In the nineteenth century, French dolls in picture books were frequently subjected to harsh discipline at the hands of their not-so-loving owners. In one extremely vivid illustration, the girl pulls up the doll’s petticoats and skirts over its neatly coiffed head and savagely whips its naked wooden bottom while her brother watches.
English dolls were not treated much better, especially if they happened to be Dutch [i.e. “Deutsch”] dolls. By “Dutch dolls,” I don’t mean so-called character dolls, or figures dressed up in national costumes. That kind of Dutch doll complete with clogs are readily available for sale on E-Bay or Etsy. What I’m referring to are the cheap wooden joined dolls that used to be quite common in the nursery. These curious objects, as often as not drawn undressed with their private parts exposed, seem to have brought out the latent sadistic impulses of authors and illustrators to a rather alarming degree.
Let’s take a look at one of the delightful cat books illustrated by Nicola Bayley, Fun with Mrs. Thumb by Jan Mark. It’s obvious from the opening lines of Mark’s poem that Mrs.Thumb must be a doll living in a doll’s house, but the kind of doll is not specified. It would be interesting to know whose idea it was to make Mrs. Thumb a Dutch doll– the author’s or the illustrator’s.
The narrator-cat eases up to the doll’s house to wreak havoc, or what it disingenuously calls playing with Mrs. Thumb. It meows, ” Mrs. Thumb, / Mrs. Thumb! / Leave your chair / and cross the room. /Let me into / your house. / I will not eat you / –promise! / I am full of milk / and mouse.”
The Dutch doll’s expression is blank, but she knows the cat is up to no good when he tries to lure her out of her hiding place: “See what I have / brought today: / my lovely fur, / my lovely purr, / my lovely paws, / full of claws.” Her options for eluding the monstrous velveteen paw are limited at best.
What if Mrs. Thumb were a mouse? I would bet a bag of Greenies that Jan Mark’s poem would never have been published, because of the objections to exposing young children to pictures of a cat playing with its prey. But because the cat is torturing an antique Dutch doll, which can’t feel anything, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh at the poor toy. What if a Barbie doll were substituted in the illustrations? Would our reactions to the story have been the same?
The poor defenseless Dutch doll has been subject to a lot worse in children’s picture books than being given a tumble by a cat waiting for someone to open a can of tuna for dinner. I’d like to reassure you that the systematic mistreatment of Dutch dolls is symptomatic of our time’s coarsened sensibilities, but it was omnipresent in Edwardian picture books. I decided against reproducing a photographic illustration of a car crash staged with Dutch dolls and chose instead a rather anodyne version of this favorite subject from the Uptons’ first book in the Golliwogg series. It is bad enough. The vehicle has no seat belts for its numerous passengers. There are so many dolls crowded into the back that one of the tiniest of them has fallen into the road, with another one poised to topple over after her. The driver seems blissfully unaware that an accident has taken place. It’s impossible to say if it was because she had to concentrate on steering the contraption with the horse’s bridle or if she was listening to the doll behind her who seems to be urging her to speed up.
Perhaps the worst of the lot is The Book of the Little Dutch Dolls. Don’t be fooled by the adorable title page vignette. It’s a sinister foreshadowing of what follows–the cheerful Dutch dollies doing violence to their bodies, removing bits and pieces for the sheer fun of it.
How jolly this all must have been once upon a time before our consciences were raised… Now it’s a little hard to look at picture books featuring Dutch dolls without feeling somewhat guilty, conflicted and even a little queasy. There’s probably an article here…