Queen Mary’s Dollhouse and the Lost Vita Sackville-West Children’s Story That May Have Inspired Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’
By Maria Popova
In 1921, Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, conceived of a most unusual and imaginative present for her cousin, Queen Mary — an elaborate dollhouse populated with miniature replicas of artifacts in Windsor Castle, equipped with running water and electricity, and adorned with original works by prominent artists. Completed in 1924 and intended as a present from the people of England for their monarch, Queen Mary’s Dollhouse became part homage, part masterwork of craftsmanship, part time-capsule and singular historical document.
A lover and patron of the arts, Princess Marie Louise envisioned the project as a showcase for some of the era’s greatest artists and craftspersons, who created an astonishing array of items — from miniature monogramed linens to tiny paintings to a working elevator. But the crowning achievement was a library containing one hundred and seventy-one books by the most celebrated authors of the time — original stories by titans like Joseph Conrad, A.A. Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, and J.M. Barrie, inscribed by hand into miniature tomes.
Among the contributing authors was the poet, novelist, and famed garden designer Vita Sackville-West (March 9, 1892–June 2, 1962). Although most of the other stories in the dollhouse library have become part of the literary landscape over the past century, Sackville-West’s has remained largely unknown, even to her own heirs. It was only recently rediscovered and is finally published, nearly a century after it was written, as A Note of Explanation (public library) — a lovely cloth-bound picture-book with illustrations by the contemporary artist Kate Baylay in the Art Deco style of the era, evocative of Harry Clarke’s haunting 1925 illustrations for Goethe’s Faust and William Faulkner’s forgotten Jazz Age drawings.
In Sackville-West’s irreverent meta-fairy-tale, visitors queue up to see Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, eager to spend a shilling on the attraction. But despite their hungry squints and gloved hands and magnifying glasses, they fail to see the most curious feature of the dollhouse.
Weaving subtle social commentary into the story, Sackville-West writes:
Peer into the house as they might in consideration of their shilling, being greedy of every second allotted to them, there were some things which they could never see in the house, which nobody had ever seen, or would ever see, not even the maker of the house, although he wore big spectacles, nor even the Queen herself, even when she had her crown on, nor even the royal children, though everybody knows that children see a great deal which is hidden from grownups.
What visitors can’t see is the secret resident of the dollhouse: an elegant, curious, daring sprite who has traveled across time and space, dropping into some of history’s most beloved fairy tales — flying to China to hear the Emperor’s famous Nightingale, visiting Aladdin’s palace to find Scheherazade “long-winded and a bore,” becoming a voyeur to the Prince and Sleeping Beauty’s kiss — before she settled into Queen Mary’s Dollhouse. With her “boyish, page-like appearance,” the sprite is in part a self-portrait of Sackville-West, who wrote the story just before she met Virginia Woolf in 1922 — the beginning of a lifelong relationship, in the course of which Vita would be Virginia’s lover, friend, and muse. In 1928, Woolf would publish Orlando — her groundbreaking novel about an elegant, curious, daring protagonist, based on Vita, who changes genders and travels across the centuries, meeting the great writers of the epochs. Vita’s son would later describe it as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
In the late summer of 1924, shortly after Queen Mary’s Dollhouse was completed, Vita visited Virginia’s home for the first time. After she left, Virginia recorded in her diary:
A perfect lady, with all the dash and courage of the aristocracy, and less of its childishness than I expected.
That day, she wrote to Vita to let her know that she’d be glad to publish a short story Vita had submitted to Woolf’s imprint. “[It is] the sort of thing I should like to write myself,” she exulted in her praise.
A hallmark of early love is a longing so intense that one wishes to possess the beloved so completely as to almost absorb them into one’s own being. Under such a spell, admiration, adoration, and emulation flow in and out of one another in a powerful, almost violent osmosis — each lover unconsciously takes on the likes and habits and sensibilities of the other, until it becomes difficult to discern where the lover ends and the beloved begins. All of this is to say, I doubt Virginia Woolf directly and consciously drew on A Note of Explanation in composing Orlando, that she saw in its creative premise something she herself “should like to write” — far more probably, this 330-page love letter to Vita folded unto itself everything Vita was and did, everything Virginia so adored and admired in the heat of her infatuation, the dollhouse story being but a fragment of the larger beloved whole.
Images © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018 courtesy of Chronicle Books
Published March 21, 2018