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?


Simon and Dido

Illustration by Robin Jacques

The Dangers of Reading in Bed

Argosy webpage

If you enjoyed Joan’s early story about Sir Denis and the Devil you might like to see how the character appears in Joan’s later writing – the Devil continued to be a figure of fascination for her!  Here he meets a young Polish officer in a small fishing village, hoping to lead him astray, but this hero is no willing Faust and things turn out rather differently for him as you can read for yourself …

read the story online here.

‘Reading in Bed’ can be found in The Monkey’s Wedding

Other stories from the collection are described here by Publishers Weekly:

“Focusing largely on prolific British fictionist Aiken’s early works from the late 1950s and early 1960s, this imaginative posthumous collection includes among others six never before published short stories and two originally published under a pseudonym. “Honeymaroon” chronicles the adventures of a castaway typist who lands on an island inhabited by sentient mice; “Girl in a Whirl” features a motorcycle-riding, man-hating, daredevil albinoess; “Octopi in the Sky” follows a man haunted by images of cephalopods; and in “A Mermaid Too Many,” a sailor’s exotic present for his lover–a mermaid in a bottle–has unforeseen consequences.

The charm and unrestrained quality of Aiken’s early stories are put into stark perspective by an introductory essay from her daughter Lizza, who offers up glimpses into a particularly difficult period in her mother’s life: Shortly after the end of WWII, widowed and homeless with two young children, Aiken made the bold decision to support herself and her family by writing. Wildly inventive, darkly lyrical, and always surprising, this collection – like the mermaid in a bottle – is a literary treasure that should be cherished by fantastical fiction fans of all ages.”


Monkey's Wedding

published by Small Beer Press

Cover art by Shelley Jackson

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Sir Denis, the Devil and The Starry Teapot a first Joan Aiken story – part two!

JA Notebook

Joan started writing stories from the age of five, and kept all her first notebooks as you can see – this very early document was obviously treasured!

(Find part one of this story here)

As promised, the final part of one of Joan’s earliest stories… in part one Sir Denis was doomed to be tormented by the Devil for swearing and general bad behaviour until the starry teapot in the sky resumed its proper form…


Sir denispage three

Joan went on to write many more stories about the Devil,  but he didn’t always come to grief…

Click here to read another haunting Joan Aiken tale

taken from a new collection of long lost work:

The Monkey’s Wedding

Monkey's Wedding

from Small Beer Press

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