Be It Ever So Tiny ...

I'VE missed Queen Mary's Dolls' House on several occasions, once because our three exhausted children rebelled, more recently because friends' offspring couldn't take yet another tour. So on our last trip to London I announced that this time we must go to Windsor Castle, skip the usual trek through the State Apartments and St. George's Chapel, and concentrate on the Dolls' House. Must. Not should. Not could. Must.

Amused but willing, my husband set out with me one raw morning. When the castle opened we were among the first to enter the darkened room where the doll house sat in illuminated splendor behind plate-glass walls.

Designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, the 40-room house was given to Queen Mary in the mid-1920s through donations from ``grateful citizens.'' It boasts hot and cold running water, electric lights, working elevators, a garden, and a garage with a Rolls-Royce parked in its stalls.

The double-hung windows in the mansion open and close. The brass locks - like most of the items, constructed on a scale of one inch to the foot - really work. Only a few stubborn items resist miniaturization. The faucets in the butler's pantry, for instance, are outsize in order to permit the plumbing to function and a tea-towel, hung over the back of a chair, appears unnaturally stiff. Certain material just won't drape when cut in such small pieces.

While my husband was exclaiming over the motorcycle and in perfect-working-order one-speed bike, I examined the library. Its volumes, handsomely bound in red, green, blue, and tan calf, contain original works by writers such as Kipling, Conrad, Chesterton, Galsworthy, Huxley, and Belloc. Conan Doyle contributed a 500-word story entitled ``How Watson Learned the Trick,'' and Ernest Shepard, illustrator of ``Winnie the Pooh,'' designed the bookplates.

After the library, I was most intrigued with the more mundane aspects of the residence, the miniature replicas of McVitie & Price biscuit boxes, the Coleman's mustard tin, and Chivers marmalade jar on shelves in the cellar storage. There were tin-lined copper pots and a meat grinder in the kitchen, even a mouse trap on the floor. Off the king's bedroom was a fully equipped water-closet complete with mahogany throne and small squares of toilet paper. Try as I might, I could not erase the image of a 5 inch high monarch perched there.

I circled the exhibit several times, noting the silver guardian angel at the foot of the cradle in the Night Nursery, the treadle sewing machine in the Linen Room. Certainly the Queen's Luggage Room was larger than the quarters provided for servants! I found the rose trees in the garden but could not spot the miniature snail mentioned in the guide book nor even the birds' nest with its eggs endlessly waiting to hatch.

``Was it worth it?'' my husband asked when we emerged blinking into the gray noon. He had insisted on buying me an expensive book about the house, a history filled with glossy, full-color photographs. He was flushed with good-will, anxious that for me, at least, the time had been well spent.

``I loved the order and tranquillity of it,'' I told him, ``the way you could see life entire, instead of in the usual bits and pieces we struggle with.'' Everything, necessities, luxuries, even the social inequalities - implicit in the butler's and housekeeper's accommodations - had been cut down to size, made manageable.

I also felt the usual admiration one has at crafts' exhibits, an appreciation of work done precisely and well. The cunningness of the various pieces had intrigued me, as a music box might or even a jack-in-the-box. How had the weavers, seamstresses, woodcarvers, painters, and mechanics done it working with such small objects? Anyone who has struggled to set a puffed sleeve in a doll's dress can appreciate the problems they faced.

Some reactions, however, sprang from feelings other than admiration. As a child I had not loved my dolls or even particularly noticed them. They were simply yearly Christmas gifts that meant more to my mother than to me. Yet at night I would sometimes tiptoe over and ease open the drawer where they lay in an untidy pile. The idea was to catch them shifting position or talking to one another.

I knew they were pink cloth, plaster, and sawdust; nonetheless, I wanted them to be alive. Now, almost 50 years later, Queen Mary's Dolls' House brought back a memory of that childish hope. Had I really once believed that appearances deceive, that things are not what they seem, that behind the everyday world there exists another fantasy realm?

The house prompted other reflections. What about my assumption that no matter how the outside world loomed, home stood for total security? That there at least one could return to the familiar, stop time for a few brief moments of respite. Surely the past decades had tempered that notion. Yet certain convictions persist despite evidence to the contrary.

Suddenly I was recalling a poem written by Phyllis McGinley about her daughters' doll house. Odd how the lines came back; I had not read them in years. In those tiny rooms, she said, the painted fire would never turn cold and only ``unwithering grasses'' grew beside ``the small and incorruptible door.''

The wind hit our faces as we stepped into the street. We pulled our trench coats up, anxious to find a cup of hot tea and lunch. ``Yes,'' I told my husband as we linked arms and drew close for warmth, ``it was worth it.''

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