Victorian Dolls and Material Play

This post was contributed by Emma Curry, a a PhD student in the Department of English and Humanities, working on Dickens’s representations of objects and body parts.

Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week joined forces with the Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies on Tuesday night to host a fascinating and visually-splendiferous talk by Eugenia Gonzalez, on the thought-provoking theme of ‘Victorian Dolls and Material Play’.

Although Gonzalez opened her paper with a quotation from George Dodd, who wrote in Household Words in 1853, ‘dolls are trifles’, Gonzalez’s subsequent presentation went on to show us that in nineteenth-century culture, they were anything but. She began by uncovering the fascinating relationship between many notable Victorian women and their dolls, discussing the collections of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and even the young Queen Victoria, whose extensive assemblage included a number of dolls that she had made and dressed herself. Gonzalez also highlighted the persistent presence of the doll in adult-authored texts, in which writers frequently attempted to theorize the various benefits a woman could acquire from playing with dolls as a child; from the cultivation of more conservative attributes such as nurture, decoration, and the ‘art of pleasing’, to more progressive ideas such as the development of imagination, and even, as Otto Ernst described in a narrative of his daughter’s doll-play, the ‘godlike’ powers of creation and dominion.

In the second part of her talk, Gonzalez moved on to Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, discussing the prominence Dickens gives in this novel to the character of Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker. Gonzalez highlighted here the connection between doll-play and writerly-play, linking Jenny’s powers to fashion form and imaginatively construct narrative for her dolls with Dickens’s own creative processes, in which characters are similarly constructed materially and experienced as if they are real: indeed, Dickens’s description of having to go and ‘extricate’ Mr and Mrs Boffin from the carriage after the Staplehurst rail crash was a particularly fascinating and pertinent addition here. Through such a focus on Jenny’s imaginative and interpretive power, Gonzalez suggested a reading of the novel as one concerned with materiality, manipulation, and (self-)fashioning, which I found wonderfully revealing and convincing.

The talk was followed by some lively discussion and a very wide-ranging selection of questions, testament to the fascinating and far-reaching nature of the topic. I’ll certainly be returning to Our Mutual Friend with fresh eyes now, and I definitely won’t look at my old Barbie doll collection in the same way again! I’d like to thank Eugenia for providing us with such fascinating and stimulating subject matter, and look forward to reading the completed project!

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