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. We made a cardboard sign to hang on the door and ward off intruders: it read, in drippy red paint: ‘Beware! 10,000 Volts!’
A few years later when we were in our early teens, our parents bought an enormous old house in the Yorkshire 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, so 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 small, hidden cupboard. In great excitement he called us all to assemble before he opened it. But it was empty…
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. Keys, locks, blood: you can’t get much more Freudian than that. But, in a related fairy tale, the Grimms’ ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, it’s an egg which the murderous magician bids his brides take with them as they explore his house. ‘Preserve the egg carefully for me,’ he says, ‘and carry it continually about with you, for a great misfortune would arise from the loss of it.’ The first two girls manage to drop the egg into a basin of blood which stands in the secret chamber: scrub as they will, the bloodstains won’t wash off. Now an egg is of course a female symbol, and this tale seems to me a case of infidelity worrying the magician, rather than defloration worrying the heroine – who brightly ignores the command and puts the egg carefully aside before unlocking the forbidden door. In fact, the obvious impracticality of having to carry an egg ‘continually about’ suggests to me a sly criticism of society’s unrealistic expectations of women.
There’s a well-known old riddle about eggs:
A box without hinges, key or lid
Yet golden treasure within is hid.
The egg which the heroine keeps safe is a secret chamber in itself, but the treasure hidden within is not necessarily her virginity. We are free to interpret it in other ways – as her self-determination, even her very soul: folk and fairy tales world-wide tell of an external soul contained in an egg. In the Russian fairy tale ‘Koschei the Deathless’, the monstrous Koschei is killed when Prince Ivan bursts the egg in which his soul (or life, or death) is hidden; and in ‘The Young King of Easaidh Ruadh’ (collected by J.F. Campbell on Islay in 1859) the young king’s wife manages to get the giant who has imprisoned her to tell her where his soul is. Actually this story is so lovely, here’s a long piece of it –
‘It is not there that my soul is,’ said he. ‘There is a great flagstone under the threshold. There is a wether under the flag. There is a duck in the wether’s belly, and an egg in the belly of the duck, and it is in the egg that my soul is.’ When the giant went away in the morrow’s day, they raised the flagstone and out went the wether. ‘If I had the slim dog of the greenwood, he would not be long bringing the wether to me.’ The slim dog of the greenwood came with the wether in his mouth. When they opened the wether, out was the duck on the wing with the other ducks. ‘If I had the Hoary Hawk of the grey rock, she would not be long bringing the duck to me.’ The Hoary Hawk of the grey rock came with the duck in her mouth; when they split the duck to take the egg from her belly, out went the egg into the depth of the ocean. ‘If I had the brown otter of the river, he would not be long bringing the egg to me.’ The brown otter came and the egg in her mouth, and the queen caught the egg, and she crushed it between her two hands. The giant was coming in the lateness [of the evening] and when she crushed the egg, he fell down dead, and he has never yet moved out of that. They took with them a great deal of his gold and silver. They passed a cheery night with the brown otter of the river, a night with the hoary falcon of the grey rock, and a night with the slim dog of the greenwood. They came home…
Returning to ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, as soon as the heroine shows the magician the unblemished egg, ‘he now had no longer any power over her, and was forced to do whatsoever she desired.’ The girl goes on to revive and rescue her sisters and orchestrate the magician’s death. In a way, then, there are two secret rooms in this fairy tale: the Bloody Chamber which represents death and the Unbloody Chamber of the egg, which represents life and power and potential. Though other fairy tale rooms, such as the Sleeping Beauty’s chamber or Rapunzel’s tower, are often seen as symbolizing a closed virginal space in which nothing at all happens until it is penetrated by male activity, we should perhaps be wary. It is dangerous to take a Freudian interpretation as an explanation. Fairy tales are usually much richer than any particular common denominator.
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 in children’s fiction 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. This keyhole has no sexual implication. 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, here 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.
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 but perhaps with some similarity to the magical egg from which the young chick hatches and sets out to explore the world. A bedroom of one’s own, for a child, is a place of self-determination in which she can be and do and imagine whatever she wants. Rooms in children’s 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 (often relations), 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. Though haunted, the room is magical and reassuring rather than scary, and Peter Boston's wonderful black and white illustration shows it as a tangle of enchanted shadows.
I adored the book so much as a child, I painted my own version of the room, complete with rocking horse, dolls' house, Russian doll, birdcage and mirror.
When Garth Nix’s heroine Sabriel comes for the first time to the house of the Abhorsen, escaping terrifying 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.' Though Sabriel cannot stay here, the house strengthens her, providing not merely physical comfort but a very necessary sense of of identity and self-knowledge.
Betsy Byars’ ‘The Cartoonist’ takes this further. The only place in Alfie’s crowded house where he can be himself is in his attic. Here he expresses himself by drawing the cartoons that are his life-blood. As long as he has his attic, he can cope with the demands of his noisy, feckless family:
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 should have the attic, Alfie’s entire personal existence – and his imaginative life – are 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.
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.’
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 own 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, nor do they represent a static no-place-and-no-time from which it is necessary to be rescued. They are miraculous, transformative spaces in which a child is protected and nourished, and from which she or he draws strength and confidence to set out into life.
The room at the top of the tower, from 'Thorn Rose', by Errol le Cain, 1977
Bluebeard, by Jenny Harbour, 1921
The Search Begins, from 'The Diamond in the Window', by Erik Blegvad
Maria's Room from 'The Little White Horse', by C. Walter Hodges
Tolly's room, by Peter Boston
Tolly's room, by Katherine Langrish
Heidi's hayloft, by William Sharp
Heid's dream, by William Sharp