The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

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I always have difficulty answering when I am asked for a single favourite of any kind. But if you asked me for my favourite childhood book I wouldn’t hesitate long before answering “The Doll’s House.”

I lost it for a long time. Not the story, that has never gone away, but I couldn’t have told you the name of the book or the author book itself.

My mother passed on many of my childhood books when she thought I had outgrown them. Her intentions were good – giving other children a chance to read them – but I do wish we had loaned them and not given them away for good.

But luck was with me . A while ago, watching the film Black Narcissus, I saw Rumer Godden’s name on the credits and it all came back to me. A wonderful film by the way.

Now, back to The Doll’s House.

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It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose, they can only be chosen; the cannot do, they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.

Tottie has been lucky. She is a small wooden doll made years ago and handed down through the generations of one family. Mr Plantaganet and Birdie have not been so lucky, but Charlotte and Emily have found them and repaired them and cared for them. Apple, a tiny plush doll and Darner, a dog made from a darning needle and pipecleaners, round out the doll family.

They are a happy family, but they are uncomfortable living in a shoebox and they dream of a dolls house, like the one Tottie remembers from years ago. It is great day indeed when that very house, dirty and dilapidated, is found. Charlotte, Emily and their mother set about repairing the house and eventually the dolls move in.

The repairs were expensive and Tottie is loaned to an exhibition to raise funds. It is there that she meets again another doll who lived in the house and was found with it. A doll that she had forgotten – Marchpane! The very name should strike terror into your heart.

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Marchpane is a beautiful doll, made of china and kid, with real hair and dressed in exquisite white clothes. But she is cold and haughty. A nasty piece of work.

“One wouldn’t want to be played with, said Marchpane. “When I was at the cleaners, people said I ought to be in a museum.”

“It is cold and dark dere,” said the walking doll again.

“It is grand and fine,” said Marchpane.

Tottie and Marchpane are both returned to the dolls’ house and the family’s peace is shattered. Tension grows as the story moves to an emotional and dramatic conclusion.

Rumer Godden writes quite beautifully.

The dolls’ characteristics are clear and distinct and rooted in their histories and what they are made of. Tottie is made of wood and she is warm and sensible; Birdie is made of celluloid and she is vague and flighty; Darner with his spine made of a needle is rather prickly …

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The story is packed full of wonderful moments: the wax doll at the exhibition who is overwhelmed when a child reaches out to touch her, ths furnishing of the dolls’ house, Mr Plantaganet’s pride when a toy post office arrives and he can go to work, Birdie singing as she dusts her new home…

But best of all is the execution, the way you can believe in the dolls as wonderful characters while at the same time accepting that they are toys being played with by Charlotte and Emily. And yes, dolls cannot choose or do, but if they wjish hard enough they may be able to influence the children who play with them. And what wonderful possibilities that presents!

“Don’t waste time hating,” said Tottie. “You must wish. I wish. We must wish.” But the wishing showed no signs of changing anything, or perhaps Marchpane was wishing harder”

The Dolls’ House has both joyful highs and moments of utter heartbreak – it really is a wonderful tale.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: April 11, 2009 at Semicolon

  2. Pingback: Sacred objects « Slightly Bookist

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