The Doll's House, written in 1948 by British author Rumer Godden, with illustrations that were added in 1962 by Tasha Tudor, is, along with Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, a significant influence in the relatively small genre of books about dolls. Having read or reread The Doll People, Big Susan and Hitty, as well as many picture books featuring dolls and or doll houses, some themes seem to be universal: the dolls, for much of the time, are at the mercy of the children who play with them, much like children are at the mercy of the adults who parent them.
In The Doll's House, Emily and Charlotte Dane are the present owners of a motley group of dolls they have named the Plantaganet family. Tottie, the oldest doll in the family, once belonged to Emily and Charlotte'sGreat-Grandmother and their Great-Great-Aunt Laura. made of wood, she was purchased for a farthing. The sisters had chosen two other dolls to be Tottie's mother and father. Mr Plantaganet, who was rescued from the play room of some careless, cruel children, was "hurt and abused and lost" for a long time and was "still easily made afraid of being hurt or abused again. Really, you might have thought that Tottie was the father and he was the child; but there are real fathers like that." Mrs Plantaganet, who's first name was Birdie, was "not quite right in the head. There was something in her head that rattled." But, as Emily said, "There is something brave about this little doll. I don't usually like celluloid dolls," and Charlotte agreed with her. The little family was completed by Apple and Darner. Apple was as big as Emily's thumb and "plump and made of warm plush." As for the little boy doll, "Come fog, come fine, no one could be unkind to Apple." And Darner the dog, so named because a darning needle made up his backbone, was made of clipped wool with pipe cleaner legs and had "gone a little gray with the London grime." When Darner barked, which was only when he sensed danger, he went "Prrick! Prrriccckckckckck!"
Like many dolls in books, the Plantaganets are a stoic lot and they suffer their lack of a true home admirably. Living in shoe boxes is inconvenient and not at all cozy, but they manage. Emily and Charlotte save their pennies to buy a house, but they are scarce and expensive. When Great-Aunt Laura dies and the house is discovered, dusty and grimy, in her attic, it is decided that it should stay in the family and Emily and Charlotte are thrilled to receive it. When this news reaches the dolls, they beg Tottie to tell them everything she remembers of the house. The dolls ask her if there were other dolls living in the house with her. Tottie responds slowly, "I remember one. Yes, I remember her." Her name was Marchpane, and when the family asks what that name means, Tottie answers, again very slowly, "Marchpane is heave, sweet, sticky stuff like almond icing, very old-fashioned. You very quickly have enough of it. It was a good name for her." Her name and possible return is indeed an omen of things to come.
Marchpane is a beautiful doll made of china and kid (leather) and dressed in a delicate white wedding gown and her head is filled with thoughts of nothing but herself. A few important events occur between the arrival of the doll house and the eventual inclusion of Marchpane (she is sent out to be cleaned professionally and then makes an appearance at an exhibition of antique dolls) in the Plantaganet family, of which she insists she is not a member. The dolls, it seems, can make wishes and the family wishes for things they desire - like being moved to a different room or receiving a new paper parasol. While the Plantaganets wish for benign things, Marchpane wishes to be mistress of the house with the family as her servants and Emily falls prey to her desires, acting them out, much to Charlotte's unease. When Marchpane realizes how much the family loves Apple and how willful he is, she invites him to spend time with her in the parlor where she encourages his daredevil nature. As the family fights to keep him in their fold, a war of words ensues between Marchpane and Tottie. When Marchpane insists that she is not interested in little girls, the Plantaganets are thrown into confusion. As Mr Plantaganet asks, "Not like to be played with? Then what is she for? Why was she made? I should be sooner broken or thrown in a toy cupboard, than never played with at all. You are not a doll, you are a thing."
I realize that this review has gone one much longer than a short book usually warrants, but Godden has tucked so many important ideas into the sleeves of this story that I need a bit more space to ramble on about it. As they fret over the cruel power that Marchpane is exerting, Tottie encourages the dolls not to waste time hating, but to wish, noting that Charlotte is on their side. Mr Plantaganet points out that "Emily isn't, and Emily is the one who does things far more than Charlotte." To this, Tottie responds,
Emily has the ideas, she thinks of things and does them while Charlotte is far behind. If you go ahead like that, sometimes you must go wrong. Think if you were ahead, walking, on a road by yourself, and there were not any signposts. Sometimes you must make a mistake. It is easy for the one to come behing and say, 'This was wrong, that was wrong.' they only know it was wrong because Emily went there first. They know the right way. They don't have to choose. Emily often chooses wrong things but I know Emily. She has plenty of sense. We must be patient, and go on wishing. One day Emily will find out she is wrong."
This paragraph seems so encompassing of any relationship, but perhaps most of all, that of siblings who are close. The story goes on to end with a bit of sadness and an act of bravery. Marchpane gets what she deserves (and wishes for) in the end. This little domestic story can be read on more than one level. It is short enough to be a wonderful bedtime story over a handful of night or read solo by an emerging reader and makes a nice precursor to The Doll People.
Here are two older covers for The Doll's House - notice the more accurate use of the apostrophe?
This is a picture of celluloid dolls and what I imagine the doll house bed to have looked like.
It seems that in the 1980s The Doll's House was turned into a stop-motion movie. Here is a brief clip from that show.
Seeing that reminded me of one of my favorite short films from Sesame Street, which went on the air the year after I was born. I thought those dolls were amazing and was thrilled to receive a Madame Alexander Doll when I was a handful of years older. Sadly, I was told that the doll was NOT for playing with, NOT for undressing, just for admiring. When I had a daughter, I made sure she had a Madame Alexander doll to play with...
Tasha Tudor's illustrations are perfectly suited to the book, and dolls (and Corgi dogs) were always favorites of hers. For me, as a child, Tudor's illustrations were as magical and imagination inspiring as Beatrix Potter's have been for many others. The delicate, flower strewn, old fashioned world she created in her books with her watercolor illustrations was a place I wanted to visit, much like the photograph of Tudor walking (barefoot, as was her way) in her garden, above. Despite her appearance and the world she creates in her artwork, Tudor was born in 1915 and died in 2008 at the age of 92. She chose, however, to live "off the grid" before that was even a term and has often been called a "unconventional Martha Stewart" because she made so much from scratch and valued the art of crafting over buying. She raised her four children on a farm in New Hampshire without electricity or even running water for most of that time. Her last home was built by her son using only hand tools and resembles a home from the 1830s, her favorite time period, and was stocked with working antiques. Interestingly enough, not all four of her children, now in their 60s, valued and prospered from their unique upbringing. Since her death, the children have been fighting over her estate, contesting the will and even forcing a judge to rule on where her ashes could be scattered. As an article from February of this year notes, her children have said that they didn't like wearing homespun clothes, getting their hair cut by their father or living in solitude, miles away from playmates.