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.

19537_rackettypacketty_ill2

 

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.

 

10218011064_4

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.

download-2

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.

5412917091_636fed285f.jpg

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.

Doll House

IMG_1083

IMG_1084.jpg

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I walked past this store yesterday while running some errands. I believe this establishment did a stint on Lexington Avenue, where I would occasionally admire the wares in the window. A number of years ago it moved to East 78th Street, oddly enough, in a storefront where I once bought high-end vintage clothing. I was pleased to see it hadn’t disappeared. While it isn’t a block I find myself on too often, when I do I like to take a few moments have a look in the window. (It is next to Orwasher’s Bakery and I have to tear myself aware from the temptation of the bread and bagels in their window – yesterday I was only saved by the line of people more or less going out the door!) However, I will say I have a complicated relationship with dollhouses.

I had a nice dollhouse when I was a kid – it was about the size and shape of the one top left, sort of a two story horizontal model. It was handmade, like these, but unlike the one indicated it was closed on three sides, with a cheerful exterior in some detail, although nothing like this intricate yellow number above. It was white with light blue trim.

I both loved it and was somewhat frustrated by it. For one thing, I wasn’t actually much of a doll playing child. (Barbies were the exception and they were a creative endeavor for me – I hope to consider those in a subsequent post.) I do not believe I actually had dolls which were the inhabitants of said house. Scale was issue – you have to sort of figure out what works in proportion to the size of your house and furnish and inhabit accordingly. I purchased furniture over time, but it was expensive and I was not good at making my own. Something about it was a bit intimidating, and I never embraced just playing with it. It somehow didn’t inspire creativity in me. I would set it up and marvel at the tiny pieces admiringly – periodically our cat Snoopy would crash into it, and decide it was a splendid place for napping and everything would need arranging again. (I was a bit annoyed, but never one to deny my cat any pleasure even then.) I would have loved to electrify it – to me that would have been the height of fascinating – have lights I could turn on and off, but although I saw such things I had no idea where to start with such a project.

The idea of miniature worlds continued to fascinate me. I went through a long terrarium stage as a child. I was stuffing dirt and plants in every container I could get my hands on with varying degrees of success. As an adult I have considered recreating some of those terrariums and photographing them. Climbing inside those little, interior worlds of my own creation and sharing my bird’s eye perspective. Kim and I talk occasionally and ongoing about the ideal miniature town, most likely to be given life through his drawings someday than anywhere else. It will have an elaborate train set up and jolly houses like the yellow mansion above. I briefly went through a stage of considering taking on a dollhouse again as an adult and approaching it more organically and creatively, making the furniture and shaping the interior less inhibited by the conventions of scale and reality. My own dollhouse was long given away however and the issue of space in a cramped apartment made it unattractive to pursue.

I was greatly under the spell of Rumer Godden’s book The Doll’s House which, if you are not familiar with it already, is a juvenile chapter book about the Doll family. It is a bit terrifying actually, with an awful, proud doll named Marchpane which is introduced into the lives of the happy Doll family – ending in the death of one of the celluloid dolls by melting! Oh my. I bought myself another copy of it a few years ago and can’t lay my hands on it right now, but found it almost every bit as frightening all over again when I read it. (In researching this I discovered she is also the author of the novel Black Narcissus, on which the somewhat creepy and alarming film with Deborah Kerr is based. Makes sense!)

download-2.jpg

The sight of a great dollhouse, such as the Stettheimer one at the Museum of the City of New York which I think of as the ultimate version in some ways, still sets my heart racing and the wheels turning in my head. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death created by Frances Glessner Lee is another such perfection, although her intention in creating them was forensic study rather than creativity or play. Fascinating! I realize that somehow my childhood dollhouse experience was somewhat stillborn and it still itches at the back of my brain. Perhaps this toy collector will have a chance to travel down that particular road still.