‘The Doll’s House’ by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is the superlative modern writer of childhood. Her child characters are not saccharine or tragic, overtly sentimental or unscrupulous. Instead, they are curious, in both senses of the word. This story dramatises relationships between children that are cruelly defined by social class. The well-off Burnells aren’t allowed to speak to the Kelveys, the fatherless daughters of a washerwoman. But the arrival of a doll’s house that is “too marvellous” allows a moment of connection. The house is the talk of the school playground; “four windows, real windows, were divided into panes by a broad streak of green. There was actually a tiny porch, too, painted yellow”. But the object that Kezia (the heroine of many Mansfield stories) adores, “the little lamp”, prompts her to break the rules to show the house to the Kelveys. What I love about the story is the use of the little or the tiny – the replica lamp that looks like it could be lit – to convey not cuteness but the complexity of aesthetic pleasure. The lamp becomes an emblem of the sudden, devastating insight that anyone can have no matter their social standing.

First published in The Nation or Athenaeum, 1922, collected in The Doves Nest and Other Stories and available online here

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