Still Life in a Doll’s House
It is there in the shop window for the holiday season, up close to the glass, reminding me of so much that I had forgotten about. From the sidewalk, I admire the small gabled roof and delicate gingerbread cutwork, the wide front porch and double French doors, so much that time had nearly erased from my mind—this miniature interior space, tiny rooms with furniture arranged as they are in real houses, the houses where we live out our ordinary days.
And all of a sudden I want it all back.
An old shoebox in my attic is all that is left of my own doll’s house. Part of the central staircase and the baby grand piano with its broken leg. A ladder-back chair from the kitchen set, just one now. The rolltop desk that really rolled. My little living room had been formal and done in a lovely robin’s egg blue. The sofa and chair in that blue chintz are there in the box. I had forgotten about the study until I saw the tiny plaid wool blanket that I’d drape over the winged-back chair with such care, as if someone was really there to use it on a chilly night. And I had forgotten that I had always imagined a garden and I’d leave the watering can by the front door. At Christmastime, I’d put tiny trees in every room and hang a wreath on the front door.
Some say that for children the allure of the doll’s house is having control over the adult world of domesticity. Off in our own inner world we have power, for the tiny pieces fit perfectly in our small hands and we are free to do as we please with the rhythms and routines of family life. We are free to arrange the rooms as we like (a twin bed in the kitchen doesn’t alarm us in the least), free to have a blaring fire in the fireplace day into night, to serve dinner at any old hour, to open the front door to strangers, to leave dirty dishes for tomorrow. Yet, the dolls themselves are not the thing at all. They tend to be a bit too large and a bit too stiff for the house and its furniture, an awkward plastic family, an afterthought. Rather it is the exquisite smallness of it all, corners, hallways, and stairwells. Doors and windows. Nothing is out of our reach.
Of course, I know now that a toy house is nothing like a real house: the toy house is completely dependent on the imagination, a child’s imagination. This is what gives the doll’s house life, because, essentially, nothing happens in a doll’s house at all. There are no changing seasons or holidays to prepare for, no ebb and flow of joy and sorrow, no messes to clean up, no madness. Instead—it is still life. And I wonder: Is this what I am after now: a diminutive version of the good life? Uninterrupted. Unhurried. A quietly ordered home without drama, one that includes only beauty, charm, and repose? Is this why I want the doll’s house in the shop window…but what in heaven’s name would I do with a doll’s house? Where would I even put it?
Now as I get closer, I see that somehow this doll’s house is not for me after all. It is much too Victorian, and I favor a more colonial exterior style. The color pink that it has been painted is much too garish; it would have to be changed to a pale coral. And the size is all wrong, much too wide when narrow is what I prefer. Then, as I begin to turn my back on it, I realize that it is lit from within, a dim sparkling light that brightens the rooms just enough to see that the dining room table is set, as if a holiday party is about to begin, as if the guests will be arriving any minute with silver wrapped packages, as if the meanness of the real world is not invited in..