The Source of Inspiration

Gorey Cuckoo Tree

This original Edward Gorey sketch for the cover of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (which sadly I don’t own..!) was in fact inspired by Pat Marriott the artist who originally illustrated Aiken’s ‘Wolves’ series, and who had been introduced to her in the 1950’s by publisher Jonathan Cape. The artists’ styles do have a certain similarity, and often Pat’s illustrations have been mistakenly attributed to Gorey, or even to another Edward – Ardizzone who was also popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. Coming from the pre- internet generations, Pat never had a website to immortalise her work, and although he original illustrations are still included in the UK editions of the books, thanks to the current classic Red Fox paperbacks,  I would like to make sure Pat Marriott’s timeless images are remembered!

Here below is Pat’s drawing, much more closely related to Aiken’s story, and which clearly inspired the later picture above; while hers shows characters one recognises from the story,  Gorey’s has a stylised small girl in a frock – a frock???  Dido Twite is usually dressed in her midshipman’s garb, and only willingly wore a frock once in her life, when dear Sophie made her a new blue merino to wear to the fair…   But Gorey does bring to life the overhanging threatening trees as seen by Dido,  and they echo her own eavesdropping on the evil plotters while under the effects of the hallucinogenic Joobie nuts – very much  as Marriott first imagined them.  It is certainly fascinating to have the opportunity to compare the two.

Cuckoo Trees

The partnership between Joan Aiken and Pat Marriott lasted for forty years, during which time Joan Aiken wrote eight of the twelve ‘Wolves’ chronicles,  for which Pat’s illustrations received reviews as positive as those for the books themselves, as did her work and covers for all of Joan’s classic collections of fantasy stories, also published by Jonathan Cape, in a handsome set of black white and gold editions .


This partnership was so inspired it deserves to be more widely celebrated, like that between Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl, whose depictions of characters like Matilda or the BFG seem to belong to the writer and illustrator inseparably.

  Joan Aiken writes about Pat, and other fruitful illustrator partnerships here.

There is however, one original piece of inspiration that is even less known.  When Joan Aiken sent off her first stories in the early 1950’s, she also included illustrations of her own –  as used to expressing herself in chalk and pastel as in words, she had no qualms about including her own pictures. The Editor’s reply was friendly but firm: ” Thank you for including your own illustrations to the stories.  I am afraid I cannot use them as they are – for one thing it would be difficult to reproduce them adequately – drawn as they are in blue ink – but they will be invaluable as a guide to the artist we eventually select.”

Singeing JA

Joan Aiken’s drawing of the unicorn and raven from an early Armitage story

Joan Aiken’s response when she saw Pat Marriott’s drawings and cover design of unicorns for All You’ve Ever Wanted – that first collection,  was:

“They are delightful, full of character, and exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for…I should like to congratulate the artist.”  Her only reservation about one drawing –  “The governess is a little too sweet and amiable…”   A premonition of evil governesses to come, perhaps?

Their friendship was to last a lifetime.

All You've Ever Wanted


See the full collection of Edward Gorey covers for the Wolves Series here.

And some of Joan Aiken’s own work.


Always keep a notebook…


Joan Aiken’s advice to young writers when she went to give talks in schools was always to carry a small notebook and to jot down anything of interest.  She wrote: “The most frequent question they ask is Where do ideas come from? And if I’m talking to them in a classroom I  produce the small 2″ x 3″ notebook that I always carry in bag or pocket, and read aloud some pages of entries, such as: Sign, Danger Keep Clear of Unpropped Body.  Road sign: Slow – Toads Crossing.  Bottles on roof of Turkish house indicate marriageable girl inside. Parrot on bridge of ship.  Lady rents out hats. Taking a Degree in Prophecy.  Graveyard like a chessboard.  Tightrope walker on vapour trail.  I urge them to start keeping one of their own” or even, as she did to keep sketches of places visited, landscapes, houses, furniture, people? You never knew, she used to say, when something would find its home in a story, or be the germ of one.

When writing a book she would take more extensive notes, and if possible go to the place where the book was set and stay there, as she did with the Felix trilogy set in Spain, or Wales for The Whispering Mountain, Nantucket for Nightbirds.  “While taking these notes I am framing my plot which has begun from one of the nuclear situations mentioned above.  When the action of the plot is fairly definite in my mind I make a chart, dividing the action into chapters, and I also make family trees and other plans.”

And so from some of the seeds of imagination sown in those little notebooks much larger ideas have grown.  I recognise several of those plot strands listed above – the Toads on the road bring the Wendish army to a halt in The Witch of Clatteringshaws, saving Simon and his tiny army from their Agincourt moment,  ( although he does make a wonderful speech!) the black and white graveyard makes a sinister appearance in one of the horror stories of A Foot in The Grave, and the girl who rents out hats is Bridget from Tale of a One Way Street. But sadly there is no sign of that tightrope walker in the sky!

Even more astonishing though are those longer entries where once her story had taken wings she could write whole pages and chapters which then appear only slightly tweaked or corrected in the finished manuscript.  Although Joan worked on an old fashioned typewriter she still had to make a few copies before she was satisfied with the final version.  But sometimes the story seemed almost to tell itself.  here is a page from Is Underground, where Dido’s younger sister Is, comes up against an appallingly evil member of the Twite family, who has made himself the despotic ruler of the northern part of England, calling himself Gold Kingy.


“… I can hear the sound of voices.  At present they only whisper, but soon they will shout, soon they will roar  – and that roar will sweep you away Gold Kingy, like a leaf in a torrent.”

With only a few minor changes, this is the passage as it appears in the book, as if the voices of the characters were so clear she heard them speaking in her head. But the place, the library with its heavy stacks running in grooves, the inexorable development of the hair raising plot and hopefully in this case, downfall of the dreadful villain, were already there, framed in her mind.


You can read that passage (page 202) in the double volume of the adventures of Is (short for Isabett)  in Is and Cold Shoulder Road   books eight and nine of The Wolves Chronicles and find out more of the doings of the Terrible Twites – one family tree that kept on growing…

Keeping up with Joan


One of Joan Aiken’s pastel drawings – mushrooms ready for supper

“Just because I’m sweeping leaves doesn’t mean I’m not thinking,” she would say – or perhaps she would be drawing a picture of mushrooms, or staking runner beans, or making Rowan jelly or sewing hessian curtains…. the activities were endless.  She might be gardening, housekeeping, homemaking, feeding visitors delicious dinners, and inventing new recipes, reading to children or taking them for walks on the Sussex Downs… but all the while she was making up stories, and telling them, brooding on plots, working out how to rescue a heroine, or kill off a villain.

Joan Aiken was born from two strong outgoing families, with  a Scots Canadian mother, and a father descended from a long line of puritan pilgrims.  Both families had braved alarming sea voyages to reach new countries, and struggled to work the land and build a future, and Joan had inherited strong genes and a determined outlook on life that kept her going through many vicissitudes.  Anything that needed making, building, growing or sewing she would tackle, any journey or adventure that she could pursue she would take up with alacrity, and any new experience however alarming or exhausting could be put to use in a plot, and usually was.  As her daughter I sometimes found this bewildering  as whole chunks of her or my own experience could appear, slightly disguised, in a murder mystery or a children’s comic serial; unhappy love affairs, confrontations with brutal bosses, tales of travels gone scarily aglay, all was an inspiration or a useful piece of background that might turn up in an unfamiliar context as I was innocently reading through her latest manuscript.

At the time I might have been furious, felt my life was being snatched away, my experiences only material for her imagination; now when I read, and re-read her books I find they are full of gifts which only I can really appreciate – I remember the flat in Paris that inspired that nightmare, the garden in York where those apple trees were planted, the theatre production with the egg box masks, the terrified old lady who kept ‘the wealth’ safety-pinned into her liberty bodice.

The house and the garden were sold, the mushroom chicken pies, the Rowan jelly and the walks over the chalk downs are only memories now, but when I want to relive those memories,  go on those journeys with her and visit those places again, I have them all in her books, and as I marvel at her energy and resourcefulness, I realise that I am still keeping up with Joan.