Toy Stories

Four Dolls: Impunity Jane, The Fairy Doll, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Candy Floss – written by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Pauline Baynes
Greenwillow Books, 1983

Rumer Godden, an author of books for both children and adults, has had a resounding influence on all modern doll fiction, from Ann M. Martin’s The Doll People, to Rebecca Caudill’s The Best-Loved Doll to Sara O’Leary’s Gemma and the Giant Girl. In 1983, four of her best-known short novels were collected in one volume; the original books were published between 1955-1960.  Each story reenacts the central dramas of all her doll works.  Dolls cannot truly come to life unless a child understands and communicates with them.  Dolls have positive magical effects on children’s inner lives, but toys can also be malicious and destructive.  Girls are often the principal actors in dolls’ lives. However, sometimes boys can participate, too.

Impunity Jane is a dollhouse-sized doll who has earned her name by virtue of her sturdiness. She can apparently be dropped anywhere and still not break. (It’s unlikely that a doll would be given a name, derived from a noun which would be unknown to almost all readers, anything like this today!). The book spans the years from the turn of the twentieth century to the earlier decades of television, although Pauline Baynes’s drawings of children in flared pants seem to bring the stories into the nineteen-seventies or eighties. Several artists have illustrated the original editions of these books; I find these to be somewhat dissonant, a little bit modern, for the tone of the stories, but this is subjective. 

Generations of girls, all with names beginning with “E,” have owned Jane and her dollhouse, but when Ellen inherits Jane, things don’t seem to go well. Ellen clearly lacks the gift of doll-person communication: “Dolls, or course, cannot talk.  They can only make wishes that some people can fee.”  Ellen is not one of those people. Godden isn’t particularly judgmental about this fact.  But when Ellen’s male cousin, Gideon, arrives, it becomes clear that playing with dolls is not exclusively a feminine domain. 

Sadly, and perhaps unbelievable from the perspective of some child readers today, Gideon is terrified that if a tough gang of boys find out that he carries a doll in his pocket, they will label him a “sissy.”  Gideon has stolen the doll from his cousin, and his conscience plagues him.  Ironically, there is nothing stereotypically “feminine” about Gideon’s pursuits. The contents of his pocket, a slimy snail, some string, a cork, pencil, and sweets, are assuredly boys’ playthings of his era.  (The cork would be really puzzling today.). Eventually, Gideon’s moral panic is resolved when Ellen decides to deaccession her toys before going off to boarding school. I felt a little sad, and wondered if she would regret her decision, but her possible loss is Gideon’s game.  Meanwhile, he has convinced the insecure male crew that Jane is not a doll, but a “model,” to be used in trains and boats.  Godden was ahead of her time, even if not all of her characters could be.

In The Fairy Doll, Elizabeth is the youngest of four children, and she is treated by her siblings, and even her teacher, in a way which now be considered verbally abusive. Elizabeth is small for her age, and has difficulty learning and with developmental tasks, such as riding a bicycle. Yet she does have the gift of doll communication, a fact which is recognized by her great-grandmother. (It’s interesting that Godden chose this relationship, rather than the more common one with a grandmother.)  The Fairy Doll which sits atop her family’s Christmas tree eventually helps Elizabeth to develop self-confidence. Much like Dorothy’s friends in The Wizard of Oz, just the recognition of her frailty and her good qualities is enough to resolve the problem.  One object in the story is a cedar chest, which doubles as storage for Christmas items and the location for behavioral time-outs, leading to some interesting twists. This book also includes the dramatic “toy-which-goes-missing-but is eventually-found” subplot.  It’s wonderful to experience Elizabeth’s triumph, after she has been called “a perfect duffer,” by her brother, a “careless little idiot,” by a sister, and “a stupid child” by her teacher. Thank goodness for her great-grandmother.

The Story of Holly and Ivy has been enshrined as Christmas classic. It is also an orphan story, featuring a little girl wandering astray during the holiday break from orphanage. (The orphanage administration, although somewhat insensitive, is not nearly so nasty as Elizabeth’s own family in The Fairy Doll.)  Ivy, the orphan, eventually finds Holly, the orphan doll, and even a human family to care for her.  The villain in the story is Abracadabra, a dreadful toy owl, who taunts the unadopted toys in Mr. Blossom’s toy shop, eventually landing where he belongs, in the trash.  The owl is something like Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear in the Toy Story movies, although he does little to conceal his malicious personality.  He has shiny eyes which, reflecting the light from a car outside the window, cause the shop attendant to fall off a ladder. Even with all its clichés, the story is beautiful. (The edition from 2006 has wonderfully matched illustrations by Barbara Cooney.) Godden’s style is so unaffected and in tune with children’s hopes and fears, that the book is unforgettable.

Candy Floss returns to Godden’s view of gender. The owner of a coconut shed at a traveling fair, Jack, is also a person who empathizes with dolls and toys.  He is a lot tougher than Gideon, making it less probable that he would care at all about not conforming to oppressive gender norms. Yet he does, insisting that the doll, Candy Floss, along with a toy horse and his real dog, Cocoa, are “partners” in his enterprise. Candy Floss brings irreplaceable good luck. When Clementina Davenport, the perfectly named poor-little-rich girl, decides that she wants the one thing which she cannot have, she steals, and damages, Jack’s doll.  Not only is Candy Floss eventually returned and repaired, but Clementina learns her lesson, even in class-bound British society of the day.  As with Holly and Ivy, Godden makes this all believable, if Jack as a character is somewhat less compelling than Ivy, Holly, or the kindly police officer and his wife who adopt both girl and doll.  It’s not that these books haven’t aged, but rather that they still continue to cast a spell on readers. Not the terrible spell of Abracadabra’s glittery eyes, but the one about lonely children , even young adults, and the solace of toys.

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