December 2008 – January 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Ally of the dolls

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

She was found beneath the floorboards of an old house in Geelong, and appeared to have been through a fire. Her body had disintegrated, but her head was still intact. She was from England, and probably came into existence sometime between 1908 and 1925 - though Barb, who discovered her, cannot be sure. She still had a faint bloom on her face, even though she was not alive.

"That's her original blush," Barb tells me, "painted on before the porcelain was glazed and fired in the kiln. These Diamond Pottery bisque-head dolls can also survive a century of being immersed in water, and their faces would still look the same." Barb points to the eyes: "Those are also original - they were found sunken in the back of her skull, because of the heat from the fire." I look at the aquarium starbursts in the doll's irises. Her upper and lower eyelashes make them look like splay-legged insects.

Barb and her husband, Bob, run the Little Doll House Museum, in Port Fairy, on Victoria's Great Ocean Road. All the figures on display are from Barb's own collection;­ her 22 years of rescuing and adopting have resulted in an orphanage for more than 1300 dolls, whose lives span three centuries.

There is a Zen koan that asks the impossible question: What was your original face before your parents were born? There is something special about making an object in the image of ourselves. A dear friend of mine, who was born in London during the Blitz, told me the story of her first ‘doll': a small postcard of Rodin's Kiss that she found when she was four. She was so awed by the beauty of something she could not yet explain that she made a matchbox bed for her naked marbled friends, and begged her mum for a scrap of material to keep them warm.

When I enter the museum, there are only a few other visitors, even though the $2 entry fee is waived for children on weekends: an old woman named Yvonne, who has brought in her doll for valuation, and a mother with her two small daughters. "Do you want to see something really, really old?" Barb asks the girls. "This doll used to be my grandmother's," Yvonne explains, letting the six-year-old pat her family heirloom's flaxen head. Doll shops arouse feelings of familial feminine kinship - after all, dolls are mostly made in the image of women, children and babies. Ken is never as popular as Barbie.

Barb carefully inspects the beautiful doll, peering into its eternally bewildered eyes. She values it at $450. "Wow," gasps one of the girls. "I'm not going to sell it, dear," Yvonne says. "I'm going to pass it down to my granddaughter."

"Make sure you take a photograph of your doll, and write on the back of it how you got her, whom she was from and when she got a change of clothes," Barb advises. "A doll carries with it the family history."

Barb was once a window dresser in Melbourne, and the dolls are arranged like panels of artwork, behind glass cabinets. Some are like impressionist paintings rendered in three dimensions, with Renoir faces, while others are simply Gauguin: primitive, raw and weird. There is a French boudoir doll with long blue eyes and an exotic heart-shaped face that reminds me of William Morris's women.

The specimens in the Australian-doll cabinet are practical princesses that double as tea cosies and toilet-roll covers. There are also kewpie dolls - prizes from long-ago shows - and Aussie icons: Plucka Duck, Kylie Mole, Con the Fruiterer, Ozzie Ostrich. There is the Irwin family, with Bindi in wholesome khaki, snuggled up against a koala.

And then there are the celebrity dolls: Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin in the same cabinet, Macaulay with hands adhered to face in Home Alone pose, a disturbingly precocious caricature of Munch's Scream. An elegant Jackie Kennedy stands tall among skanky Little Britain dolls that expectorate obscenities when you pull a string on their backs. "Thank God they are behind glass," the girls' mother comments.

The oldest doll, from 1850, has a wax face covering a papier-mâché skull. Her arms are made entirely of leather; it looks as if she's wearing kidskin gloves. "Someone's grandmother gave it to them in their will. The old lady had looked after it all her life, and the granddaughter did not want it - she had it sitting in the trunk of her car. It could have melted!" Barb tells us in horror. She has been to countless expos and antique shops and country fairs to rescue dolls. And there are some strange ones, not least the so-called  Mongoloid doll, whose red-amber eyes, mean arched brows and pursed persimmon lips are terrifying. All the other celluloid dolls in the cabinet, with their innocuous water-blue or beetle-brown eyes, seem to look away or stare ahead.

Barb tells me about these dolls, made between the 1880s and 1950s. She cradles one from the 1920s that is wearing a hand-crocheted outfit. His nose was bitten by a child, and his fingers, too. He is highly flammable, which is why they stopped producing his infant brethren, and Barb handles him like a real baby. "These were called feather dolls. Feel how light he is." As she passes him to me, she mentions that she never had such a doll when she was young, which is why she takes good care of them now.

Nearby, there is a Princess Diana doll wearing an exact replica of the famous wedding dress, which won its creator first prize at the Melbourne Doll Show. "When we were growing up, it was our dream to have a bride doll," the mother tells her two girls.

"I suppose that's not every girl's dream now," Barb remarks.

"No, they prefer these," I joke, pointing to some scantily clad Bratz dolls.

"They have mean faces," the older girl says. "I don't like them."

"They look like the types of girls you wouldn't want to be friends with at school," their mum says.

At the Barbie-doll cabinet, we see Barbie as Scarlett O'Hara; as a fairy from The Lord of the Rings, flirting with Legolas; and as Lucille Ball, winking at an Elvis on the same shelf. "Now, a real Barbie collector would never take these dolls out of their boxes," Barb says, "because once a doll is out of its packaging, it immediately loses its value. It's like driving an expensive sports car out of the dealer's garage, I suppose." Barbie's body was pilfered from Lilli, a small swim-suited doll from Germany, originally made to amuse men. A co-founder of Mattel brought Lilli to America, renamed her and mass-marketed the doll to little girls. It is said that around the world, three Barbies are sold every second.

Before I leave, I buy a little child doll for $3. On the tag is a note: "Some hair problems." In the 1970s, an owner took to her with a pair of scissors. I think she looks better with the straw-blond mop hacked back, anyway. I fall in love with her the moment I set eyes on her red dress and spotted pinafore. She is kneeling, as if in prayer, curved feet resting against her bottom. Her lips are fluted for a reverent kiss, and her hands are raised. Save for her pose, she looks like the girl in Rodin's Eternal Idol made plastic, without her lover.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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