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Jane Feaver on Rumer Godden, The Dolls' House, Slightly Foxed Issue 82

Meet the Plantagenets

I was 6 when I was given the new Puffin edition of Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House (1947). ‘This is a novel written about dolls in a dolls’ house,’ it begins. It was the first novel I’d ever read, arriving just at the point where I’d cracked the secret pleasure of reading to myself. We lived in Newcastle then, by the railway line. By that time, I had three younger siblings. It must have been one afternoon, when the others were downstairs, that I went up to the bedroom with my book to be alone. As the eldest I carried a certain weight: I was expected to set an example, to be grown-up, responsible. But I also got to do the first things first: first, most memorably, to read a book on my own, to make the leap, unaccompanied and unmediated, into that pocket of time and space, that dream-concoction of light and heat and air, which was – though it rose inexplicably from inside me – an entry to another world.

The world of Godden’s dolls’ house was unlike the sanitized world of the reading schemes I’d been weaned on – Peter and Jane, Topsy and Tim, trips to the seaside, tidy rooms and washing the car on a Saturday afternoon. It all looked very nice, but it made the world I lived in seem wrong. Our father had long hair and a beard and thought nothing of wandering about upstairs naked. The four of us at that time shared a bath once a week. We got nits, we got worms.

Godden’s dolls’ house was a haven for dolls who weren’t especially loved or prized. They were essentially outsiders, longing to be a ‘real’ family, brought together randomly to play the recognizable parts of a household and named by the two sisters to whom they belonged as the Plantagenets: a father, a mother, a sensible elder daughter, a baby, a dog. The tone of the book was a winning one, the narrator addressing me familiarly as ‘you’, credi

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I was 6 when I was given the new Puffin edition of Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House (1947). ‘This is a novel written about dolls in a dolls’ house,’ it begins. It was the first novel I’d ever read, arriving just at the point where I’d cracked the secret pleasure of reading to myself. We lived in Newcastle then, by the railway line. By that time, I had three younger siblings. It must have been one afternoon, when the others were downstairs, that I went up to the bedroom with my book to be alone. As the eldest I carried a certain weight: I was expected to set an example, to be grown-up, responsible. But I also got to do the first things first: first, most memorably, to read a book on my own, to make the leap, unaccompanied and unmediated, into that pocket of time and space, that dream-concoction of light and heat and air, which was – though it rose inexplicably from inside me – an entry to another world. The world of Godden’s dolls’ house was unlike the sanitized world of the reading schemes I’d been weaned on – Peter and Jane, Topsy and Tim, trips to the seaside, tidy rooms and washing the car on a Saturday afternoon. It all looked very nice, but it made the world I lived in seem wrong. Our father had long hair and a beard and thought nothing of wandering about upstairs naked. The four of us at that time shared a bath once a week. We got nits, we got worms. Godden’s dolls’ house was a haven for dolls who weren’t especially loved or prized. They were essentially outsiders, longing to be a ‘real’ family, brought together randomly to play the recognizable parts of a household and named by the two sisters to whom they belonged as the Plantagenets: a father, a mother, a sensible elder daughter, a baby, a dog. The tone of the book was a winning one, the narrator addressing me familiarly as ‘you’, crediting me with the intelligence afforded ‘the chief person in it’, a small wooden doll:
Tottie knew, just as you and I know, that Mr and Mrs Plantagenet were not her real father and mother, that she had no real father and mother, unless it were that felled tree of whose wood she was made.
While I wasn’t being asked to pretend the doll was flesh and blood, I was asked to believe that she possessed the capacity to have her own thoughts. The realism of the novel is partly tethered in the narrative of the two sisters, Charlotte and Emily, who, by playing with the dolls, invest them with life. We are party to the mechanics and possibilities of the relationship between the sisters and the imagined lives of the dolls – these, after all, are the games we’d played endlessly with dolls ourselves. The narrator never lies to us. The truth we are told is that the dolls and their lives are ‘like’, in other words, real, with all the potential for happiness and disappointment that being real entails. What is real and what is unreal? Birdie, who, on the face of it, is the most disposable of the dolls – made from celluloid, from a Christmas cracker, witless and confused, wholly unsuitable, we might think, to be given (as she is) the responsibility of playing the mother – is the doll around whom this question gathers force. ‘Real things and not-real things, they seem the same to me,’ she says. ‘Do I sing with my hands and dust with my voice?’ More forebodingly, we are given an object lesson in reality not unconnected to Birdie’s fate. There is a birthday cake candle inside the dolls’ house lamp and when it is first lit up, we are shown how ‘the roses in the vase threw a tiny real shadow of themselves on the table’. The flamelight is verified as real by the ‘real’ shadow cast by the roses, even if the roses themselves are only miniature replicas. In terms of effect, as the difference between real and unreal is held up for question, so is the difference in scale. ‘You will learn that small things are not as small as they seem, nor large things as large.’ In other words, size, big or small, becomes relative to the size of the world to which we’re habituated. But in The Dolls’ House, where unusually we have sight of both the miniature world and the larger world that contains it, size is oddly immaterial, overcome as it is by the focus of the novel. What serves to animate the story are the relationships between the sisters, between the sisters and their dolls, and, most devastatingly, between the dolls themselves. Because we are largely concerned with the doll-sized world and the characters of the dolls, the stakes and consequences here, counterintuitively perhaps, are of a far greater magnitude. ‘It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll,’ the narrator tells us. Not unlike children, not unlike any number or kind of outsiders: the dolls live at the whim of whoever is in charge. Sometimes they are ‘hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost’. Weaknesses discovered in the dolls’ psychology are not unlike behaviours that can be observed in the ‘real’ world: Mr Plantagenet, originally a ‘boy doll’ dressed as a Highlander and treated abominably by his previous owners, has been rescued and repurposed to play the father: ‘He was still easily made afraid, afraid of being hurt or abused again . . . but there are real fathers like that.’ Like dolls, we are not necessarily equipped to play the parts we are given. Pretence and play and performance: how closely they are related to our ‘real’ lives. In presenting the topsy-turviness of the dolls’ relationships, the story invites us to question relationships and behaviours in general – what makes us who we are, what sustains us and what breaks us. ‘Art’, George Eliot says, ‘is the nearest thing to life.’ Its purpose might be to ignite those pathways of identification and empathy that take us ‘beyond the bounds of our personal lot’. The Dolls’ House was the first book able to show me, Eliot-style, what literature was capable of. It is just as the dolls are settling into the ‘dream house’, trying to make it work by earnestly playing their parts, that Marchpane appears on the scene. We have been warned about her. She’s a doll Tottie remembers with dread, well suited to her name: ‘Marchpane is a heavy, sweet, sticky stuff like almond icing, very old-fashioned . . . You very quickly have enough of it.’ She is a valuable china doll, spoilt and entitled, entering the house, which she believes to be hers, and treating everyone, including the two sisters who ostensibly own her, with disdain. ‘“Funny how people don’t last,” said Marchpane, yawning.’ She is terrifying because she refuses to play by the rules, doesn’t, in fact, like to be played with at all. ‘Then what is she for? Why was she made?’ Mr Plantagenet asks, and in the heat of the moment, he tells her, ‘You are not a doll . . . You are a thing.’ Marchpane behaves like an automaton, like a dictator, apparently impervious to feeling, making up the rules as she goes along. The other dolls, who are ‘like ordinary people’, quickly fall in to become her servants. While they quail, Tottie knows instinctively that they can’t afford to show how frightened they are, and she summons up her ancestry, ‘all the bravest things that were made of wood: the bowsprits and figureheads of ships, for instance, that have to dive into the sea and meet the waves: or their masts; or the stocks of rifles and of guns; or flagstaffs that fly flags high up in the air, and of her tree’. Her refusal to be cowed, her bravery, her kindness, the poetic logic of her inner life: for all these things I loved and understood her and wanted to be just like her. She takes responsibility for the other dolls and is particularly protective of Birdie (who the narrator finds ‘aggravating’), valuing rather than denigrating her unique capacity simply to be happy. Birdie is forgetful: doesn’t remember that her bedroom is now Marchpane’s, that her baby, Apple, has been appropriated by Marchpane too. The others can’t bear to watch as Marchpane, relishing Birdie’s confusion, treats her ‘like a cat with a poor little bird’. When the candle is lit in the dolls’ house a second time, something unthinkable and unimaginable happens. It is fifty years since I first read the book, but my memory of that moment is still sharp and vivid. It comes with the smell of burning hair, the flash of fire. This was not like any children’s book I’d read before, where tragedy is averted, where the worst things don’t happen. How was it possible, sitting quietly on the floor reading, to be so internally combusted? It was shocking, overwhelming. Dolls don’t cry: ‘they have to keep their tears in’, as if there’s an imperative on them not to show emotion, neither joy nor sorrow. But we know – or we know from reading The Dolls’ House – that they feel. What happens here is what happens in all great literature: the emotion is referred. We do their crying for them. This was the first book that made me cry. I was a balloon popped, a dam broken, the tears tapped like a well-spring of black ink. Though, at 6, I hadn’t yet experienced significant or conscious loss in my life, here was a foretaste of any and all the losses that were, inevitably, to come. The book held in miniature what I’d go on to find in all the books I most admire, and it was no less great for being small.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Jane Feaver 2024


About the contributor

Jane Feaver is a writer, living in London, author most recently of Crazy (2021). She is Editor-at-Large in the poetry department of Faber.

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