First published in 1947, The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden beautifully captures the post-war Make Do and Mend era. It tells the tale of the Plantagenets, a family of dolls who reside in the London nursery of sisters, Emily and Charlotte. In this time of acute shortages, there are no dolls’ houses to be had, and consequently, the Plantagenets live crammed into two woeful shoeboxes. When their dreams of acquiring their very own dolls’ house come true, delight turns to dismay when malevolent Marchpane moves in with them, a china doll on a ruthless mission.
The Plantagenets are a motley crew, headed by the rather anxious Mr Plantagenet and his wife Birdie. Readers, take note:
‘Mrs Plantagenet was not quite right in the head. There was something in her head that rattled.’
Made of celluloid and giddy as a sparrow, she spends her days happily dusting and caring for fellow dolls Apple, Darner, and Tottie. Resident in the nursery for generations, Tottie is full of reminiscences of doll-days of yore, and in particular a beautiful dolls’ house that used to belong to the sisters’ Great-Aunt.
‘Then it happened that very autumn…’
Great-Aunt dies and her cherished plaything is bequeathed to Emily and Charlotte. At last the Plantagenets have their happy-ever-after home. Except they don’t. An old rival of Tottie’s appears on the scene, her haughty ex-housemate, Marchpane. Possessed of dazzling beauty and, to adult readers, a clear personality disorder, Marchpane is intent on dethroning Birdie as mistress of the house.
There are some charming scenes of dolls house life, in particular the coordinated scrubbing, featherstitching and painting to make the house glorious again, a miniature make-over with a thrifty post-war spirit. Imagine, a tiny table lamp lit with a real birthday cake candle!
But like all the best children’s writers, Godden laces the tale with darkness, and those who favour moral resolutions in their reading may be surprised by the ending.
A wonderfully layered read.
The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden is published by MacMillan Children’s Books, 208 pages.