Doll House Drama

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I scrape through the remainder of the available adult fiction of Frances Hodgson Burnett I am beginning to turn to the juvenile works. The first I picked up was one I had never heard of called Racketty Packetty House. In researching it I discovered that while I may never have heard of it the book has not been moldering in obscurity – there are more editions than I can count available online – ancient, new and all between – and it would seem it has been continuously in print since its inception in 1906. It is what I think of as an early chapter book for children, too long for a single sitting, novella length.

As I have written in prior posts, our gal Frances was prolific beyond belief and she was clearly churning out her popular juveniles while writing the novels and keeping magazines supplied with stories. (And turning all of the above into plays and ultimately films! My posts on her at this point are too numerous to list and all could be found by searching my site with her name however they start here and I discuss the films a bit here.)

I guess I should warn anyone reading this as a review that there are what could be considered spoilers in it so you may want to come back when you are done reading the story.

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The book contains the ingredients of a children’s classic – anthropomorphic dolls and animals (I especially like that the family pets bring gifts and apologize for their youthful indiscretions of chewing on body parts and a mouse gentleman brings an offering of wood shavings for dinner one evening) with a princess and a few fairies thrown in for good measure. I read the electronic version (I downloaded it on something called Google Play) and was deprived of illustrations which impacted my experience of it. I think good illustrations could really help sell it and looking around online after the fact I believe this is true. (There are also some quite hideously illustrated volumes, with all due respect, mostly of more recent vintage.) I believe the illustrations I am sharing are from the original publication or at least a contemporaneous one in Hodgson Burnett’s lifetime. If the early editions were less expensive and I had more bookcase space I would want to pick one up.

 

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Ridiklis whose leg was chewed off by the dog and cat in their unbridled youth – friends now and they bring offerings such as string to the doll family.

 

The story is of two dollhouses in a nursery, a dilapidated old one and a shiny new one, the story told from the perspective of a watchful fairy as one is cast aside and shoved in the corner while the other takes center stage and the lives of the doll families within. The new dolls are snooty and look down their noses at the old, ragged dolls – these poor dolls however are jolly and know how to have a good time despite their indigence. The beautiful Lady Patsy doll shows up on the scene and she and Peter Piper (antic ringleader of the poor dolls) and she fall in love.

Funny how all Hodgson Burnett’s tropes are remade for this kid’s story! The poor but worthy (and jolly despite their poverty) find love and are ultimately elevated, financially, socially, in the end. (As I read online reviews this seems to be the primary gripe about her as an author – if you want realism you have gone to the wrong woman I say! I wrote about some of those tropes here and here.) Interesting to me is that she makes the human child owner of said dolls decidedly unlikable – she is a selfish nasty bit of business. Frances Hodgson Burnett did not shy away from portraying unpleasant children.

However, the real reason I decided to write about this story today is that I cannot help but feel that this story planted the seeds for two other significant children’s stories. One I have written about previously and is called The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden. (That post can be found here.) Godden’s book, a similar chapter book for about the same age group, is a classic in its own right. There is a striking similarity in the lives of the dolls and the in-fighting and rivalry between them. That book has a horrific fire in it and the image remained stamped on my memory for years! (Another hugely prolific author, she wrote the book the film Black Narcissus was based on.) The threat of fire hangs heavily over this story as the Racketty Packetty home is perpetually being threatened with being burned as trash and is only saved on several occasions by the hard working fairies.

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This leads me to the second and more famous story I am fairly certain found genesis in this book, The Velveteen Rabbit. Several key elements make me feel that Margery Williams had this story in the back of her mind when she published it in 1922. First there is the old much-beloved toy versus the new toy/s story-line which is integral to both books. Then there is the rather specific plot device of scarlet fever – in the case of the velveteen rabbit it is how the rabbit meets his corporeal end after helping to nurse the boy through the illness, and in this volume it is the wealthy dolls which all fall ill with it after the irresponsible child in charge gives them all scarlet fever and does not trouble herself to make them recover. They are in turn nursed by the poor dolls and become friends after that. Margery Williams throws in a fairy at the end to help out as well.

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From The Velveteen Rabbit, original illustration by William Nicholson

 

Unlike these two latter stories, Hodgson Burnett stops short of the indelible horror of the toys being burned as is the denouement of the other two books. (An image of the celluloid doll catching fire in the Godden book may have inspired my overall fear of the frailty of celluloid which I once penned a post about here. I didn’t read The Velveteen Rabbit until I was an adult but am quite sure it also would have scarred me for life.) Instead her toys are rescued by a visiting princess – a very Burnett ending indeed.

Grace Harlowe, the Automobile Girls and the Moving Picture Girls Novels

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: So I am going to go way off my usual course and take a moment to discuss some early 20th Century series books I have been reading over recent months. Thanks to Project Gutenberg and the availability of some of these books online, I have been able to read many more of these than I ever would have been able (or could have afforded) to do otherwise. I started some of this reading with the Honey Bunch books, but was buying the books which was becoming expensive and taking up considerable room. (I wrote about those in May in my post Honey Bunch.)

I began my online reading adventure with the Grace Harlowe books, first the four volumes covering her high school years and then another five taking place when she and her friends head to college. I have been unable to locate the six books that take Grace to Europe during WWI or the ten devoted to adventures out west, although I would love to at least sample them. The volumes I read were all written by a single author, Josephine Chase, under the name Jessie Graham Flower. (I believe some of the later ones were written by others.) Out of the three series I am talking about today, the adventures of Grace Harlowe were the best written. (I would happily scoop up the remaining books if I could find them.)  Grace and other characters are well define – Grace is sort of a girl’s Frank Merriwell. She is generous, smart and, even when it is at great personal cost, always does the right thing; she is noble. As a result, even those who start out hating her ultimately become her ardent defenders.

These books commence in 1910 and the last of Grace’s pre-war stories is published in 1917. This means it was written in ’16 and while war was on the horizon for the United States, we weren’t in it until April of ’17. Grace Harlowe is very much a young woman of her time, striving toward being a modern woman. However, they are careful with the character, and the most strident ideas – women voting, driving – are expressed through one of her close friends. In that way, Grace can remain a model for everyone. (Grace likes to run and that raises eyebrows – even riding a bike was still strange and questionable for women, as was attending college.) It is an interesting and sobering reminder that the move toward greater freedom and independence for women was not at all a straight line forward. Women were unsure of this path.

A bit more slapdash, but very charming nonetheless, are the six Automobile Girls books published between 1910 and 1913. Written under the name Laura Dent Crane and published by the Henry Altemus Company. I am very glad these have not been lost to the sands of time. Plucky, poor sisters Barbara and Mollie Thurston become friends with the wealthy Ruth Stuart who owns the fabulous motorcar christened Mr. Bubble. The sisters are fatherless and Ruth without a mother, but Ruth has an Aunt Sallie who chaperones the driving adventures. Ruth driving and the girls alone, even with Aunt Sallie in tow, draw considerable consternation throughout these stories. The tension between being a nice girl, but independent and becoming freer, is evident here too. Unlike Grace Harlowe, Ruth Stuart, while generous, very lovable and smart, does not need to embody propriety too – Babs Thurston balances her out somewhat – supplying some of the grit and simpler qualities and values of the time. (I found a postcard which, in a bizarre way, almost illustrates these books and can be found at Buster.)

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Pushing forward a tiny bit is the Moving Picture Girls series of seven books published between 1914 and 1916 by the Stratemeyer Syndicate under the name Laura Lee Hope – the famous pseudonym of the author of the Nancy Drew series. This series depicts the story of the DeVere family, father Hosmer and daughters Ruth and Alice, as they are drawn into the world of silent films in the making. The father, a stage actor, is initially forced into silent films due to a throat ailment (one that does not ever seem to clear during the course of the books) which leads to his daughters acting in them as well. There is a great deal of discussion about stage theater and vaudeville and movies – and the need to justify films as legitimate and those who make them not necessarily “improper” is ongoing.

This series – presumably written by numerous people – is a bit more uneven and the characters have less definition. However, the enormous charm of this book is the contemporaneous descriptions of the making of early films which they take great pleasure in describing. The head of the troupe, Mr. Pertell, takes the Comet Film Company on all sorts of locations and, aside from the occasional non-film related mystery, there are film patents to be protected and even other companies trying to steal shots of the Comet players at work. While this is less pointed about women (there is a bit of a line drawn between these two ‘good’ girl daughters acting and the vaudeville actresses also in the troupe) and their emergence, these cover the changing world as represented by film in its infancy here. It was a time when a couple of hundred dollars and some pluck and you too could set up in the film business.

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As we now know from history, 1917 comes and WWI changes everything, and the sort of wonderful emerging world of the infant 20th century is quickly shaken with massive changes and the world charges forward. For me these books are a portrait of that very vibrant incubation period before the war and especially revealing to see women finding their sea legs in a bold new world.