Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House (1948)

The day I consider myself too grown-up to read a children’s story, is the day I stop reading.

Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House (1948)
Illus. Tasha Tudor (1976)

I re-read this slim volume countless times when I was a girl.

Not only did I have a dollhouse, but I was one of those girls who was certain that dolls and other toys had their own inner lives.

That’s something I could easily have lifted verbatim from Rumer Godden’s story.

Tottie, a farthing doll, certainly comes across as an authority figure; I would have believed anything she told me.

“‘…long long ago, I knew a dolls’ house. I lived in it. It belonged to Laura. She was Emily’s and Charlotte’s Great-Great-Aunt. That was a hundred years ago,’ said Tottie.”

The dolls aren’t living in a doll’s house when she first describes it to the other dolls, but you can tell by the title that the house does figure prominently in the story.

Though, really, it’s the dolls that rule the narrative. And, unsurprising, for to hear Tottie talk about it, dolls are definitely superior to humans.

“‘I wouldn’t be a child for anything,’ Tottie often said. ‘First you have to be a baby, then a little child, then a bigger child, then a schoolboy or girl, then a big boy or girl, and then grown up.’

It does sound like quite a hassle, put that way. Put another way, however, it also seems something of a disadvantage.

There is no power of growing in dolls. “It is very important for dolls that children guess their right ages; some thoughtless children make their dolls vary between six and six months.

Certainly the dolls in Godden’s tale are at the mercy of the sisters who keep them. The girls are mainly well intentioned (one even knits a bootie for a doll’s injured foot, after he’s been mistreated and neglected by another human), but the world is not always kind to dolls.

Despite the fact that it does hold them in a certain esteem, as evidenced by the Exhibition of Dolls, which not only includes Tottie, but also Marchpane (the Cruella deVille of dolls), and Queen Victoria’s dolls, and many others besides.

The link between humans and dolls is a central tenet of the story, in fact.

“Did the caretaker’s child think of the wax doll? And the wax doll, in her lonely box, think of the caretaker’s child and of the finger that had touched her satin dress? Did the dolls think of Tottie’s welcome home by Emily, Charlotte, Birdie, Mr. Plantaganet, Apple, and Darner? I think they did.”

This is not a tale of complex philosophical musings, like Lindgren’s, but it is a more thoughtful story than one would expect from the cover and the summary.

“I have been thinking of thinking. And there is no knowing where it leads to, or when it will end, or where.”

I have been re-reading and re-reading, and I don’t know where that will lead to next, but I don’t expect it to end anywhere or anytime soon. The Doll’s House was a pleasure to revisit. (It also happens to be in the 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, for those who obsess about such lists.)

2014-03-17T16:11:42+00:00

10 Comments

  1. Marlene Hall September 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    I was searching for a book to suggest to our book club for next year’s selection. I had forgotten about Rummer Godden and sister, Jon Godden,s greatly memorable book, “Two Under the Indian Sun.” I recall being in my teens, and being smitten with the descriptions of the ravishing colors, colorful people, and the pungent aromas that was ever present.

    As a married woman, I touted this story to friends, and loaned it to others…. Then, in a few years, I realized I no longer had it to loan out to new friends. I hadn’t realized many of her books were written for children. I shall read them also. But right now I am ordering a fresh book “Two Under the Indian Sun”, and keeping a tether on it.

  2. Buried In Print August 31, 2012 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Amy – It’s such a sweet re-read: I hope you can find a copy!
    Zibilee – What did you think your dolls did when you were sleeping?! *grin*
    Audra – I loved In the House of Brede but I’m not sure if I’ve read any others either…
    PBurt – Summer is perfect for re-reading I think. Though there’s an argument for winter there too…
    Jenny – I’ve got to have another look to see what others of her children’s books I read, but I can’t think of any offhand.
    Debbie – Well, Tottie is NOT delightful, but the story overall is. I hope you enjoy it!
    Iris – I’m sure you’d enjoy this one. Not Lindgren, but still sweet.
    JC – I like the way that you’ve phrased that: nicely put. And how am I not subbed to your site? Consider that remedied!

  3. JC August 16, 2012 at 8:44 am - Reply

    I’ve posted about The Doll’s House recently too, although not a review. I think Godden is a great writer for children, or should I say, of children’s books that adults can enjoy too. I enjoyed your review.

  4. Iris August 15, 2012 at 3:27 am - Reply

    I had never heard of Rumer Godden before, but this sounds delightful. And also like something I would have enjoyed so much as a child, whenm like you, I used to believe my stuffed toys (I didn’t have many dolls) had their own inner life. I’ll definitely be looking out for this one.

  5. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis August 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    This sounds delightful – I must read it, just for myself – and soon!

  6. Jenny August 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    Rumer Godden’s adult fiction is hit-or-miss for me, but just about every single one of her kids’ books is amazing. The Doll’s House is my favorite one of all, and I love the Tasha Tudor illustrations. I love how she doesn’t romanticize children at all — you sometimes see them being jerks. Yay.

  7. pburt August 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I have my mother’s copy that she gave to me when I was little. Perhaps I should dig it out and reread it. Thank you for bringing back many happy memories.

  8. Audra August 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    I’m absurdly fond of Rumer Godden — but hadn’t read any of her children’s fic — I need to remedy that immediately!

  9. zibilee August 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    This sounds so enchanting, and I had never even thought about the life that dolls might have when their owners were not playing with them. Certainly a nostalgic read for you, and probably a great one for me as well! Thanks for your perfect review.

  10. Amy August 13, 2012 at 11:51 am - Reply

    Oh, gosh, I hadn’t thought about this book in decades. Now I want to reread it.

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