Sunday, 10 July 2011

Magical Rooms in Fiction - Katherine Langrish

The Children Of Green Knowe Ill. Lucy Boston
When I was twelve, my brother and I had a den in an unused outbuilding belonging to the house we lived in. We trod a narrow winding path through a deep bed of green nettles to get to the flaking, rickety door; we whitewashed the walls and found some old broken stools and chairs to furnish it. It was our private place. And we made a cardboard sign to hang on the door and ward off intruders: it read, in drippy red paint: Beware! 10,000 Volts!

And a few years later when we were in our mid-teens, our parents bought an enormous old house in the Yorkhire Dales which had been empty for three years since the death of the last owner, an elderly spinster whose family had built the house in the early 18th century. There was no electricity and for six months we went to bed with candles and oil lamps. One room, with a hole in the floor, was too dangerous to enter until the joists had been mended: we would peer in from the doorway at a clutter of mysterious objects: a half-rotted Jacobean table, a Victorian birdcage, knife-sharpening machines, stone floor-polishers. Another room had a pointed, arched doorway. My parents had the decorators in, and one of them peeled away damp wallpaper to discover a hidden cupboard. In great excitement he called us all to assemble before he opened it. But it was empty… 
The Rescuers Illus. Garth Williams

In ‘The Uses of Enchantment’, Bruno Bettelheim discusses secret or forbidden rooms in fairytales very much in Freudian terms: “‘Bluebeard’ is a story about the dangerous propensities of sex, about its strange secrets and close connection with violent and destructive emotions.” The blood upon the key, which betrays to Bluebeard that his wife has entered the forbidden chamber, leaves little doubt that Bettelheim is right in this instance. And other rooms in traditional fairytales, such as the Sleeping Beauty’s chamber or Rapunzel’s tower, can also be seen in Freudian terms as symbolizing unawakened virginity. (Although I’m uncomfortable with the extreme passivity of the image: and I do think it is dangerous to take a Freudian interpretation as an explanation. An individual fairy tale is much more than any particular common denominator. )

But, especially in children’s fiction, secret rooms can mean a lot more than Bettelheim’s Freudian explanation. How many books did you read as a child, where the discovery of a concealed room was one of the most exciting parts of the story? Enid Blyton had them by the dozen. I well remember one (in ‘The Rockingdown Mystery’) where the hero, blue-eyed Barney, spends several nights in the deserted, but poignantly furnished, nursery of an eerie abandoned house - full of old dolls and damp, moth-eaten blankets, with strange noises echoing up through the floor. You know he’s not going to stay there, he’s going to go down exploring through the dark abandoned house, he’s going to find …what? 

Hidden rooms are transitional places, they have meaning, they hold some clue that leads elsewhere. In Jane Langton’s 1962 classic ‘The Diamond in the Window’, Eleanor and Edward discover the ‘hidden’ room at the top of the tower – with, significantly, a keyhole-shaped stained-glass window – from which, years ago, two children with exactly the same names disappeared. The keyhole has no sexual implications here: it stands for the unlocking of mystery.

[Eleanor] was blinded at first by the dimness. Then the many colours of the great keyhole window blossomed… and gradually illumined the objects in the room… a huge mirror that was sunk into the well of an enormous dresser across the room from the window. There was a table, and what was that on the table? …It was a castle, a castle made of blocks. And there were chairs and toys, and a little wagon. And what was that on either side of the window? Eleanor’s heart bounded into her throat.
It was two narrow beds, and the covers were turned neatly down.

‘Two narrow beds’ – there are suggestions here of death, absence, the mysteries of time. Just as in the book by Enid Blyton, these are traces of long-ago children who have vanished. This is a recurrent theme in children’s books: for it’s a sad and certain yet also glorious and fascinating truth that all children do disappear – into adulthood, and ultimately into death… which is presumably the meaning of that very unsettling short story by Walter de la Mare, ‘The Riddle’ – where, one after another, a whole family of children climb silently into a carved chest in the attic and disappear for ever.

But then there are bedrooms. Bedrooms, in children’s fiction, are places of magical refuge, yet full of possibility – as different as possible from the Bloody Chamber or the Ivory Tower.
A room of one’s own. Many children do not have one. They share with brothers or sisters. They lead lives ruled by adults. A room of one’s own, for a child, is a place where it can be in control. It’s also a place to start out from: the firm base of safety from which a child can explore the world. Rooms in children’s or young adult fiction, therefore, often reflect the desirable qualities of a perfect personal space.

Elizabeth Goudge was good at this. Maria, heroine of ‘The Little White Horse’, coming to the magic and mystery of Moonacre Manor, is provided with a bedroom in a tower with a door too small for an adult to get through. The room has three windows, one with a window seat, a ‘silvery oak floor’, and a four-poster bed ‘hung with pale blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars’. And ‘the fireplace was the tiniest she had ever seen,’ but big enough for ‘the fire of pine cones and applewood that burned in it… It was the room Maria would have designed for herself if she had had the knowledge and the skill.’ From such a base Maria can with confidence launch her campaign against the men of the sinister Black Castle in the pine wood.

In ‘Linnets and Valerians’, perhaps Goudge’s masterpiece, the quieter heroine Nan is given a parlour of her own by her austere Uncle Ambrose. It opens off a dark passage, but then:
‘The room inside was a small panelled parlour. There was a bright wood fire burning in the basket grate, and on the mantelpiece above were a china shepherd and shepherdess and two china sheep. Over the mantelpiece was a round mirror in a gilt frame… Nan sat down in the little armchair and folded her hands in her lap… It was quiet in here, the noises of the house shut away, the sound of the wind and rain seeming only to intensify the indoor silence. The light of the flames was reflected in the panelling, and the burning logs smelt sweet.’
And yet, in the heart of this paradise a snake lurks: the discovery, in a cupboard, of an old notebook written by the witch Emma Cobley. ‘Nan sat down in the armchair with shaking knees, but nevertheless she opened the book and began to read.’

In each case, the rooms – though so utterly desirable – contain clues and hints of the past, of the passage of other people’s lives, and of mysteries which must be investigated. But the rooms give them the assurance to cope. Tolly’s delightful room in Lucy Boston’s ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ is filled with the toys, memories and ghostly presences of the children who lived there in the past and who become his companions. 

In a similar way when Garth Nix’s Sabriel comes for the first time to the house of the Abhorsen, escaping terrifiying dangers, it is a place of refuge: ‘The gate swung open, pitching her on to a paved courtyard, the bricks ancient, their redness the colour of dusty apples. The path wound up to…a cheerful sky-blue door, bright against whitewashed stone.’ And she wakes later, ‘to soft candlelight, the warmth of a feather bed…A fire burned briskly in a red-brick fireplace, and wood-panelled walls gleamed with the dark mystery of well-polished mahogany. A blue-papered ceiling with silver stars dusted across it faced her newly opened eyes.’ This is a place in which Sabriel cannot stay, but which belongs to her: it will strengthen her even though she must leave it. It’s also a place in which she will learn more about her family, her past.

It’s not a fantasy, but Betsy Byars’ ‘The Cartoonist’ is also about the necessity for a child to have some personal space and the strength that be derived from it. The only place in Alfie’s crowded house where he can be himself is in his attic, where he expresses himself by drawing the cartoons that are his life-blood. So long as he has his attic, he can cope with the demands of his noisy, feckless family: ‘The only thing Alfie liked about the house was the attic. That was his. He had put an old chair and a card-table up there, and he had a lamp with an extension cord that went down into the living room. Nobody ever went up there but Alfie. Once his sister, Alma, had started up the ladder, but he had said, “No, I don’t want anybody up there…I want it to be mine.”’ When the family decide over his head that his older brother can have the attic, Alfie’s entire personal existence – and his imaginative life – feel threatened. He barricades himself in. And in Michael Ende’s ‘The Never-Ending Story’, Bastian hides himself in the school attic ‘crammed with junk of all kinds’: ‘Not a sound to be heard but the muffled drumming of the rain on the enormous tin roof. Great beams blackened with age rose at regular intervals… and lost themselves in darkness. Here and there spider webs as big as hammocks swayed gently in the air currents.’ Sinister it may seem, but this is a safe place, a place where Bastian can open the Never-Ending Story and escape into fiction. 

Magical rooms, magical personal spaces, abound in children’s fiction. In Margery Sharp’s ‘The Rescuers’, I was charmed as a child by the cosy home the mice build in the heart of The Black Castle whilst eluding the dreadful cat Mameluke and trying to rescue the imprisoned Poet. The hole becomes: ‘a commodious apartment… Gay chewing gum wrappers papered the walls, while upon the floor used postage stamps, nibbled off envelopes in the Head Jailer’s wastebasket, formed a homely but not unsuitable patchwork carpet. Miss Bianca with her own hands fashioned several flower-pieces – so essential to gracious living – dyed pink or blue with red or blue-black ink’. And there’s the fire’ of course – ‘a fire of cedarwood’ made from cigar boxes.
Heidi Illus. William Sharp

I remember wishing I, like Heidi, could have a bedroom up a ladder in a hay-loft, where Heidi sleeps ‘as soundly and well as if she had been in the loveliest bed of some royal princess’. And to this bedroom she returns later in the book with her rich, lame friend Klara: ‘They all stood round Heidi’s beautifully made hay bed…drawing deep breaths of the spicy fragrance of the new hay. Klara was perfectly charmed with Heidi’s sleeping place. “Oh Heidi! From your bed you can look straight out into the sky, and you can hear the fir trees roar outside. Oh I have never seen such a jolly, pleasant sleeping room before.”’ Of course, this mountain home will give strength to Klara and heal her.

And isn’t part of the charm in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘A Little Princess’ the way in which Sara’s attic room is transformed, first by the power of her imagination and then by a reality which she calls ‘the magic’, from a cold, inimical space into a place which comforts and sustains both body and soul? ‘“Supposing there was a bright fire in the grate, with lots of little dancing flames,’ she murmured. ‘Suppose there was a comfortable chair before it – and suppose there was a small table nearby with a little hot – hot supper on it. And suppose”- as she drew the thin coverings over her – “suppose this was a beautiful soft bed, with fleecy blankets and large downy pillows. Suppose – suppose –’ And her very weariness was good to her, for her eyes closed and she fell fast asleep.” Of course she awakes and finds it’s come true…

Secret rooms in children’s fiction are not Freudian symbols of sexual awakening, neither are they cold ivory towers from which it is necessary to be rescued. Hidden rooms are exciting places in which clues can often be found to understanding the child’s personal history and place in the world. Children’s own rooms are magical personal spaces in which the child is protected and nourished, from which she - or he - can draw the strength and confidence to set out on adventures.


Rebecca Brown said...

This was a brilliant post and talked about some of my favourite childhood books. You're so right, rooms have such a lot of magical and importance all their own. My great-uncle's cottage in Ireland had a parlour whose door s behind the front door. As the front door always stood wide open, i could never figure out how to get into the parlour. I knew it was there, I could look in the window from the outside but I could NOT get in. That to me was s really magical room.

Thanks for this post. I'll definitely keep the power of rooms in mind when I'm writing.

Julia Green said...

I loved reading this, Katherine. It resonates strongly with my own experience of reading as a child; the books I most loved. And I realise it's what I have written into my new novel for children, Tilly's Midnight Fox, coming out next summer with OUP: a child's bedroom, and a secret den ...
Thank you!

Sue Hyams said...

Love this post. I adored Maria's little round room - in fact I still yearn for it! This post has made me want to dig out all my old favourites and re-read them, but also it's made me think about the rooms in the story I'm currently writing. Thank you!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks! I had such fun writing this post!

Susan Price said...

Wonderful post, Kath!

Emma Barnes said...

Wonderful - as soon as I started reading it, I was thinking about Maria Merryweather so I'm so glad she is included. And the overnight transformation of Sara's room is one of most magical moments I remember as a child reader...

KMLockwood said...

Delightful post - as ever Kathryn. I still have a great penchant for attic rooms with sloping ceilings which I attribute to my childhood reading.
I am writing in one now.
I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about Freudian interpretation - it is one way to look at stories - but not the only one.

Lynne Benton said...

Loved this post, Kath! Reminded me of all the things/books/feelings that made me want to be a writer. Thanks so much!

scattered_laura said...

Awwww I remember building dens with my big brother when I was a kid. They were usually built in wooded areas with stuff we found discarded in our garage, but they were magical places. We would imagine fighting off enemy attacks, eat nuts picked from trees and generally pretend that we were forgotten least until Mam called us in for tea.

Is 26 too old to build a den? :P

catdownunder said...

Oh, oh, oh yes! I so wanted a space of my own. My brother did too. We tried to make those spaces for ourselves - but the outdoor places never lasted and my mother constantly invaded the indoor spaces.
I still do not really have a space which is entirely my own but at least I have sole use of it sometimes!

kent vogel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kent vogel said...

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Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

Thanks for this in depth exploration. It has really given me some food for thought.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Lovely tour, Katherine, thank you! To your exhaustive list of the use of rooms in children's fiction I'll add Marianne Dreams, by Catherine Storr. It's perhaps a more slantwise take on the childhood room, being the story of a girl confined to her bed by an illness, who develops a strange, telepathic relationship with a similarly confined boy who is being treated by the same doctor. They both meet in a dream-house, surrounded by sinister guardians.