Saturday, 11 June 2011

Ethel's Dolls

A final post for a while on toys!  It is poignant, that now after reading Ethel's book Gifts of St. Nicholas I am reminded of discovering a painting last December of one of the younger Hine sisters, by their elder sister Esther Hine, and that I had guessed that the painting was of Ethel.  The girl is playing with a doll.  Ethel would have been 8 years old at the time of the painting.

Esther Hine, Interior of Hine Family House, 1872
Some years after playing with her doll in the Hine family home, Ethel mused “Toys are not real to children.  The child loves her doll, will work for it, is proud of it, and yet knows all the while that it is a doll, and no baby.  To the cynic who says that at heart every woman is a rake I would assert that, at her heart’s heart, every woman is a Madonna, and capable of the devotion that asks for no visible or material return.  The truest motherhood is the spiritual motherhood, and the woman who perceives and adores the mystery of Incarnation is the true mother, though she may have no physical children to rise up and call her blessed…the child who understands this and lavishes a passion of tenderness on a rag doll in a tattered shawl, is a Madonna in bud.” (Gifts of St. Nicholas)


Whilst going through a whole 'box' of toys, Ethel goes on to describe "This next is a sacred thing - a doll.  In shape it is like a half ninepin cut vertically; it has black hair, a flushed complexion, blue eyes and a scarlet body; no more features, and no limbs at all! Ah, but this poor chip of wood, this irreducible minimum of human similitude, comes from a land where babes, wrapped in swaddling bands, have no visible limbs, and are little more than human tadpoles to look at, all heads and tails.

I have many dolls here, but there is one type which has no type in my little pantheon.  I refer to "the best doll," that object which is no real doll at all.  It is a monstrosity, the invention of governesses and nurses and other people who have shut the door on that other world of which we were speaking just now.  The true child could no more have a “best doll,” which came out in fine clothes on “treat days” and lived otherwise in a drawer in silver-papered retirement, than a mother could have a “best baby” and treat it in the same way.  No, these things with features flattened by use and affection, these limbless objects with benign faces in quaint dresses made by children’s hands, these are the real things which shared life and experience with their owners, and are frankly symbolic. Symbolic to the child, never real.  See, this gentle-faced, limbless, old wooden image, dressed in a fashion which reflects the mode of bygone decades, came home to her little owner, many years ago, in fullest possession of legs and arms.  But it was not be for long.  The little possessor retired to a corner and twisted off the limbs, and then, and then only, felt that she could love her.  The same hands that twisted off the excrescences sewed clothes for the remaining portion, and cherished it with tenderness for ever after.  There is more poetry than prose here, of a surety.

I rejoice to think of the child for whom this next doll was made; she must have had a truly rustic soul to appreciate this little wooden thing with arms akimbo, crimson skirt and ornate apron, and a large green wooden bonnet." (Blount, Ethel, Gifts of St. Nicholas)
All illustrations by Ethel Blount from
Gifts of St Nicholas: A Study of Toys

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