Joan & Jane: Writers and their heroines

Simon & Dido

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?

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Simon and Dido

Illustration by Robin Jacques

Favourite Aiken Moments?

Do you have a favourite Aiken moment, from a letter or a talk that Joan gave? Or something from a story, a quotation from Dido perhaps?

Here’s a piece about Dido’s two sisters, Penny and Is (short for Isabett, but no one ever seems to call her that!)   Is, trying to avoid the guards on the sinister PLAYLAND EXPRESS has dived into a roll of carpet, and now while she’s wondering how to get out again, has a moment for reflection.  Interesting that Pen who teaches Is to read has made use of some of Joan’s own stories, like The Three Wishes, and possibly some of her own philosophy?

“She thought about Penny’s stories. There was one about a man who had three wishes and married a swan. If I had three wishes, I know what I’d wish for, thought Is. I’d wish for those two boys to be found, and for us all to be back on Blackheath Edge. She thought about Penny teaching her to read.

“What’s the point of reading?” Is had grumbled at first. “You can allus tell me stories, that’s better than reading.”

“I’ll not always be here,” Penny had said shortly. “Besides, once you can read, you can learn somebody else. Folk should teach each other folk what they know.”

“Why?”

“If you don’t learn anything, you don’t grow. And someone’s gotta learn you.”

Well, thought Is, if I get outta here, I’ll be able to learn some other person the best way to get free from a rolled-up rug.”

Playland Express

Is (Underground) The Wolves Chronicles

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