Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Double Trouble!: Some of my Favourite Literary Twins

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I decided to take a little look at some literary twosomes. Inspired by a book I’ve recently read, the theme of this week’s show was twins. I had to give a bit of thought to this, of course, because I didn’t want to accidentally include any books where the existence of the twins is a twist or a reveal – I don’t do spoilers on Hannah’s Bookshelf! Instead, I concentrated on books where the presence of twins – and the relationship between them – is a focus of the story.

You can listen to the show again on the player below. But, as promised, here’s the list of books I featured on my Double Trouble Special. Did I miss off your favourite? Do you disagree with any of my choices? Let me know in the comments!

The Image of You by Adele Parks (2017)

My Double Trouble show was inspired by a book I read recently, which I discussed on today’s show. I wouldn’t say it was really a ‘favourite’, but given it sparked off the whole idea for today’s theme, I thought it deserved to be included on the reading list!

Parks’s novel introduces us to a set of identical twin sisters – Anna and Zoe – who couldn’t be more different. Zoe is unrestrained, wild (and possibly dangerous), while Anna is demure, romance (and possibly wildly naïve). Despite having been badly hurt in the past, Anna is desperate to find true love and has set up an online dating profile. When she meets and falls for Nick, Zoe is convinced that this Mr Right isn’t quite as perfect as Anna thinks he is. In fact, Zoe is convinced that Nick is lying to her sister and determines to put him to the test. What transpires is a domestic noir thriller – a genre I don’t always love wholeheartedly – with a bit of a twist to it. Unfortunately, I did see the twist coming quite some way away, which made the rest of the story a little obvious (and it does have rather a twee ending). However, The Image of You is an entertaining enough read, and is definitely a recommendation for fans of the genre. And for the purposes of this show, it certainly did a good job in encouraging me to think about other pairs of twins in literature…

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

The next book is one my favourites – one of my favourite books in general, but also one of my favourite twin storylines. My first encounter with Christie’s story was when I was a kid, and I watched the BBC adaptation (starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple). I loved the story, and I was absolutely fascinated by the twins.

The murder that is ‘announced’ in the book takes place at the home of Letitia Blacklock in Chipping Cleghorn. An advert appears in the local paper, informing readers that a murder will be taking place at Miss Blacklock’s home – and everyone’s invited. Of course, Miss Blacklock’s friends and neighbours think it’s all a big game… they think again once the shooting starts! So, who might have wanted to see Miss Blacklock dead? She has very little money as it stands, though she is due to inherit a substantial fortune. Her former employer, financier Randall Goedler, left his fortune in trust, to come to Letitia on the death of his wife Belle. However, if Letitia dies first, the money will pass on Belle’s death to Goedler’s estranged sister, Sonia or to Sonia’s children – the twins Pip and Emma.

The reason why this storyline intrigued me so much as a child – and why it continues to be one of my favourite Miss Marple stories – is that no one in Chipping Cleghorn (including Miss Blacklock) has ever laid ideas on Sonia, Pip or Emma (that they know of), and so it’s quite possible one or more of them could be masquerading as one of the ‘harmless’ inhabitants of the village. There are certainly plenty of people the right age, but are any of them Sonia Goedler? And could any of them be one of the mysterious twins? The reveal is, of course, absolutely brilliant.

There is a lot more about A Murder is Announced that I love – Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd are wonderful characters, and Miss Blacklock’s cook Mitzi is also a favourite (perhaps because she was renamed ‘Hannah’ in the adaptation?). But, for today, the characters that have earned it a place on the list are the enigmatic Pip and Emma.

Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kästner (1949)

Erich Kästner’s 1949 children’s book – German title: Das doppelte Lottchen – is perhaps not instantly familiar to modern readers, but I can guarantee you know the story. You’re bound to have seen at least one of the adaptations at some point!

Lottie and Lisa tells the story of the eponymous girls who meet one summer at camp. They’ve never met before, but are amazed to discover that they’re completely identical. And that’s when they discover an incredible secret that their parents have been hiding from them. Lottie and Lisa are twins. When their parents divorced, they took the unorthodox (and, let’s be honest here, really cruel) step of separating the girls – Lottie was raised by their mother, and Lisa by their father – and not telling them about the other’s existence. When the girls finally meet and put everything together, they decide to hatch a plan to swap places. Initially, this is done simply so they can each get to know their other parent – but eventually, of course, it develops into a scheme to reunite the estranged adults.

Kästner’s book is probably best known now from its adaptations. The two Disney films – with Hayley Mills (in 1961) and Lindsey Lohan (in 1998) – are well-known to Anglophone audiences, but the book has been adapted numerous times for both film and television, including Lithuanian, Hindi, Swedish, Polish, Korean and, of course, German versions. Interestingly, Kästner originally intended his story to be a film treatment, but due to his pacifism and opposition to Nazism, he was prevented from working as a screenwriter during the Nazi years (his books were also burned). Well… Lottie and Lisa has certainly made its way to the big screen now!

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)

The next book moves us into somewhat more Gothic territory. Setterfield’s novel promises (or, at least, one of its main characters promises) a haunting tale of twins and family secrets. I’m surprised I haven’t included this one on any of my other themed shows, as it includes lots of the things I enjoy talking about!

The Thirteenth Tale is the story of Margaret Lea and Vida Winter. Margaret is bookish and awkward woman, who once dabbled in amateur biography writing (but who has no ambitions to pursue this further). Vida is a famous novelist, notorious for the fierce secrecy with which she guards her past. Vida has been interviewed numerous times over the year, but the biographical details she’s given to journalists have been vague or inconsistent. Now, she’s ready to share the full story (or is she?), and to Margaret’s surprise Vida’s decided she’s the woman for the job. Margaret’s not sure she wants the task, but Vida attempt to lure her in with the promise of a ghost story involving twin sisters. But it’s not this that this tantalizing thread that appeals to Margaret. Rather, the would-be biographer is most curious about the novelist’s collection of short stories: Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, which was published with only twelve stories included. What happened to the thirteenth tale? and what secrets did it reveal.

Despite the fact that I found the character of Margaret rather annoying, I did really enjoy The Thirteenth Tale – which is indeed a ghost story involving twin sisters (though there’s much more to it than that). It’s a Gothic suspense story in the classic tradition, and Vida Winter emerges as an engaging and compelling character.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare (c.1601)

From twin sisters to a brother/sister pair now… Twelfth Night isn’t my favourite Shakespeare play, but I don’t think I’d get away with leaving it off a list of literary twins!

Our heroine in Viola, who is shipwrecked with her twin brother Sebastian on the coast of Illyria. Believing her brother to be dead, Viola disguises herself as a boy (of course she does! it’s a Shakespeare comedy!) and enters into the service of Duke Orsino under the name Cesario. And, naturally, she quickly falls in love with the duke. He’s not interested, though, because (a) he thinks Cesario’s a boy, and (b) he’s in love with a woman called Olivia. Olivia’s in mourning for her brother and father, and has sworn to reject all suitors for a period of seven years. However, despite her vow, Olivia’s head is turned by the charming Cesario… making for quite the tricky love triangle.

I think one of the reasons I’ve never been completely enamoured with Twelfth Night is its comedic subplot – involving the men of Olivia’s household attempted to persuade her steward Malvolio that she’s in love with him. I’ve always found it a bit cruel and hard-edged – more so than the subplots in other Shakespearean comedies. Perhaps that’s just me, though.

As you can imagine, Shakespeare finds a way to wrap things up with happy endings all round (except for poor old Malvolio). Viola’s twin might not have really died in the wreck, and would you believe it? the pair of them are pretty much identical! Twelfth Night ends with a characteristic setting the world to rights (although, as has been noted, Orsino ends up proposing to Cesario, as Viola doesn’t drop her boy-costume as quickly as some of her counterparts in other comedies). Good thing there were two identical siblings, as both Orsino and Olivia are able to find the partner they want.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

The final book on today’s list is Fangirl, a YA coming-of-age novel about a somewhat socially awkward young woman, who happens to be one of a pair of twins.

Cath is a freshman at college, as is her more outgoing twin sister Wren. Wren spends a lot of her time partying, but Cath is struggling to find her place. We join the twins at the point at which they’re starting to grow apart. As we learn, when they were in high school they had more shared interests – or, rather, one particular shared interest: Simon Snow fandom. (Simon Snow is a fictional boy-wizard, created by Rowell – all similarities to an actual book/film series are surely coincidental.) When Cath and Wren were younger, they obsessed equally over Simon Snow – queuing up for the latest book, cosplaying for film premieres, the full works – but now that they’re at college, Wren seems to be leaving it all behind. Cath doesn’t want to let go of Simon Snow, though, as continues writing fan fiction (for which she is becoming quite well-known).

Fangirl is a fun read. I must admit, I wasn’t completely convinced by how much Cath is able to win creative writing lecturers and authors over with her fan fiction, but I did enjoy the way the family relationships develop over the course of the novel. There’s a bit of an edge to some of the seemingly flippant characterization. Cath’s eccentric father, for instance, has more issues than it initially seems. And Wren’s partying may not be the benign, contrasting-twin behaviour we first think. Ultimately, though, this is a story about Cath, and about her development as an individual, and as a young adult.

Rowell’s novel is about a young woman learning who she is outside of her sibling relationship – for this reason, it seemed like a good place to end today’s list of literary twins!

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:

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