want so much to know what would have happened next’ – and so she had to go on and write an ending for Austen’s book herself.
As to her own work she apologised for ‘taking some wild leaps’ and writing rather a short book to end her great twelve book series, but better to do that than fail to finish it.
And Dido certainly lives on for many, many readers – perhaps someday someone will write a sequel for her too?
Simon and Dido
Illustration by Robin Jacques