Thursday 4 February 2010

Magical Rooms

A few years ago I used to do a lot of oral storytelling. You can’t tell a story well unless you love it, and one of my absolute favourites is ‘Mr Fox’, the English version of ‘Bluebeard’. It’s far superior to Bluebeard, in my opinion, and its heroine, Lady Mary, is feisty and clever. But of course, one of the high points of the story is when she opens the little door decorated with the legend: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold/Lest that thy heart’s blood should run cold - and discovers the place where Mr Fox hangs up his victims: the well known Bloody Chamber.

Bruno Bettelheim, in 'The Uses of Enchantment', discusses the 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 – though that motif is missing from Mr Fox, which is a story about a clever girl coming close to extreme danger but turning the tables on the one who threatens her.

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. )

I was corresponding with the Australian fantasy YA author Kate Forsyth recently (look out for a review and interview with her on this blog later in the month) and the subject came up of magical rooms in children’s and YA fiction. And I started to think about how very different they often are from the Bloody Chamber or the Ivory Tower. The room, in children’s fiction, is a place of magical refuge, yet full of possibility.

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.

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 feels threatened. He barricades himself in.

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 evading 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 necessary fire, of course – ‘a fire of cedarwood’ made from cigar boxes.

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…

Rooms in children’s fiction are not Freudian symbols of sexual awakening, nor are they cold ivory towers from which it is necessary to be rescued. Children’s rooms are magical personal spaces in which the child is protected and nourished, in which she can learn to be herself and from which she – or he – can explore the world.

Illustration by Garth Williams, from Margery Sharp's 'The Rescuers'


  1. I shared a bedroom with a younger sister- fortunately we got along, but we also had the attic, and more importantly the box-room, a dusty narrow room with one window looking over the back garden, and a door, and a collection of boxes and trunks my mother had brought with her from England to Canada. They were filled with photographs and old clothing that had belonged to her grandmother and since we didn't know the british side of the family, we were endlessly fascinated with these portraits of stiff looking old people with their umbrellas.
    The box-room made frequent appearances in my dreams. It still does- as a magical place. A cross between Narnia's wardrobe and Sara Crewe's transformed garret. I thought of it as a portal to strange and exciting worlds. Even now my memory of what it was in reality is blurred (and transformed) by my childish imagination.

  2. And of course there's Max's room where the forest grew and an ocean tumbled by with a boat to take him Where The Wild Things Are... but he can come back and his supper will still be hot. That's one of my favourite rooms.

    Lovely post, Kath!

  3. You've just mentioned so many of my favourite books in one post! There's definitely something about that desire for a room of my own which has never left me. I think I loved rooms like Maria's so much, because in reading the story it became my room to escape to too. Lovely post!

  4. Another gorgeous and thought-provoking post. I remember how important my bedroom was to me as a child, the place where so much reading took place. I would pull the blanket chest away from the wall and lie on the carpet next to the radiator with chocolate stolen from the kitchen, reading Mary Poppins. Heaven!

  5. Thanks for the comments. Jo, your box-room does sound a magical place in very mcuh the same way as many of these - a place of history and memories as well as refuge. Max in the Wild Things - of course! (And my husband just passed by and muttered, 'Bastien Balthazar's school attic in The Neverending Story'...)
    Claire, so nice to meet a fellow fan of these great books!
    Gwenda, thank you so much for the comment and link!
    Karen, I used to eat Cadbury's Flakes and read the Pocomoto books by Rex Dixon (a post for another time there.)

  6. A delight, Katherine, stirs up memories of magical childhood stories and places. Thank you!

  7. Thank you. What a beautiful post. I remember those books. And it made me remember my own childhood room, a strange little room in the top of a double-decker trailer, only tall enough for a child to stand, and just big enough for a double mattress and a book shelf along one wall. You're totally correct; a child's room is a place of safety and dreams.

  8. Thankyou Maggie - yours too sounds like a magical space. (But wasn't it hot in summer?)

  9. I love this post, Katherine! You may be interested to know that when Sabriel was published, Garth and I talked about Sabriel's room and how we both remembered vividly the room in The Little White Horse, and how often the houses and gardens in our books are a way of recreating the magical houses we loved in Elizabeth Goudge's work and also in writers like Lucy Boston and Philippa Pierce. And I'm so pleased you included 'A Little Princess' - as I was reading the post I was thinking about that cold attic room transformed,and thinking I'd remind you of it - and then scrolled down, and there it was!

  10. Hi Katherine
    It was not often hot when and where I grew up-maybe only a couple weeks out of the year. And there were windows on both sides of the bed, so there was always a breeze to be had on all but the hottest nights.

  11. Maggie - it sounds as good as Heidi's hayloft...!

    Kate,that's a such an interesting insight into a writer's 'background mindset'. You wouldn't normally think of comparing 'Sabriel'and 'The Little White Horse', yet there are these subtle resonances. We really are what we read, and it comes out in all sorts of ways.

  12. I love this post too...coming to it a bit late. Gosh, how I loved the Elizabeth Goudge books as a child. Must go back and read them again. And yes, rooms are fantastic. I hardly ever move out of them in my fiction, I find. Very few outdoor scenes in my work....but tons of ROOMS. What does that say about me, I wonder.

  13. Wow, an Elizabeth Goudge book I've never come across! Must look out for Linnets and Valerians...

    I guess the garden in The Secret Garden acts as a kind of room too, that the children make their own even though it is full of others' memories and events.

    I can't really think of many rooms in fairy tales, apart from the ones you mention. Is it because most fairy tales are about leaving behind your old room (your parents, your childhood) and finding your place in the world as an adult? And the moment when the heroes and heroines find that new room of their own is time for 'and they all lived happily ever after'.

  14. I think you're quite right, Lily, about the Secret Garden being a sort of outdoor room. Hope you can find Linnets and Valerians!

    Adele, how lovely - we must have a Goudge talk some time!

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