Requiem for a Princess, by Ruth M. Arthur, for Timeslip Tuesday

This week's time travel book is Requiem for a Princess, by Ruth M. Arthur, which is one of those nice English books that American libraries were buying in the 1960s, often illustrated by Margery Gill, and mostly deacessioned at this point, and if you are lucky you find them in library booksales.  Ruth M. Arthur is an author I'll automatically buy at such sales, though I have yet to find a book of hers I love.  I had hoped Requiem for a Princess would be that book, as it has lots of elements I enjoy (old house, old garden, time-slippishness, historical mystery, music), but sadly it never quite hooked me emotionally.

Here is the story:

When she is 15, and off at boarding school studying music, Willow Forrestser is told by another girl that she is adopted.   The shock is considerable, and in as much as she can't bring herself to talk to her parents about it, and is still weak from a nasty case of flue, she has something of a breakdown.  Happily she gets to take time off school to recuperate, and goes to Cornwall, to a lovely old house by the coast, where she builds her strength back up doing light gardening and piano playing (I feel I could use this too).

There she finds herself intrigued by the story of Isabel, a young Spanish girl adopted by the head of the family at the beginning of the 17th century (a time when the Spanish were not loved by the English).   Nobody can tell her much about Isabel, though her portrait hangs in the house and Willow sleeps in her room...just that she was assumed to have drowned when she was still young.   But Willow can't stop wondering, as she restores the Spanish Garden Isabel laid out, and walks the same paths along the shore.  And gradually she finds herself dreaming, more and more vividly, of Isabel's life back in the past.  Through her dreams, she sees the growing danger surrounding Isabel, and the nightmarish events that led the night when she disappeared from history.

The book is told in the first person points of view of Willow in the present, and Isabel in the past.  This is time travel as spectator sport--Willow is an uninvolved observer, and though there are two loose ends to Isabel's story that get tied up because of Willow, there is little meaningful interaction of past and present (it's more like two parallel stories, one present and one past, than it is time travel, but there's just enough substance to Willow's dreaming to make me able to count it.

Though both the girls are emotionally perturbed for much of the book, the book itself is not full of fraught immediacy.   There's a distance to the whole tone, with emotions told and not shown.  Willow is an interested, but somewhat dispassionate observer of her own life and Isabel's.   Isabel is a somewhat passive exile.  Why does she just accept the fact that she's stuck in Cornwall? She never suggests to anyone that a letter be written to her family in Spain. It is also not believable how isolated from the community she is.  She is not particularly emotionally convincing either.

So the beautiful setting and the pleasing historical mystery are enough to carry the story, and I think for the young romantic daydreaming 10 or 11 year old it would all be magical.....especially since it all ends well...but for the grown-up who has read lots of similar stories, there's just not quite enough here to make it one to love.

Although I did appreciate that the piece of music that gives the book its name, Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte, which Willow plays often, is one I myself played (very badly) back in the day (here is a nice piano version of it).

(Ruth M. Arthur seems rather collectible--I was surprised by how expensive some of her books, like this one, are even when ex-library.   Probably it is a boom fueled people who read the books when they were young back in the 1960s/70s, who were enchanted then, and nostalgic now....I am very glad I have copies of the books I loved most when I was young, so that I don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to find them again.....)


  1. "for the young romantic daydreaming 10 or 11 year old it would all be magical."

    I'm pretty sure I'm one of those adults who read this one back in the day and loved it, although your plot synopsis doesn't ring any bells. The cover and the author's name, however, are quite familiar.

  2. I loved Ruth M. Arthur's books when I was in elementary school! Thanks for this reminder!

  3. A Charlotte Sometimes ripoff? Just kidding. I could go for the gardening and piano cure, too.

  4. This is my favorite Ruth Arthur so far (I've only read three, though). Somehow I never read any as a child, but I'm trying to make up for that now. And I want to learn to play that piece!

    1. It's really really hard! But I will bring the sheet music down next time I come, and you can see!

  5. Her best known book is A Candle in Her Room but my two favorites are The Saracen Lamp and The Autumn People. I am a big fan.


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