My copy of this novel is one of a few childhood books that had come down from my parents’ loft several years ago; I kept it because I am still interested in Godden’s writing. When Virago reissued a number of Godden’s works in 2013, I heard a discussion on the radio where someone said that Godden’s novels were often set in enclosed communities and that her children’s novels about dolls’ houses were an example of this. It is pleasing to think that there is a thematic connection between a novel such as this and one such as Black Narcissus.
The novel concerns a family of dolls including Tottie Plantaganet, a Dutch doll (“Dutch dolls are scarce now, but Tottie was made a long time ago when they were plentiful[.]”) and the children Emily and Charlotte Dane, in whose nursery she lives; she had previously lived with the children’s great-grandmother and great-great aunt. The children acquired the other members of the family in various ways: Mrs Plantaganet was once part of a Christmas cracker.
Mrs Plantaganet was not quite right in the head. There was something in her head that rattled[….] She was altogether gay and light, being made of cheap celluloid, but, all the same, nicely moulded and joined and painted.
An element of unease is introduced to the story when Mr Plantaganet’s history is recounted. The reader is warned that:
It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they 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.
Mr Plantaganet had been stripped, drawn on and chewed, and left in the bottom of a toy cupboard for an intolerably long time before being rescued and carefully restored by the Dane children.
He could still not quite believe he was Mr Plantaganet. He was still easily made afraid, 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.
This seems to me as good a description of the aftereffects of trauma as one might expect to find in a book for young children.
Tottie has a solidity of character derived from the wood of which she is made:
Tottie was made of wood and it was good wood. She liked to think sometimes of the tree of whose wood she was made, of its strength and of the sap that ran through it and made it bud and put out leaves every spring and summer, that kept it standing through the winter storms and wind.
Her woody nature is something that Tottie often contemplates when she needs to reassure herself.
The dolls live in a pair of shoeboxes, easily knocked over and draughty in the winter. Dolls’ houses are hard to come by, but Tottie remembers the house that she once lived in, when she was looked after by the present children’s great-grandmother. When a relation dies, the house is found in an attic and sent to the children. It is in a poor state: “the blue tin stove was rusty and so was the bath, the mangle was stuck, some of the kitchen chairs were broken and the nicked-round blankets were grey with mildew.”
The children receive a sampler along with the house. I liked this passage of subtle feminism from Tottie:
‘…[S]ometimes, most times, the stitches are very fine indeed. Do you remember, in The Tailor of Gloucester,’ asked Tottie, ‘when it says “the stitches were so small — so small, that they could only have been made by mice”? Well, the stitches in samplers look like that, but they were not made by mice,’ said Tottie. ‘They were made by little girls; and hours and hours of stitching went into them. […] I feel glad that little girls do not have to make them now,’ said Tottie.
The house is restored with care by the children, and the Plantaganets move in. But once they are content, the children are sent a previous inhabitant of the house – a vain, snobbish doll called Marchpane who is excessively proud of the fine materials from which she is made. The eldest Dane child decides that the Plantaganets are to be Marchpane’s servants, with the exception of Apple, Tottie’s brother-doll.
When Marchpane reveals that she does not like being played with:
‘You are not a doll,’ Mr Plantaganet cried; he had forgotten to be frightened. ‘You are a thing.’
It is only after Marchpane’s inattention to Apple causes a tragedy to occur that Emily decides to send her to a museum, where she is happy to be admired and not played with. The Plantaganet family return to the house to live much as they did before Marchpane’s arrival, albeit lacking perhaps the most loved one among them.
I enjoyed re-reading this novel much more than I expected I would: there is a strong moral message about not being dazzled by finery and the dignity of good, solid materials like wood; and there is melancholy and and an element of terror as well as some sugary pleasantness. I also enjoyed the insight into children’s culture in the post-war era, where it seems that toys were as likely to be repaired as discarded and where several generations of the same family may have played with them; where, therefore, toys would have been less ephemeral and subject to fashion than they often are now.