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
I am standing at Lizza Aiken’s door because, more than fifteen years ago, I wrote a letter to her mother.
I wrote it on thick, expensive stationary, a gift from my grandmother. The envelopes came with gem-toned paisley interior print. Centered on the top of the page, in the same dark teal of the thin-lined borders, “Jackie Hedeman” presided over the letter in a printed approximation of script. The stationary was far too ornate for me at eleven years old, but I was also tall for my age and timelessly unhip in my Lands’ End shirts and dresses. And it was, at least, in keeping with my historical preoccupations; I liked to imagine myself a Victorian lady or waif. I would stare out at the grey Champaign, Illinois snow as though marooned inside a house on the moors. What I did not like was the name on the top of the paper. I assumed that, as an adult, I would go by Jacquelin. “Jacquelin” was grand, a name for high tea and passport control. “Jackie” was someone else, someone mired in preteen politics and sudden body hair and a tendency to turn incandescently red when called on in class. Jackie had terrible posture from stooping to her shorter friends’ level and curving in on her new breasts. Jackie had no business writing to Joan Aiken.
But I wrote to her, with my child’s name on my grown-up stationary, and we became friends of a sort, and it changed my life. And now I am standing at her daughter’s door.
“You should write to Joan Aiken,” my mother said. We were driving back from Sunday School, a place where I kept my head down and made up things for confession, always tacking “and I lie” at the end to cover all my bases. The priest didn’t know me; I followed my mother’s lead and slipped out the side door rather than face the post-mass handshake line.
I had been talking to my mom about the book I was reading, Dangerous Games (published as Limbo Lodge in Britain) by Joan Aiken. Dangerous Games was part of the Wolves Chronicles, then a nine-book children’s series taking place in an alternate 19th century. In this 19th century, James III sits on the throne of England and Guinevere is improbably alive somewhere in South America. Wolves roam in seasonally ferocious packs. Other aspects of the 1800s remain intact: child labor, gender inequality, and industrial-strength class disparity. At the center of this sooty stew is Dido Twite, one-time urchin, full-time adventurer, pants-wearing salty heroine.
At the time, I wasn’t concerned about Dido Twite. Instead, I was complaining about Dangerous Games’ lack of Simon, Dido’s friend and, later, potential love interest. Simon was dark-haired, earnest, Gilbert-Blythe-dreamy. When I read the first-published books in the series, I sketched scenes from the books where Simon appeared on school-approved quadrille paper and hung them from the wall above my bed to bring good dreams. I paired these drawings with a bedtime routine involving a boom box turned almost all the way down and a CD of melancholic and yearning Zouk music from the Antilles. And I had dreams. Simon and I rescued nobles. Simon and I rode in carriages. Simon and I had strange, mundane conversations carrying the weight of revelation. Once, Simon and I swam with sharks.
I can point to no particular moment when my allegiance shifted from Simon to Dido. I only know that it happened much later, years after that car ride, and that it coincided with a number of other epiphanies. Maybe Jo and Laurie didn’t belong together. Maybe Professor Lupin was a little patronizing and Sirius Black was Greek tragedy embodied. Maybe Edmund was the most interesting Pevensie. Maybe Dido Twite was ten times the character Simon would ever be. These revelations carried with them the weight of adulthood, the heavy realization that the people and configurations I admired as a child could be reevaluated.
These days, I consider Dido to be nothing less than an underage role model, a fictional avatar for the bold and courageous in me. I do not see myself in her — my bravery is mundane: showing up when I should, talking when it’s time — but I consciously borrow her attributes where I can. I remember driving to my first job in Chicago after graduating college, weaving through the west side and trying to calm my rabbiting heart with the muttered repetition, “Think of Dido, think of Dido, think of Dido.”
However, in the car on the way back from Sunday school I said to my mother, “I wish Joan Aiken would write more about Simon.”
“Why not write and ask if she has any plans to write more?”
I was thunderstruck. “I can’t do that! She’s a published author.”
My mother — herself a published author, though I wouldn’t think of her that way until I held the impenetrably brilliant scholarly volume dedicated to me — dismissed this. “I’ll look up the address of her British publisher,” she said. “The American one would only ignore you.”
A few hours after we returned home, she came into my room with a torn-off piece of yellow legal pad. She handed it to me. “‘C/o’ means ‘care of,’” she said. “There are international stamps in the side table.”
I am standing at Lizza Aiken’s door because, more than fifteen years ago, I came home from school to find a blue aerogram sitting on the dining room table with the rest of the mail. My mother was hovering nearby. “Look at the return address,” she said.
Joan Aiken. The Hermitage. Petworth, Sussex.
I have no access to what I felt. It was not uncomplicated joy, because I was never that child. Opening messages still comes with a twinge. The twinge is fear, and the fear is that I have asked too much.
Dear Jackie Hedeman,
Thank you for your nice letter about my books.
I skimmed the letter for disaster, then read it again with attention. Joan Aiken was surprised that I wasn’t a Dido fan, and suggested another series, a trilogy, with a central boy character. She thanked me again for my letter. She signed her name.
I needed to write back, immediately. The desk containing my thick stationary was in the next room, right by the side table with the international stamps, and she had given me her return address. What was a return address but an invitation? I had to tell her that I’d already read this other trilogy and loved it. I had to make her understand that I did like Dido. She had to know as quickly as possible that I hadn’t dismissed what was clearly one of her most beloved characters.
I wrote. Within two weeks, I had a reply. I sent another letter. She replied. Joan Aiken and I would exchange three letters a year, on average, every year until 2004, the year she died. Along the way, she mentioned that Dido Twite was based on a character from Dickens, but she wouldn’t tell me which one, or even which book. I would have to read Dickens to find out.
I was twelve. I read Dickens.
In school, we read Johnny Tremain. We read Journey to the Center of the Earth. On the playground, my friends and I acted out scenes. I was tall, so I always played competent, fatherly characters. (Later, in high school theater productions, I portrayed a series of moms.) That year, I infused Dr. Warren and Professor Lindenbrock with a certain Twitely panache, a soft core under steel snap-together armor.
Meanwhile, I sent letters with international stamps bearing Dickens guesses and Joan Aiken rejected each one. I kept reading and guessing, finding pieces of Dido everywhere. Again and again I got it wrong. I told Joan Aiken what other books I was reading (Penelope Fitzgerald, Alexandre Dumas). I told her about trips I took with my parents (France, Scotland). I told her the weird story my friend Martin told me about being hailed by name from a castle in Wales by a woman he’d never seen before.
At thirteen, I went as Dido Twite for Halloween: vaguely ruffled shirt, linen capris with white tights underneath, black clogs. I didn’t do anything to my hair, which was short, as was Dido’s. No one knew who I was, but that didn’t matter. Every costume I’ve ever worn has felt like a triumph, a safe and sanctioned summoning of eyeballs and attention. It didn’t matter that my friends and classmates were increasingly prone to reject Halloween as childish, or else veer toward angel wings, a tank top, and skirt. That particular Halloween was a stepping-off point of sorts, though none of us would have recognized it as such at the time. We began to grow up right then and there — into heterosexual selves with concerns mirroring the concerns of the adult women we saw — or we didn’t. When a seventh grader came up to me on the playground and asked whether I’d go out with him, I knew he trying to make fun of me. Now, I am less sure that this was the case. He certainly nervous-laughed his way away from me, back over to his friends. Then, separated from my Bath & Body Works-scented peers by what felt like an experiential gap, I buried myself in books.
In my letters, I told Joan Aiken about the writing awards I won, first in middle school and then in high school. I had written before — stories about jumping into beanbags from great heights that my third grade teacher covered in smileys — but it wasn’t until I read Dickens (then Dumas, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Wilkie Collins) that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to do the thing I saw these people doing: construct a world and people that world with characters so that reader was never lonely enough to want to leave. In my letters to Joan Aiken, 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.
It was my turn to write when my mother’s colleague e-mailed her obituary. By then, everyone knew about the letter exchange. When I’d departed middle school for high school, my friend Amelia, an early Halloween costume eschewer, was tasked to give a mini speech heralding my accomplishments in front of the rest of our tiny class. She spoke around her newly adjusted braces to explain that the three things I really cared about were reading, writing, and Joan Aiken. The list was redundant, its three components so interlocked at the time that all they amounted to was one all-encompassing obsession-identity.
When Joan Aiken died, I was newly fifteen and unaccustomed to unfinished business. The undiscovered Dickens character hung over my head like unwanted mistletoe. I took out a sheet of paper and wrote on it with orange highlighter.
A Tale of Two Cities
The Old Curiosity Shop
Then I took the aerograms and wrapped them in this paper, my uninvestigated guesses, and put the bundle in the accordion folder I kept by my bed. That folder held everything I’d ever written: printed out extra copies of the stories I distributed to family members, marked-up fiction and poetry from school, and the newsletters my best friend and I distributed around the neighborhood. I left the accordion folder there when I went to college. On breaks, I would sometimes pick it up and brush the dust off the flat, fold-down top. I flipped the catch and pulled out the old stories and poems, but I was reluctant to open the letters. Untouched, they had reverted to their original form: scraps of paper whose contents might reveal a lack of understanding. I feared that I might reread the letters and find the humoring tone of an adult donating, not sharing, time.
By then, in college, fingering the edges of old stories, I interacted with that once-sanctified category of human, published authors, on a weekly basis. I took creative writing courses with them. In these classes, I regularly encountered fiction that failed to raise my heart rate. There was nothing in John Cheever or Anton Chekhov for me. Possibly I was too young. I read the assigned stories and I felt as though I were reading them through a telescope. Every word was legible, but intangible.
I tried to contort my interests into acceptable forms. Acceptable to whom? When my classmate, at the height of the Twilight craze, wrote a vampire story, no one sneered, but I winced my way through class on her behalf. In retrospect, I wonder at that embarrassment. The author of the vampire story didn’t seem embarrassed. She had written the story she wanted to write. What stories would I have written, had I been gifted with similar boldness? It is hard for me to tell, since the stories don’t exist. For every other era of my life, I can easily chart my preoccupations and fascinations based on the writing I produced. It wasn’t that I spent my college years free of obsessions, those cozy interests that lull me to sleep at night and power my waking days, but rather that I saw no way to translate those obsessions into the sort of writing I felt I was supposed to be doing. I was cut off from written joy.
Thinking on it now, it strikes me that those moments in my life when writing has been the most difficult were overlaid with those moments when I have been the least sure of myself. Writing was a question of identity asked and answered. Who was I? A writer. In college, I didn’t feel like much of a writer, and so I began to consider all the other things I might be. Staring back at me was a disorganized tangle of feelings and suspicions. Perhaps, while I was busy dressing as Dido Twite, others had begun to make sense of their own tangles. Perhaps that explained how comparatively at home in the world they were. I recoiled. I had to be a writer. Otherwise, all I was left with was mess.
Joan Aiken wrote throughout her life, but I have no doubt that she, too, experienced these pockets of time when her own writing was foreign to her. I wish I could have written to ask. I know she would have answered. I would have opened the letter with one eye closed, afraid to see my concerns mirrored back at me ridiculous, but I would have had no need to fear. Maybe she would have answered with a new scavenger hunt through classic literature, maybe with a question, but she would have answered.
I am standing at Lizza Aiken’s door because, one summer home from college, distanced from my writing impulse, I Googled “Joan Aiken.” I don’t remember why I did, only that the first result, above Wikipedia even, was a link announcing itself directly to me, “Welcome to The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken.”
The website was beautiful, with multiple pages of content reached by clicking wiggling links on an animated desk. I was making my way through the Resources page when I noticed a link beside a mug of blue pencils. “Letters from You (click.)” Before I could click, I saw, peeking out from behind the link, a partially obscured image of an envelope. What was visible was sufficient: an American cancellation and an international stamp featuring Mount Everest. I clicked.
Scanned letters from actual readers covered the digital desk. I made myself read from the top of the page because this couldn’t be rushed. I would need to remember.
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…
“Oh my God,” I said to my living room wall. Time telescoped back: I was sitting at the desk with the thick stationary where I used to write to Joan Aiken. My parents were off at work and the house was still. And as I scrolled down the page, looking for what I knew I would find, I was also writing the letter.
Dear Ms. Aiken,
I’m continuing my search of Dickens for the character that inspired Dido, but as yet it has been fruitless. Could you give me a hint? Please? So many books! So little time!
P.S. You do remember me don’t you? I wrote a while ago.
Another envelope overlaid the “Jackie Hedeman” at the head of the stationary, but I knew it was there.
Also there: a mottled, metal skeleton key sitting off to the side, tagged with a label on a string. The label read, “Want to know the secret? (click key)” and I clicked without hesitation. An excerpt from Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop took up the new page.
“Oh, please,’ said a little voice very low down in the doorway, “will you come and show the lodgings?”
Dick leant over the table, and descried a small slipshod girl in a dirty coarse apron and bib, which left nothing of her visible but her face and feet. She might as well have been dressed in a violin-case.
“Why, who are you?” said Dick.
To which the only reply was, “Oh, please will you come and show the lodgings?”
There never was such an old-fashioned child in her looks and manner. She must have been at work from her cradle. She seemed as much afraid of Dick, as Dick was amazed at her.
I am standing at Lizza Aiken’s door. I am in graduate school and it is winter break and I am in London and I have decided it is time for us to organize a meeting. Lizza runs the Joan Aiken website and works to keep Joan Aiken’s books in print and her legacy alive. I e-mailed her immediately after discovering the website to thank her, and we exchanged a few messages but never began a proper correspondence.
Part of me is here for the story, because I have started to write again and I am seeing stories where there were once only facts of life. The other part, the bigger part of me, has been holding in a larger thank you that could only find expression in person. A handshake. Enthusiasm. Wisconsin chocolates shared over tea.
I am holding Wisconsin chocolates when Lizza opens the door. She looks a little like her mother, I think, based on the three, maybe four, pictures of Joan Aiken I have repeatedly seen on flyleaves and websites.
“Is it you?” she says.
“Yes,” I say, and I hold out my hand, which she ignores to hug me.
After I have been released but before I can offer the chocolates or take off my coat she says, “Did you know that today was Joan’s death day?”
I had no idea, though I remember my mother coming into the guest room where the computer was and where I was working on a college admissions essay. We had plans to go to England that spring and my parents had been not-so-subtly pressuring me to write Joan Aiken and arrange a meeting. I didn’t want to. I was heart-poundingly shy. I didn’t want to bother her. I didn’t want to deal with the suspense of waiting for her reply. I wanted to wait.
“I had no idea,” I say to Lizza Aiken. It is chilly outside and the words come out wet.
“It is,” she says. “Today you feel a bit like a gift from her to me.”
Later, I will tell my mother this, and she will get teary. She’ll say, with perfect skeptical Catholic logic, “Someone made that happen. I don’t believe it. But I do.”
I don’t get teary when I’m with Lizza: not when she greets me or when we part, not when she shows me the folder where Joan Aiken kept my letters, one with “Personal / Family / Friends” written on the cover, and not when she leads me out into her back garden for a look at the Joan Aiken Shed, a cozy, warm, green-painted structure full of bookshelves. The bookshelves hold all of Joan Aiken’s books, in multiple editions, in multiple languages. They also hold her notebooks, with ideas for stories Lizza can immediately connect to published works on the shelves. Lizza shows me the first page of the first draft The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, virtually identical to the words as they appeared in the book my mother read to me.
I don’t cry because it is an afternoon without nostalgia. I don’t filter our conversation through a feeling for my past self because that past self is here with me in the room. We are the same Jackie.
Lizza makes tea. We talk about books, and Joan Aiken, and Lizza’s work with feminist publishers. We also talk about our families. Lizza is midway in age between my parents; I am only a little younger than her children. We talk about politics; we bemoan Brexit and Trump. We bond over the dark reassurance of a planet that will surely outlast the human race.
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.”