Safe as Houses...?
Updated: Mar 30
In my previous post I shared a little information about my current work. In order to interrogate my ideas further I wrote the following essay:
Safe as Houses...?
A troubling history of the doll's house
From a female perspective the doll's house has a problematic history.
Conceived originally as a status symbol for the European upper classes as far back as the 14th century, they were most often bestowed upon women and girls as a lavish gift by fathers and husbands, for their instruction in domestic duties and, (one may conjecture), as a temporary diversion from the narrow constraints of their lives. In 1631 Anna Koferlin, a burgher's wife from Nurnberg, made this dual purpose apparent when she put her own doll's house on public display (for a small entry fee), with an accompanying pamphlet explaining her intentions:
"It will give you a good lesson, so that when you go back home, or when God gives you your own home, you will be able to order your bodies and lives, and organise the duties of your household correctly."
It is little wonder that, 250 years later, Ibsen's heroine, Nora Helmer, is forced to cry out; "...I'm no longer prepared to accept what people say and what's written in books. I must think things out for myself, and try to find my own answer", before slamming shut the door of the doll's house and escaping to freedom.
Throughout it's history the doll's house has occupied an ambivalent status in Western culture: too frivolous to be taken entirely seriously as an art object (although it has always attracted connoisseurs and collectors), and too well-ordered and 'arranged' to offer much imaginative play value to children - who were, in any case, unlikely to have been allowed to handle the delicate contents free from adult supervision. it is an apt metaphor for Ibsen to have chosen to illustrate the plight of a middle class wife trapped into the role of an eternal child-woman, to the misery of all protagonists.
An expensive toy for women who were, themselves, the playthings and possessions of men, for much of its life the doll's house can be read as a tangible symbol of the 'gilded cage' in which so many women found themselves trapped. Perfect, idealised miniature representations of life contained within a formal structure, waiting passively for the doors to be opened so that the contents may be revealed and admired.
Some of the early cabinet and baby houses were so beautifully made and expensively equipped that they cost almost as much as a real house. Professional architects and artists were even engaged to work on them and, in Germany, by the end of the 17th century, fourteen different trade guilds were believed to be contributing to their manufacture and furnishing. Inevitably, disapproval was voiced towards the women who lavished to much time and expense upon these objects; Paul von Stetten, writing in the mid 18th century, comments: "...some went to such lengths of sumptuousness that the cost of such a property would run to 1,000 gulden and more."
It has been noted by social commentators that, however wealthy a woman may have been at this period, she was allowed to possess very little in her own right: a doll's house might be the only 'property' she could ever own.
In her book, Doll's Houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood, Halina Pasierbska regards the doll's house as "both subversive and seductive" in its ability to pull us into a miniature universe that is sanitised of all unpleasant reality. Several modern authors (especially those writing in the supernatural and horror genres), have explored this sense of uneasiness and imagined secret lives coninuing behind the painted exterior, away from prying human eyes. Even children's literature includes examples of doll's house in which Bad Things Happen; most notably Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Two Bad Mice (pub. 1904) and Rumer Godden's The Doll's House (pub 1947).
In Potter's story two mice break into a doll's house after seeing a table lavishly set for dinner - not realising that the food is made of plaster. When they discover everything is artificial they smash all the plates and vandalise the house. The bad behaviour is on a charmingly miniature and whimsical scale but, given Potter’s own home life at the time, (her domineering mother was trying to prevent the growing romance between her daughter and publisher, Norman Warne), it is tempting to read into the mice’s antics a desire on the part of the author to tear up a few things herself.
Godden’s tale is much darker and no one who has read it or watched the 1984 animated
series by Smallfilms for BBC television  will forget the shocking ending in which one of the main characters, Birdie, is lured to her death by the beautiful but evil Marchpane. This story is interesting on many levels, not least for the sophisticated plotting and sensitive handling of serious issues in a tale intended for young children. For the doll’s house aficionado, it is also amusing to see class prejudice played out even among dolls: the heroine, Tottie, is only a ‘penny wooden’ doll with painted on hair and boots; Birdie is even lower down the social scale, being a celluloid party favour from a Christmas cracker - whereas Marchpane is made of porcelain, with eyes that open and shut, and clothes that can be taken off and on again. (In real doll’s houses, a similar hierarchy operated, it appears, with poured wax dolls at the top, afforded the status of lords and ladies and allowed to sit in drawing rooms and parlours, while cheap wooden dolls waited on them as servants).
It is Birdie’s flammable celluloid that proves her undoing: jealous Marchpane contrives to start a fire using the real miniature paraffin lamps in the doll’s house and lures her to a conflagratory death. Such is Birdie’s sweet simplicity that she doesn’t seem to understand that she is burning. Poignantly, while discussing her demise, Tottie remarks; "Birdie did look beautiful in the flame!"
A trope used in The Doll’s House, and one which is also employed by M R James and others, is that the doll occupants have some kind of influence over the behaviour of their human owners. In Godden’s story the dolls come to live in the house because they wished very hard for a home of their own, and, although they cannot move by themselves, they are somehow able to persuade their human owners to place them where they desire to be. In James’ The Haunted Doll’s House (pub. 1923) the unfortunate antiques dealer, Dillet, has his sleep disturbed over successive nights as he is compelled to watch the inhabitants of his newly-acquired doll’s house act out a murder and its horrifying consequences. Dillet becomes convinced that the dolls’ dumb show offers clues to a real life crime and sets out to prove his suspicions. His investigations turn up sufficient evidence for him to wish to be rid of the house and the story ends with it banished to an outbuilding, awaiting an offer from an American collector, where the haunting will, presumably, begin again.
Hester Gorst, in her 1933 short story “The Doll’s House” takes the idea a step further, to that of actual possession. Strictly speaking, the house which the protagonist purchases at auction is an architect’s model, not a doll’s house - but there are actual instances of models being re-purposed as toys.
(There is a very fine one displayed at the Gressenhall Farm Museum, which dates from the seventeenth century and is a model of Melton Contable Hall, Norfolk. It has certainly passed down the family and been played with as a rather grand doll’s house).
There are echoes of M R James in the story but, rather than watching the proceedings from the outside, the young collector is plagued by dreams in which he is shrunk to miniature size, chasing a shadowy figure through the rooms of his model house, with murderous intent in his heart. Too late he wakes to discover that, under the house’s malign influence, he has beaten his best friend, Jack, to death.
[End of part 1]