I’ve begun reading Rumer Godden’s doll story, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, to Sophie and Bella. The first chapter absolutely captivated them and immediately afterwards I noticed Sophie changing the way she played with her baby doll. She was pretending the doll was glass and that she had to be very careful with it. This was directly from the book; but it was her attempt to begin to take in the new story and make it her own.
Anthony is teething and had had a couple of really terrible nights with hours of screaming in the early morning hours. During one of those screaming bouts I handed him off to my heroic sister but then still couldn’t fall asleep. So I had a chance to lie awake and ponder this and other of Godden’s doll stories, especially The Story of Holly and Ivy, which I suppose we must have read to Bella a dozen times or more.
There is something truly wonderful about The Story of Holly and Ivy, the way the story of the doll parallels the story of the little orphan girl. Both long for a home, for someone to love and mother them, though neither identifies her desire specifically as a mother. Ivy declares that she is going to find “my grandmother” and Holly yearns for a little girl, “My Christmas girl”. I think Godden has really hit on something, how a doll is a perfect stand in for a child, how a child is able to project her inner needs onto the doll and in lavishing affection and attention on her doll is able to express her own yearnings. More, Godden’s dolls also express a child’s frustration with her own helplessness. A doll cannot move herself, cannot even express her desires in words. All she can do is wish. A child, too, is severely limited in her autonomy. An infant is just like one of Godden’s dolls: she cannot move independently, she cannot speak. All she can do is wish that some caring person will guess what it is that she needs: food, sleep, a change of scenery, a change of clothing. She is completely at the mercy of the all-powerful adults in her life. This dynamic of the helpless dolls wishing for a girl to understand them and meet their unspoken needs is even more apparent in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower when the two Japanese dolls are gifted to two girls, one of whom, Nona, is a sympathetic girl who tries to understand the dolls’ needs and the other, Belinda, who is careless and thoughtless and doesn’t understand them at all.
Digging deeper, as one is wont to do when sleepless at 2 am, it occurs to me that Godden’s dolls represent more generally the human condition. Spiritually we are all like Godden’s dolls and like her orphan children, for all Christians have been adopted into God’s family. All of us have a longing for home and for a sense of belonging. We feel homesick because we all know in our deepest core that our true home is not to be found in this world. Moreover, we are all helpless to express the truest longings of our soul—as the letter to the Romans reminds us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” We are all like the little dolls wishing to be heard by a loving person who will understand what it is that we need, even if we ourselves are unable to articulate our deepest desires. And all of us are spiritually as helpless as infants. We cannot feed ourselves the food we truly need but our Heavenly Father has given us Mother Church who feeds us the Bread from Heaven. We cannot change our soiled garments when we have sullied them with sin. Instead we rely on Holy mother Church to change our filthy garments for fresh ones in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
I thought it was interesting that the first thing Nona, who like Godden herself was born in India and feels out of place in cold, dreary England, does for the Japanese dolls is to give them a ritual to express their wishes and her own wishes for a home, for belonging, for family. She writes these wishes on little scraps of paper and ties them to a tree. She is learning how to pray. Nona’s own sense of displacement isn’t enough; but when she sense’s the displacement the dolls feel then she yearns to help them. She determines to build them a proper Japanese dollhouse, to make them a home. In the process of learning how to build the house she must learn to rely on the helpfulness of others, of the bookstore owner who lends her books about Japan and on her cousin who has the necessary woodworking skills. In fact, her project draws in everyone in the family except for Belinda. As Nona works to make the dolls a place where they will feel welcome, she begins to create a place for herself as well.