Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Rooms in Books (from Let's Write) - by Sue Purkiss

As some of you will know, at the beginning of lockdown I moved my writing group online, setting up a blog, Let's Write, where I post a weekly writing prompt. I was between writing projects, so I've done each weekly task too, and it's been really enjoyable tackling a fresh story or whatever each week. 

The current task was to do with rooms, and I have written about some of my favourite rooms from books. They are all from children's books (who would have thought it?) so I had the audacious idea of killing two birds with one stone and posting the piece here. I'm afraid it's a bit long, so apologies for that. So off we go, back into enchanted and enchanting worlds.

Rooms in Books

I’ve already written about some of the rooms that, for one reason or another I remember most clearly from my own past. I thought about going through my photographs to search out rooms I’ve visited and liked – but I know that once I dive into the thousands of pictures on my computer, I will be easily distracted by all the memories they trail, and will only emerge, blinking, after hours have passed, having forgotten what I was actually looking for.

So I thought instead that I would look to literature for some memorable rooms. And immediately I know I’ve done this before. But no matter: I will choose the first three that come to mind.
Perhaps inevitably, these rooms come from books that I first read when I was a child. They are all three enchanting – two are, in fact, enchanted: in that they are magical, fantasy rooms. I’ll begin with one of these. It comes from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald.

And immediately it occurs to me that I know nothing about George MacDonald. Back in the day, the reader’s relationship with the author was quite simple. The author wrote the book; then, either by buying it or – in my case – by getting it out of the library, the reader read it. Nowadays that isn’t so. The author comes as part of the package. She (I’ll stick to ‘she’ for simplicity’s sake) is expected to reveal amusing and interesting details about herself on social media, she’s expected to speak at book festivals, to do school visits – to do anything she can to promote her book. Readers will look at her website, read reviews and find interviews and images online – they can even contact her directly on Twitter and other social media.

But my three authors came long before any of that was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, and so I know very little about any of them. I can easily remedy that of course, but we’re supposed to be writing about rooms, aren’t we? So that’s what I’d better do.

The Princess and the Goblin was first published in 1872, and I suppose you’d call it a fairy story. But so far as I know it’s not based on an existing fairy story, so maybe it should properly be classified as an early fantasy. It begins with eight year-old Princess Irene, who lives in a large house/castle on a mountain away from her parents, the King and Queen. She is well looked after, and has the most marvellous toys, but she has no-one to play with, and one day she gets bored and so decides to explore the castle.

Of course, she gets lost. But eventually she hears the sound of spinning. She opens the door and peeps in – and there is no witch, but a beautiful lady with smooth skin but long white hair. The princess, although she could not have told you why, did think her very old indeed – quite fifty, she said to herself. The old lady, who is also called Irene, tells the princess that she is her great-great-grandmother, and actually much, much more than fifty. She is a very mysterious person. She tells Irene that no-one knows she is there, and no-one can find her unless she wants them to.

No-one knows anything about the old lady, and Irene begins to think it must all have been a dream. But then, some months later, she can’t sleep because her hand is infected and painful, and she sets off in search of the grandmother again – and this time she finds her, and the grandmother takes her into her bedroom…

What was Irene’s surprise to see the loveliest room she had ever seen in her life! It was large, and lofty, and dome-shaped. From the centre hung a lamp as round as a ball, shining as if with the brightest moonlight, which made everything visible in the room, though not so clearly that the princess could tell what many of the things were. A large oval bed stood in the middle, with a coverlid of rose colour, and velvet curtains all round it of a lovely pale blue. The walls were also blue – spangled all over with what looked like stars of silver.

Doesn’t that sound enchanting? And as the grandmother says, it is, in fact, enchanted. If the light were to go out, the room would be just a bare garret, with a pile of old straw for a bed. (Incidentally, the old lady has a flock of snow-white pigeons which come to her window, and lives on their eggs - just in case you were worrying.)

My next room is also a room where magic happens, but it's a very different one. It is in The Once and Future King, T H White’s great retelling of the legend of Arthur. The first book, The Sword In the Stone, is about Arthur’s childhood, and to my mind it’s the best one. The room belongs to Merlyn, and here, Arthur (known at this stage as the Wart), is visiting it for the first time. T H White fills it with the most extraordinary variety of things, so it takes him a long time to describe it all – here is just a flavour of it. (This is a tiny part of one of the longest sentences I’ve ever seen.)

There were… ink-bottles of every colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field-mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass… the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates)… a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires… and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wildfowl by Sir Peter Scott.

All this, of course, is because Merlyn lives backwards through time, so has accumulated an eclectic collection of objects. Now, why wouldn’t you want to prowl round and look through them all?

My final, and favourite, room is from Heidi. It’s the room where her grandfather, the Alm Uncle lives, high on a Swiss mountain. Heidi, an orphan – of a similar age to Irene and the Wart – has been living with her cousin, Dete. But Dete’s had enough. She’s found a new job, and she can’t take Heidi with her. So she whisks her off to deposit Heidi with her only other known relative, her grandfather – who is an irascible hermit with a very sharp tongue.

But Heidi isn’t cowed. When she sees the hut that is to be her new home, she is – there’s that word again – enchanted.

By the grandfather’s bed, wooden steps went up, and when the child climbed the little ladder she found herself in the hay-loft. A bale of hay, fresh and sweet-smelling, lay on the floor, and from a little window in the roof she could see far down into the valley.
“Oh, this is where I want to sleep!” she cried joyfully. “It is lovely! Come and see how lovely it is, Grandfather!”

And then they have toasted cheese, bread, and bowls of fresh goats’ milk for supper…

And of course, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I still enjoy reading this book. It’s not all sweetness and light. There’s poverty, and jealousy, and terrible homesickness. But there’s so much hope, too. And it all starts with that little room.

You can find the blog here. I made it public so that others could use the prompts if they wanted to; two people actually joined the online group, and a lot of people joined in haiku week - see their efforts here, in the comments section - but other than that, I don't know if anyone else has found it useful. But I've really enjoyed it - both setting the work, doing it, and reading the rest of the group's contributions: it's always fascinating to see what they come up with. 

Just finally - this, using pictures for inspiration, was probably my favourite task so far.


Amanda said...

Yes! After Maria Merryweather’s bedroom in The Little White Horse, Princess Irene’s in The Princess and the Goblins is my favourite too. Both with stars on the ceiling...

Sue Purkiss said...


Moira Butterfield said...

Badger's house in Wind in the Willows, where it's always warm and there is always supper. Aaaahhhh......

Emma Barnes said...

The transformation of Sarah Crewe's attic bedroom in The Little Princess is one of those absolutely magical moments.

Penny Dolan said...

Merlin's magical room is one that I still remember. Thank you for this post, and the mention of your "Let's Write!" blog.

Andrew Preston said...


Missing my daily dose of Awfully....

I think some of youse really do have to show some responsibility here,
think about the readers, and not be distracted ( too much ) by the sight of
Boris and Winston's heroes fighting on the beaches.....