Catharina van Bohemen

Author of ‘Mother and Son’

When I was a child, I read fairy tales. I liked ones about girls, even though they were often a bit feeble – they were good girls, but they didn’t do much apart from get married. Plus they always had golden hair. I was a good girl and a bit feeble: I wore spectacles, could always feel the pea beneath the mattress, and my hair was straight and brown. I didn’t do much either. I watched.

There was usually a castle in a fairy tale and often a forest. We lived in a new house, but if you climbed over a stile, there was a small, dark forest behind the house and a castle on the other side – a huge house with dark corridors and closed doors. An old lady, who could have been a queen or a witch, lived there in a high brass bed. She had wispy white hair, wet blue eyes, and said, ‘Fancy.’ She was looked after by a cook, a ‘companion’ (which my mother said meant almost-but-not-quite a friend), and a gardener called Ted who also fed the chooks. I loved her house. If you opened a door, it was as if someone had just left – you could faintly smell smoke or roses, there was music on a grand piano and dried flowers in the fireplace, and old invitations leaned against photographs of ladies in long dresses with large hats.

I loved (and still do) stories about what people did in their houses – they might have been vicarage children or the Fossil sisters in the Cromwell Road. They usually lived in England but sometimes they fell off their swings in America, like Katy, or were trying to be writers, like Jo in Little Women. Some stories had magical houses, so you might step not just into a wardrobe but another country … even another time … or where tiny people lived secretly and borrowed from ‘human beans’.

I never read a book about a girl and a house in New Zealand until I was about eighteen, when I read ‘Prelude’, where Kezia wanders around her deserted house, and ‘At the Bay’, where the little Burnell girls spill out of their beach house to swim at the beach. I read those stories to my daughters, who thought it was perfectly normal to read about girls who lived in Wellington and had holidays at Days Bay, even if it was in ‘the olden days’.

Now I have a granddaughter who’s eight and we read to each other. She loves girls and boys, but mainly she likes anyone with a good idea who escapes from their house to do wild things that often go wrong – like Ivy and Bean – or who are followed home from school by hippopotami, or who blow bubbles and cause pandemonium. She loves chaos and Queens who say, ‘Off with your head!’    

I was eleven when I went to boarding school. It was a long way from home, and I missed my family very much. The school was a grey stone building with shiny wooden stairs. Each morning as we clattered down to breakfast, I’d look at the pictures on the walls. Many were of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Sometimes they looked at each other, sometimes he leant forward to grab a flower, or a lamb, or his cousin John. Sometimes Mary held a book. The pictures reminded me of my mother because she always seemed to be holding a baby and there was usually a brother or sister nearby – and because she thought reading was so important. Looking at those pictures made me look at others. Years later, when I first saw The Ponsonby Madonna, I remembered those lonely days at school. I thought how art has made my world bigger and more mysterious.

My daughter, Olivia, painted me when she was fifteen. I’m still left-handed and still wear spectacles, but my hair isn’t dark any more. I love writing letters, but sometimes I write essays about writers or artists or journeys.

Letter to Susan

Catharina's blog here

Books referred to:
Noel Streatfield – The Vicarage Children
Noel Streatfield – Ballet Shoes
Susan Coolidge – What Katy Did
Louisa May Alcott – Little Women
CS Lewis – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Mary Norton –The Borrowers
Katherine Mansfield short stories
Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall – Ivy and Bean series
Margaret Mahy – The Boy Who Was Followed Home
Margaret Mahy – Bubble Trouble
Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass