Brian Alderson takes up temporary residence in The Dolls’ House.
was, as Marcus Crouch once noted, one of our leading doll psychologists. There was, for instance, Impunity Jane (1955) the china doll, whose desire for adventure was fulfilled when she was stolen by some boys. There was Candy Floss (1960), helping Jack to run his coconut shy, but, to his and her dismay, also stolen. There were dolls doing good works: the jointed doll in Holly and Ivy (1958) and the Japanese dolls in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum (1961 and 1963).
The first to enter
the consulting room however were the mixed bunch from the Plantaganet family, the residents of The Dolls’ House (1947). They had assembled themselves over the years picking up names as they went along: Mr Plantaganet, paterfamilias, and his wife, the celluloid doll off a Christmas cracker, known as Birdie and thought to have a screw loose because something rattled in her head. And there was their little boy, a plush fellow called Apple, and their dangerous dog called Darner on account of his having been fashioned round a darning needle.
there was Tottie who, at the time of the story’s setting in 1946, was a hundred years old. She was a tiny farthing Dutch doll, but made of the best oak, and destined to be the guide and saviour of her family. She had descended to the little girls who owned her, Emily and Charlotte, from their Great-Great-Grandmother and her long life and the attention that she had paid to the changing world had given her a strength of character that matched her resilient frame. (The depiction of the dolls by Dana Saintsbury in the first edition of the book was disappointing. As a total production it was one of the best examples of its time and Saintsbury’s pretty endpapers – Tottie and her tree – and her historiated initials for each chapter are fine, but the watercolours for the five plates are indeed watery, static too with a dull lot of dolls. The American edition of 1947 – later also from Macmillan in London – did well to replace them with a near-perfect set of pencil drawings by that doll-expert, Tasha Tudor.)
The resilient Tottie
soon comes to be much needed as, half way through the story, drama sets in. The family (who were ‘on the whole very happy’) are intruded upon by the malevolent Marchpane, a smart creature in white kid with a china face. She had been a resident in the house for almost as long as Tottie but arrived only after she had been cleaned of the detritus of generations in order to be displayed at a great Doll Exhibition. Her pride, scorn for the Plantaganets, and a beauty that ingratiates her with Emily, lead to the tragic climax of the book when Birdie comes too close to the dolls’ house lamp – a birthday-cake candle – and is ‘burnt up in a flash, leaving nothing behind it’.
blows the gaff on Godden’s doll psychology. In this and later stories she needs must introduce explanations as to the relations between her doll and her human characters. Obviously we must all accept the donnée that dolls can talk among themselves and even engage in rational thought processes, otherwise there’d be no story, but Godden emphasises that ‘they cannot choose, they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’, they can only be done by’. Their dependence on their owners can only be mitigated by a noumenal concept of ‘wishing’ whereby each doll character is endowed with a capacity to try to control their fate by wishing and especially by wishing in concert if they can only organise it. Here and there in The Dolls’ House however, and especially at the climax, it becomes clear, even to Emily, that the dolls have been capable of ‘doing’, of making independent movements (the capacity for ‘self-winding’ that would later give such joy in Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child).
Godden’s apparent need to explain
her dolls’ world is a flaw in her craftsmanship and it opens up a contrast with the two doll books that have preceded it in this BfK mini-series. Margery Williams Bianco caps all in Poor Cecco by having complete confidence in both her writing and her character drawing to just get on with telling her story. Thus, for instance, the meeting with the blind man and his dog seems to fit in with events quite naturally. And Frances Hodgson Burnett deploys narrative sleight of hand by bringing in the Fairy Queen as mistress of ceremonies so that the Racketty-Packetties can enjoy their doll lives to the full. There are really too many human beings to be catered for in Godden’s stories. They get in the way of the dolls.
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.
The Dolls’ House with an introduction by Jacqueline Wilson is published by Macmillan Children’s Books 978-1-4472-8828-2, £9.99.
Poor Cecco by Margery Williams Bianco, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham is published by Dover 978-0-4864-9226-1, £10.99 pbk
Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett is available in a number of different editions from publishers including Dover Children’s Books and Create Space.