Brian Alderson on the magic saving of Racketty-Packetty House.
While writing about Poor Cecco
in our last number it occurred to me that there was a faint echo of some of the events in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s shortish story Racketty-Packetty House. My fulminations over The Velveteen Rabbit had left no room for any other digressions so it seemed a good idea now to give an airing to some of the activities of Ridiklis, Peter Piper, Gustibus, and Meg and Peg and Kilmanseg.
They were not always so called.
As the inhabitants of what was first known as ‘The Dolls’ House’ they were part of a substantial family of early Victorian gentry – Dutch dolls with such names as Amelia and Charlotte and Victoria Leopoldina. But time and the careless behaviour of later rentiers of the property had led to depredations. Two girls had been broken to bits and cast out; two boys were believed to have run away on account of declining fortunes, and the remaining residents had had to have their proud names changed to suit the ever-increasing shabbiness of their dwelling. Poor Leontine, who had been the beauty of the family, had had her paint licked off and her leg chewed by a Newfoundland puppy so that when she had had a new face painted on she looked so funny that Ridiklis was the only name that would do.
Gaiety prevailed however
despite everything. They had always enjoyed romping and dancing even in their wealthier days and now they found good reasons to make the best of their more unconstrained lives and they spent most of their time larking around. And that was all very well until Tidy Castle was brought in on Cynthia’s birthday – a castellated mansion that housed the Aristocracy: the Duchess of Tidyshire and an attendant family of Lords and Ladies who sat about all day. Lord Hubert, for instance, was ‘reading the newspaper with a high-bred air, while Lord Francis was writing letters to noblemen of his acquaintance…’ No holding hands and singing and dancing there.
And Nemesis came too.
That old Racketty-Packetty House was moved to a corner behind the door with an armchair stuck in front of it and was left to await the coming of a servant who was to take it out and burn it. At this point the narrator of the tale intervenes: Crosspatch, Queen of the Fairies (who figured also in three other short companion volumes to this one). She is to be the regina ex machina whom Frances Hodgson Burnett needs to rescue both the house and her story. For although the Racketties reach a fine accommodation with their posh neighbours it is only when a real Princess arrives on a visit that the faded glory of the House is seen to be an historic beauty and it and its happy go-lucky residents are carted off to a real palace.
probably accounts for the ‘nauseating whimsy’ of which Ann Thwaite accuses the Crosspatch tales, but the test which the story does pass is in the degree to which the reader is convinced by the farrago of the whole charade. Just as Margery Williams needed the clock to strike twelve to release the energies of Cecco and company, so we are led to accept Queen Crosspatch’s preliminary explanation that ‘when people are not looking at [dolls] they can
do anything they choose’. The energy and good humour of all the ‘doing’ here may not have the picaresque attraction of the travels of Cecco and Bulka but it is very fitting for the smaller domestic events of Ridiklis and company.
I first encountered
Racketty-Packetty House in a little series of Revivals edited for the true original Gollancz by Gillian Avery, whose recent death we mourn. It was accompanied in its volume by two other doll stories that bore witness first to the rootedness of the genre in Victorian times and second to Gillian Avery’s immense knowledge of what is still a neglected subject: how fiction functioned among the writers and readers of children’s books in the nineteenth century. She wrote two substantial studies of the subject as well as her editing of little-known texts from the period so that we could see what she was talking about. There were at least a dozen volumes in the Revivals series and they could well do with reviving again.
was confessedly not a ‘bibliographer’ and did not always examine the publishing history and the illustration of her subjects with a complete attention to detail. Thus it is that, in her brief introduction to Racketty-Packetty House her dating of the book to the Warne edition of 1907 neglects the fact that it was first published in New York the year before and that its coloured plates ‘printed in the same delicate colours’ as the illustrations of Beatrix Potter’s books were in fact by the American illustrator Harrison Cady. Though longer and of a slightly larger format than the Peter Rabbit books the Racketties may have appealed to Frederick Warne as a companion to that masterpiece of all doll stories The Tale of Two Bad Mice which had been published two years previously.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.
Racketty-Packetty House is available in a number of different editions from publishers including Dover Children’s Books and Create Space.