A Doll’s Life

The book vault of the Museum of Childhood spans the globe both imaginatively and geographically. Russian fairy tales and handmade Japanese books nestle in boxes alongside home-grown favourites such as Peter Pan or Treasure Island. This often makes our task of sifting through the archive one of curiosity and unexpected delight. And the common thread that links these volumes is that each has somehow made a journey to the Museum’s collection. In that sense, there is always a local connection to each book, no matter how far-flung or remote it might seem.

Part of our exhibition, ‘Growing Up With Books’ (opening June 2018), will celebrate the well-travelled nature and diversity of the Museum’s archive —  a little history of the binding and interconnected story of children’s literature. In today’s blog, Sarah presents a ‘taster’, or miniature, of that aspect in describing a small illustrated French book which we pulled out of a box one day.


La Poupee frontispiece

La Poupée Bien Elevêe by Julie Delafaye-Bréhier (c1780-1850) is not especially well-known today  (or at least beyond critical histories of French children’s literature), though it was translated into English as The Well-Bred Doll a decade later. The Museum’s edition was published in 1843 in Paris as part of P.C. Lehuby’s Librairie de l’enfance et de la jeunesse.  In an earlier blog, Niamh noted how you should never judge a book by its cover. So too this one for its beautiful jewel-like coloured exterior almost looks like a medieval prayer book.

La Poupee cover

Once opened, though, you encounter the story of Céline and Laurette, two young girls who happily discover a doll one day whom they then adopt, nurture, and teach as their tiny ‘pupil’. The little group of three then begin their education in both outdoor and indoor classrooms:  the garden, their chamber, even in a ‘cabinet noir’ to which the doll is once consigned as a punishment!

La Poupee garden illustration

la cabinet noir

This is clearly a book about girlhood —  the ‘correct’ ideological formation and nurturing of ideal young femininity. Dress, deportment, conduct, manners, and speech are all uppermost in the little girls’ minds as they ‘fashion’ their little pupil; and such concerns are the prerogative of the upper and middle classes. la toiletteDelafaye-Bréhier’s novel first appeared in a series published by Alexis Eymery who founded a librairie d’education in 1801, and was the author himself of moral writings for young girls.  And she herself was a prolific writer of clearly didactic and instructive writing for children and adolescents.  Interestingly, though, she also published a version of Robinson Crusoe for young readers —  a robinsonnade called The French Robinson or the Little Castaway (1827). Yet as Joseph Acquisto comments, this as much about the hero’s sensibility and sensitivity, as his courage and ‘manliness’; he cares about his mother, for example.[i]

I think something of this softer didacticism can be seen in La Poupée. The doll is a loving gift from their mother, bought surreptitiously at a fête and planted as a surprise amidst their garden for the little girls to find.

la fete

This maternal love in turn is reciprocated in the girls’ nurture of the doll —  sometimes severe (as in that notorious chapter, ‘Vite, au cabinet noir!’) but tender for the most part, and also evinced in their care for their pupil’s intellect, for she is taught to be a voracious and skilled reader.  The girls may be schooled into the ‘proper’ role of motherhood; but this is also a resolutely feminocentric world where the continuities and affinities between mothers and daughters, and between sisters, are vital.


And, finally, we can perhaps see how it was also a story for children to curl up with and enjoy simply because it communicates the sheer delight of doll-owning! As Kenneth Gross writes, ‘the truth and need of the child’s imagining of life in the doll she or he takes up’ is fundamental ‘in negotiating the child’s passage into a world of adult affections and demands and losses’.[ii]  Freud and Kleist, among many other writers, have shown us how the doll in particular, inanimate but with an approximation to life, is an uncanny presence, and an embodiment of imagination itself. A wander round the Museum of Childhood’s own extraordinary collection of dolls is enough to convince you of this, not least their current exhibition, ‘It’s Alive! Mechanical marvels from the House of Automata’ (more information here)! 

The illustrations in La Poupée beautifully depict the children’s pleasure in the doll’s ‘coming to life’, as it were, even though they speak and think for her, the text carefully tells us, as if to disavow us of any belief in Hoffmann-esque magic. This is simply the magic of play.


La Poupée is one of many miniature gems in the Museum’s archive  —   little embodiments of the history of early children’s literature in Scotland, Europe, and far beyond. We don’t know who owned it, or its provenance, though undoubtedly there is some kind of local connection threaded into the story of how it came to be in a box in the vault. But we do know because of the beautiful pristine condition of the book and its jewel-like mosaic cover, we can be sure that it was much loved, just like Céline and Laurette’s doll.

[i] See Joseph Acquisto, Crusoes and Other Castaways in Modern French Literature: Solitary Adventures (University of Delaware Press, 2012).

[ii] ‘Introduction’, On Dolls, edited by Kenneth Gross (Notting Hill Editions Ltd, 2012), p. xii.

                                                                                          This post was written by Sarah

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