Little Plum – Rumer Godden and Gary Blythe, Pan Macmillan, 2016 (reprint of Viking Press, 1962 edition, illustrated by Jean Primrose)
Home Is the Sailor – Rumer Godden and Jean Primrose, Viking Press, 1964
Rumer Godden might well be the goddess of doll fiction, or at least one of its most original and sophisticated practitioners. Her best-known and loved works in this genre are probably The Story of Holly and Ivy, and The Doll’s House, but she also created other settings for dolls and the children who love them. Home is the Sailor is a sequel to Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, in which a lonely English girl brought up in India is sent back to live with her cousins in a small British town and finds security and comfort by designing an authentic Japanese house for two dolls. Godden herself grew up in India, and her works for both children and adults use complex cultural references; Miss Happiness and Miss Flower even includes illustrated building plans for constructing an authentic house for the Japanese dolls.
In Little Plum, cousins Nona and Belinda Fell confront a different kind of alienation, this time of one social class, as an improbably wealthy family with a daughter their age moves in next door, but seems distant in every way. While the quiet and artistic Nona is the heroine of Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, her cousin Belinda is at the center of Little Plum. Belinda is uninhibited, immature, and even a bit aggressive. She has previously shown little interest in playing with her Japanese doll, Little Peach, but she becomes frustrated at her new neighbor’s apparent snobbery and the way that this privileged child, Gem Tiffany Jones, neglects her own doll, Little Plum. There is quite a bit of “mean girl” behavior in the story, as The Tiffany family secludes Gem and refuses to allow her to interact with other children, who naturally come to resent her. Godden describes physical fights between the girls with gory detail, presenting Belinda as a child who cannot really understand her own impulses and often expresses her feelings in risky behaviors and angry attacks. Belinda’s mother is really wonderful. Rather than attacking her daughter for failing to conform to feminine stereotypes, she communicates acceptance and love, even as she assigns consequences for Belinda’s actions.
The villain of the story is Gem’s nasty aunt, who comes to help her benevolent but weak father while Gem’s mother is in a hospital for polio patients. There are echoes of A Secret Garden and Heidi, as some characters seem to benefit by promoting illness and helplessness. At the end of the book, Gem’s mother returns as the girls and their school friends are celebrating an elaborate dollhouse version of the traditional Japanese doll festival. Mrs. Fell, assisted by the kindly and odd bookseller, Mr. Twilfit, along with Gem’s father, has planned and executed an elaborate catered affair for her daughter, niece, and friends, as well as their dolls. In the Fell household, children’s obsessions are not cute trivialities to be indulged but patronized, but rather serious and significant events.
Home is the Sailor is seriously quirky. How can you know be intrigued by the first sentence, “In the doll’s house there was not a single man doll?” Whereas in her stories of the Fell family, the Japanese dolls occasionally utter phrases only heard by one another, here we are introduced to an entire dollhouse world, one marked by tragedies that have swept away male members of the household. The setting is a coastal village in Wales, and the owner of the dollhouse is a sensitive and imaginative girl named Sian Llewellyn, who becomes obsessed with restoring order to her fractured doll family. In a second plot, which ultimately intersects with the doll story, a haughty French boy named Bernard is sent to visit his family in Wales and is forced to undergo nautical training in a school that resembles Lord of the Flies. He ultimately helps to return Sian’s doll to her, and a series of events bring back the other missing male dolls, as well. There is a doll wedding, and a doll childbirth. The latter takes place behind the scenes, but there is doctor attending, and the phrase, “We shall need plenty of hot water.” Godden’s dolls enact a broad range of human experiences and share difficult feelings with the children who own them. The poignant attachment of child and doll are free from sentimentality in these books, which are not just relics of a dated past, but deserve to be shared with readers today. The original illustrations by Jean Primrose, some of them in full color lithographs, are almost palpable. It is unfortunate that they have been replaced, presumably as too dated, in the paperback reprints.
More on Rumer Godden later!