In 1840 the Brits began the colonization of New Zealand, islands inhabited by the Māori people. Somehow representatives of the United Kingdom managed to get the Māori chiefs to sign a treaty giving the Brits sovereignty over these islands. But later there were disputes over the differing translations of the Treaty. This led to the New Zealand Wars. Along with their presence, the British brought with them infectious diseases that greatly diminished the indigenous population. Plus the Brits imposed their own economic and legal system, their elitist class hierarchy, and confiscated much of the Māori lands causing the indigenous population to live in poor and unhealthy conditions.
Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand in 1888 to a socially prominent family. Although she was ambivalent towards the Māori, she recognized the violence of colonial history and the repression of the Māori population. So to escape the colonial mood and focus on her own, she moved to London and never went back to New Zealand except in her writings based on childhood memories. “The Doll’s House” is one such story.
Old Mrs. Hay stays with the Burnell family. To thank them for their hospitality, she sends their daughters, Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia, an elaborate doll house. The house is big and smells of fresh paint. The girls examine it carefully and are awed by the rich details. Kezia is particuliary impressed with an amber lamp with a white globe. The girls can hardly wait to go to school the next day and brag about their new doll house. Isabel said she will be the one to tell everyone as she is the eldest. She will also be the one to decide who can come to see it. So the next day at school Isabel goes into great detail about what a magnificent house it was. Obviously everyone wants to see it and arrangements are made as to who can see it and when. While the girls are gathered around talking about the doll house, the Kelvey sisters walk by.
The Kelvey sisters, Lil and Else, are poor. Their mother washes other people’s dirty clothes to earn a living. No one has seen the girls’ father so it’s assumed that he’s in prison. Because of their inferior social status, the other students at the school treat the Kelvey sisters with contempt. So although they are curious to know about the house, Lil and Else walk away knowing that they are not wanted. Poverty is humiliating for anyone who is forced to experience it. But for a child growing up, it has even a stronger impact. It leads to a lack of self-esteem which is a risk factor in terms of psychological health as well as academic achievement.
Privilege, too, has negative consequences. Once such consequence is that, to reinforce this feeling of superiority, you need to put someone else down. That’s why Lena Logan, cheered by her fellow classmates, goes to Lil Kelvey and, in front of everyone, shrills out: “Is it true you’re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?” Lena can’t stand it when Lil doesn’t answer. Her need to humiliate is like an addiction. She must continue her terrorism and hisses spitefully: “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” The other girls, suffering from the same addiction, dance with excitement.
That afternoon the privileged girls parade to the Burnell home to see the magnificent doll house. The Kelvey sisters walk by only because it’s on their way home. After most everyone has gone, Kezia, the youngest of the Burnells, sees the Kelvey sisters and asks them if they want to see the doll house. But the sisters, knowing that they are not wanted there by Kezia’s mother, decline. Kezia insists until the girls finally say yes. So like two stray cats, the sisters follow Kezia across the yard. Once in front of the doll house, Kezia says she’ll open it so they can see inside. But right at that moment, Aunt Beryl comes out of the Burnell house and starts screaming. Shooing them away as if they are chickens, she tells the Kelsey sisters to go away at once and never to come back again. Burning with shame, the two little girls run away.
Aunt Beryl is a spinster who’s having an illicit affair with a man who threatens to expose the affair if she’s not accomodating. As a result, Beryl lives life like a volcano about to erupt. But to ease up, she tries putting the pressure elsewhere. Like on those two little Kelvey sisters. Making others feel bad makes her feel better.
Recently a high school friend sent me a link to the above doll house located in San Antonio’s Witte Museum. It comes from a Facebook post found HERE with little information other than claiming that these dolls walk the halls of the museum during the night.
Ahhh, what a lovely thought to think that these dolls come back to haunt those who have treated little girls badly. By the way, did you know that there’s a haunted doll house at Windsor Castle?
Moral of my story: Even rich people have dirty clothes and would continue to have them if it weren’t for women like the Kelvey sisters’ mom.