I had four dolls when I was a little girl: Prudence (knitted by my aunt), Baby (my favourite), Rosemary, who came in a box dressed as a bride for my fifth Christmas and was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and Susan. I loved them all and played with them for an embarrassingly long time (ironic really, as I have not exactly turned out to be the maternal type). My mother would make exquisite little outfits for them, rosebud printed nightdresses or twin sets with pearl buttons for them to wear, all complete with knitted vest and pants, an act of devotion that I suspect I didn’t appreciate at the time, but do now. At one point I decided I was too old to play with dolls and put them away, but missed them so much I had to get them out again. Now they live in a box in my attic, but I got them out for a photoshoot and was swept away by a pang of nostalgia. Here they are, all having bad hair days, but what can I expect after fifty years in a box? Notice how all their eyes are missing, poked out by my brothers. Only Rosemary’s are intact, presumably because she had the last visit to the doll’s hospital.
I’ve been thinking about them because I wanted dolls to be a motif in the book I am writing now. But when I started to research the subject, it turned out that Tudor children didn’t have dolls, or not as we know them today. Dolls have only been known as such since the 18th century.
The most a child in Tudor England could hope for, it seems, was a carved wooden figure known as a Bartholmew baby after the great London fair at which they were traditionally sold. These wooden toys sometimes had leather arms attached, but were otherwise very plain as you can see in this reconstruction.
To be honest, I was a bit miffed when I discovered this inconvenient fact. If I can gender stereotype for a moment, I find it hard to believe that little girls in Tudor England didn’t play with dolls of some kind, even if they weren’t called dolls. There are a number of examples of dolls in earlier periods, including this amazing Roman rag doll in the British Museum. I wonder whose doll it was?
Were there really no rag dolls sewn together in the 16th century? Perhaps little girls then had plenty of real babies to look after and had no need to pretend?
I have had to face facts, though, and have given my character, Mary, a wooden baby, but I have had to adapt the rest of my plot to fit the facts – ggrrr. The perils of research.