November/December 2010
Karolina Waclawiak

Safe As Houses

An Ode to Britain’s History in 1:12 Scale

Discussed: Tiny Toilet Paper, What Arthur Conan Doyle Really Thought, Hans Bellmer, Premier Cru Château Margaux 1899, King George V, Edith Wharton’s Elves, Doll Limbs,George Bernard Shaw

In 1921, three years after the end of World War I, some of the most skilled craftsmen in England started building a dollhouse like nothing the world had ever seen before—a lavishly detailed world that could never be touched by the unstable present or the uncertain future. And secreted in the 171-volume library are short works written exclusively for the dollhouse by some of the English-speaking world’s most famous writers—works that few people have ever seen or read.

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House was commissioned by Princess Marie Louise as a gift to her cousin Queen Mary, who would call it “the most perfect present that anyone could receive.” It was a WPA project of sorts, employing over 1,500 artists and designers, who worked under the eye of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Dubbed “Britain’s greatest architect,” Lutyens was also responsible for the urban planning of New Delhi. What started as a frivolous plaything became an ode to the disappearing Edwardian age, sheltered from the chaos reverberating throughout Europe. Lutyens spent years designing the dollhouse in his living room, and Queen Mary visited several times a week to see it. It was finally unveiled at Wembley for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition.

Architectural critic Sir Lawrence Weaver explained its intent in 1924, seemingly with a completely unhinged future in mind: “For the antiquary of 2123 the literary evidence of our current life will be overwhelming in bulk, staggering amidst the book stacks at the British Museum,” he wrote. “But a visit to the Queen’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle will clarify his confusions.”

During the seven months it was on display at Wembley, 1,617,556 visitors viewed it. According to Lucinda Lambton’s new book The Queen’s Dolls’ House, Lutyens’s exquisite creation was made “to a scale the public could relate to.” “Whereas, in a real palace they would have felt lost and overawed,” Lambton writes, “in the Dolls’ House, to their delight, they could feel safely at home.” In July 1925, it was moved to Windsor Castle, where it still sits behind glass.

The Queen’s Dolls’ house, built to the imperial scale of one inch to one foot, stands 5 feet high, and measures 102 inches north to south and 58.5 inches across. It features mother-of-pearl floors in the Queen’s bathroom, and small pillows embroidered with the letters MG and GM. When asked, Lutyens told the Queen they stood for “May George?” and “George May.” Dominating King George’s bedroom is a bed designed by Lutyens himself, with the royal arms stitched into the headboard and ostrich plumes growing like exclamation points from the corners of the four-poster. The house also has a lavish saloon, and a luggage room full of suitcases, hat boxes, and steamer trunks. A parasol identical to the Queen’s, manufactured by Briggs, leans inside a closet in the Queen’s wardrobe. A gramophone in the nursery can play the British national anthem, the bathroom is stocked with Bromo toilet tissue, and two working elevators, one for passengers and the other for baggage, are rigged with cables made of fishing line. The garage is home to six working automobiles (including a Daimler limo and a Rolls-Royce 1923 Silver Ghost), while a Rudge motorcycle with a sidecar idles next to a gas pump.

The project was an earnest tribute to the legacy of English manufacturing and preserved all the hallmarks of British royal life. Alfred Dunhill, the famous tobacconist, included tiny cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and tins of “my mixture,” tobacco custom made for the King. A cellar full of impressive wines and liquors includes two dozen bottles of Premier Cru Château Margaux 1899, each filled with just enough wine for a small taste on the tongue.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Karolina Waclawiak is the assistant editor of the Believer and a graduate of the Columbia MFA Fiction program. She recently finished her first novel and also wrote the screen adaptation of Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive.

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