Happy June! I’m going to transition into a summer of lighter fare here: houses, gardens, non-academic books, events with people! In my contrary fashion, I’m going to start this transition with a spooky short story: one of the spookiest and shortest stories I’ve ever read. Madeline Yale Wynne’s “The Little Room” was first published in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s Magazine and then in The Little Room and Other Stories (1906). It’s a story about memories and perceptions, with a lot of ambiguity balanced by (in contrary fashion) very precise details, material details.
I’ll let you read it for yourself (it’s right here), but the basic problem is whether a certain space in an old Vermont farmhouse inhabited by two old maids was in fact a china cupboard or a “little room” complete with a green Dutch door exiting to the outside and a couch “covered with blue chintz—Indian chintz—some that had been brought over by an old Salem sea-captain as a ‘venture'” and given to one of the ladies when she was at school in Salem (yes, there is always a Salem connection). This chintz was described in more detail by those who saw the little room, and not the cupboard: it was “the regular blue stamped chintz, with the peacock figure on it. The head and body of the bird were in profile, while the tail was full front view behind it.” There were also hanging shelves with leather-bound books in the room, from which one bright red volume stood out, titled the Ladies’ Album, which “made a bright break between the other thicker books.” On the lowest shelf was a pink seashell, “lying on a mat of made of balls of red shaded worsted.” Not just a mat: a mat made of balls of red shaded worsted! Can we have any doubt that such a room, such a couch, such a shell, such a mat existed? Yes, we can. The room also contained several bright brass objects, a braided rag rug, and was wallpapered with “a beautiful flowered paper—roses and morning glories in a wreath on light blue ground.” How can this room not have existed? Wynne ensures that we will never know whether it did or not, but at least it can exist in some digital form with a bit of foraging and filtering.
The green Dutch door:
On the walls: I couldn’t find the wallpaper so precisely described by Wynne so I altered the color a bit from a 1960s floral paper on Etsy (which is the best place to find vintage wallpaper) and a watercolor possibly by John Hancock from the Carnegie Museum of Art (this is a lovely painting and I’ve really mucked it up with my filtering so make sure you see the original).
On the Settee: this first fabric looks very “stamped” but it’s really going to clash with my wallpaper, the second is softer but would still make for a very vibrant room!
On the Shelves: Wynne refers to hanging shelves very particularly, not a bookcase. I think of hanging shelves as more contemporary, but there are examples from the 18th and 19th century: the shelves below look appropriate to me, although with everything on them I think they would have to be bigger. These Waverly novels look weighty, but you can see how a slim red Ladies’ Album might pop out: perhaps it was Ladies Home Journal (which used red extravagantly) rather than Ladies Album? I’ve got lots of brass objects for this digital shelf/room (although maybe I should have polished them), and I stole the ultimate shell from my husband’s study. No mat though: I looked far and wide for a mat made of balls of shaded red worsted with no success, so the shell is sitting on a throw (but I used a “faded” filter). And finally, an amazing braided rag rug, which (hopefully) will pull this very interesting room together.
So that’s my “little room,” which was fun to put together. While this little story of a little room is an amusing diversion, it’s really not just about material stuff: it’s about the truth, and that awful scenario when two people, or three or four, or more, cannot decide or agree on what the truth is. This little story is a lot more timely now than when I first read it, maybe twenty years ago: then I think we all knew what the truth was.