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That Was Then, This Is Now: Requiem for a Princess

requiem for a princess ruth m arthur coverThis was a favorite of mine that I read many times over many years. It seemed like such a sophisticated and dramatic book to me, and it was obviously, even then, not a popular book. It had a dull, matte, hard cover, but its title popped out T me from the shelves of the books at the library: Requiem for a Princess by Ruth M. Arthur. Requiem. Such a romantic and grown-up sounding word. I didn’t even know what it meant*, but I’m sure the title is what attracted me initially, and then I continued to reread it for the story.

Here’s what I recall of the story: A girl goes to live in a possibly isolated house along the coast. Some mysterious things happen that make her think of ghosts and she finds an antique necklace buried in an old garden by the house. Holding the necklace gives her a feeling of connectedness to someone who lived there long ago — possibly a Spanish princess. There is a strong time-travel or historical and supernatural element to the story. I found it slightly spooky, but beautiful. The most vivid image that has stayed with me is that she wakes up from a “dream” about a shipwreck (or something in the ocean) and is … wet!

I’m eager to reread this and see if it still stands up as a well put together story. I’m already thinking that it’s along the lines of Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty.

I’ve finished the book after just one day — a feeling I remember from the first times around. I kept being pulled back to the story. But I also recognize that this is another one of those slightly strange, old-fashioned, British books that I favored that none of my friends did. The copyright for this is 1967. I was very surprised to find that I had forgotten entirely the main theme of the story, the whole reason for its being!

Willow is an only child who is a talented pianist, is very happy, and attends boarding school (no wonder I loved this). She genuinely likes her parents. While in the infirmary (“the san”) with a bout of influenza, a classmate reveals to her that she is actually adopted. This revelation is like a punch in the heart to Willow, and she becomes depressed, distracted, shaken to her very core. She doesn’t tell her parents she knows the secret, but it’s all she can think of and she can barely look at them. Ultimately her mother takes her off to Cornwall to recover for a few weeks at Penliss, an old home that takes in guests. After a few weeks her mother leaves, giving Willow a much needed break from her family. She is drawn to the seaside home and the owner of the house and fits right in.

Now, as a modern reader I had a hard time wrapping my head around this. She just left school for apparently months on end? And her mom and dad didn’t mind letting her be there on her own with someone they just met? Combined with the 1967 lack of technological communication, Willow really is just left to have a restorative retreat. While there she becomes fascinated by a portrait of a young woman, Isabel, and learns that she was an adopted daughter of the family in the 1500s. She identifies strongly with Isabel, especially once she learns that the was a Spaniard and an outsider, except to those who lived at Penliss and loved her.

While restoring the “Spanish garden,” Willow discovers an old tin necklace and recognizes it at once as the necklace Isabel wore in her portrait. She begins wearing it and that night she dreams vividly of Isabel. Her dreams show her all of Isabel’s life and times and how she arrived at Penliss. Basically, she is living Isabel’s life at night and she can’t wait to find out what happens to her, even though she knows it will be a sad end. I found myself just as caught up as Willow was in wanting to find out Isabel’s fate.

So when I started this, I thought that the dream life/living Isabel’s life would lead me to think of A Great and Terrible Beauty in terms of a supernatural equivalent. However, as I read it reminded me very much of Jennifer Donnelly’s incredible novel, Revolution (a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten book of 2011). Both books blur the lines of dream and reality and flashbacks, both have a rich historical setting which is not American (Spanish Armada and French Revolution), both feature a protagonist with a deep love of and connection to music, and both are stories where two people are connected over time. If you’ve already read Revolution, why not give Requiem a try? And if you haven’t read Revolution, be sure to give it a try, too.

There were definitely some dated elements to the story, but I didn’t find it hard to overlook them. I felt like the main story of her life becoming intertwined with that of the girl from hundreds of years ago was still compelling. (Curiously, I had forgotten both a very sad part of the story and the very neat ending.)

If you are interested in Willow’s quest to figure out how she feels about being adopted but would like something more contemporary, try checking out some of the titles on the Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults ist, What Makes a Family? If you interested in the historical aspect, try Michael Cadnum’s Peril on the Sea, which is about a teenage boy sailing with an Englishman into the naval clash that was the Spanish Armada.

It was definitely a pleasure to reread this! Join me next month when I’ll be rereading And Both Were Young by Madeleine L’Engle, first published in 1949.

— Sarah Debraski, currently reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

* A requiem is a piece of music associated with death or mourning. In Willow’s case she masters Ravel’s Pavana for a Dead Princess, which she feels connects her to the Spanish princess, Isabel.

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Sarah Debraski


  1. I was trying to figure out why this book looked so familiar, when I know I never read it. I see it was illustrated by Margery Gill, who illustrated my beloved older copy of Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper. Which is also set in Cornwall–perhaps that was Gill’s specialty?

    I look forward to your post about And Both Were Young, including which edition and cover you feature.

    • The line drawings reminded me as well of another book I loved-Pennington’s Last Term. It seems like those illustrations were not that uncommon. It’s interesting you mention the edition of And Both Were Young because I do have comments about that!!

  2. Allison Tran Allison Tran

    I love this post! I can’t believe I never read this book- it sounds like exactly my cup of tea. I think my neighborhood library must have had a rather sad book buying budget, because as a kid/teen in the 80s/early 90s, I read a ton of books that were published in the 50s and 60s… outdated, but I loved them!

    Anyway, if I ever come across this book, I’ll definitely pick it up. Glad you spotlighted it!

    • Thanks Allison! I would love to think folks might pick up this oldie but goodie now. You should see if you can ILL it!

  3. Mary Meyer Mary Meyer

    I was just searching for the name of this book and was directed to this page. I am so thrilled to be able to reconnect with my teen self. I just finished a book with a similar feeling, “Beswitched” by Kate Saunders. Quite enjoyable.

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