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Under The Covers

The literary significance of the bed

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Recently, I decided to move the beds in our house. I wanted to make space in our bedroom by moving our old king-size bed into our children’s room now they have all left home, where it would become a guest bed. My partner and I would sleep in a smaller double bed and have more room for books and doing yoga on the floor. Only I hadn’t factored in what a significant role our bed played in my working life. And I began to wonder, how much do beds feature in other writers’ lives? Do they, like me, often write in bed? And to wonder about the role of beds in literature.

With much huffing and puffing we began our task. It was more arduous than we’d imagined, involving Phillips screwdrivers, Allen keys and other tools impossible to put your hands on when you most need them.

It also involved smashing apart a joint that was reluctant to be unscrewed after so long. The bed seemed not to want to move. It certainly didn’t want to be dismantled. And who could blame it after providing a shelter and a base for us, and for our children and grandchildren for so long, as well as a place for me to work? Didn’t we feel in the slightest bit grateful to it?

Eventually we did shift it, creaking and groaning (us not the bed), in bits to the big bedroom, and, with more swearing, put it together again. We then moved the newer double bed to our room and the cheap kids’ bed to the smaller bedroom and things seemed more proportionate.

However, I soon discovered that the mattress on the new bed was uncomfortable, the bed frame was too short, the headboard had gaps in it where the old one had been solid. The bed made the wrong noises, not the creaks I was used to. I never knew I had become so attached to the bed I’d slept in for most of my adult life, or that changing it would feel so unsettling. I couldn’t sleep in this strange new bed. I know, I know, I have become set in my ways. But not only couldn’t I sleep in it. I couldn’t write in it.

For years I have relied on my bed as a place to write when sitting at a desk becomes uninspiring or when being surrounded by people in a library or café too noisy. I am a cold-water swimmer. I rely on my bed to warm me up after a swim. I pull up the duvet, lean against the pillows and write, no matter what time of day. Sometimes I wake in the night and write into the small hours. I often write early in the morning, before I hear the neighbours’ footsteps scrunch on the gravel as they leave for work and before the cockerel in the garden at the end begins to crow. In this new bed, something wasn’t right. The words would not flow.

I was suddenly curious — if I felt like this, did other writers feel attached to their beds, not only for sleeping and dreaming in, but for writing too?

Writing in bed might sound indulgent, or even lazy, but it apparently has an honourable literary heritage. According to Robert McCrum writing in the Guardian, Edith Wharton, Winston Churchill, Colette, and Mark Twain famously wrote in bed. He adds that Monica Ali revealed to him recently that she prefers to write in bed. He goes on to say ‘If you write in bed in the early morning (as I do occasionally) you occupy an intriguing part of consciousness, somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness. Part of you is still in the shadowy cave of dream world; part of you is adjusting to the sharp brightness of reality. The mixture is fruitful and often suggestive.’

This rang true with me and is beautifully put. Certainly, I have always found, like McCrum, writing the minute I wake up helpful. Your mind is clear, you have your first coffee to look forward to, your dreams are still providing a kind of compost for your ideas, a fertile mulch for fresh creativity.

Marcel Proust, who I mentioned in a previous article about reclusive writers, apparently retired to his bed to write in later life in a room with cork-lined walls. That is a bit extreme, something more appropriate to a real recluse, or to someone who has no choice but to write in bed for health reasons. But Carrie Bradshaw, the (albeit) fictional writer of the Sex and the City column in the series of the same name, made writing while sitting on the bed the epitome of cool in the early noughties.

I asked writers on Twitter whether they wrote in bed. A poet responded, saying he does it all the time because it means he gets down what he would’ve forgotten by morning. This is another advantage — when you wake with a brilliant idea, you don’t have to get up to write it down.

However, other writers are more ambivalent. One fiction writer told me she did it for the first time recently. It helped her get through a plot point that she wasn’t sure about. But she said she won’t be doing it on a regular basis. If it works, why is she reluctant to do it again?

Another said writing in bed would keep her awake as writing stimulates her imagination so much. And yet another that the garden is the place where she gets her best ideas, not her bed.

So it seems beds divide writers. Perhaps because some prefer to keep beds as a sacred place, reserved for sleep – and possibly other recreational activities – rather than work.

But beds can be so much more than a place to sleep and may even become characters themselves. The bed in ‘The Princess and the Pea’ is a signifier of class, identifying a true princess by whether she can feel the pea tucked under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds of eiderdown. The bed becomes a place of survival for Scheherazade in tales from The Thousand and One Nights. She relates stories to her husband in bed every night, leaving him with a cliffhanger so he’ll want to hear the end, to stop him from killing her as he has all the other women he’s slept with.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl has Charlie Bucket’s grandparents – all four – living out their days in the same bed. In a sense, the bed is both a place of beginnings, – babies are, after all, often born in them – and the ultimate home, a place for people to end their days, especially in Victorian literature. Marty South’s father in Hardy’s The Woodlanders takes to his bed, convinced that when the tree outside his bedroom window falls it will be the death of him. In Stephen King’s Misery, the writer Paul Sheldon is trapped in a bed by the horrible Annie Wilkes. And, come to think of it, I had my poor captive teenager, Jez, tied to a bed in my novel Tideline.

The bed can be both a place of escape then, and of entrapment.

Our bed has become a place to convene when our children come home. My best conversations with my daughters about their worries and dreams take place there. We plump up the pillows, get under the duvet and talk. Sometimes my son joins us when he is home, sensing a reconvening of the family dispersed long ago. More recently, my granddaughters come to our bed in the morning so that their parents can have a much-needed lie-in. We open presents here on one another’s birthdays and stockings at Christmas. It’s also the place I have my best conversations with friends. You can have a more private and intimate one-to-one in bed than in a café or a kitchen or round the dinner table.

I hadn’t fully realised that writing in bed was dependent, in part, on which bed. For me at least, it must contain some history, unconscious memories, familiarity, and a complete sense of security. That’s why it isn’t possible to write in my new bed. I have now followed my old bed into the guest room and get into it when I need to write, and the ideas flow again when I am there. Luckily. Because while I am happy to change rooms to write, the bed definitely doesn’t want to move again.

Penny Hancock is author of the novels Tideline, The Darkening Hour, A Trick of the Mind, and I Thought I Knew You. She is also a feature and short-story writer.

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