"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"I Seen the Little Lamp"

artwork by Jan Donley

A year ago today, my fortnightly post was a series of connections drawn from the autumnal writing and photography of my friend Jan Donley.* At the same time that I was posting "There on the Edge of Autumn," Jan was writing another leaf story in her journal. How timely!

The rain fell on yellow leaves / 14 November 12

She remembered a place. It might have been a place in a dream. There were there no trees, and there was no sky. She had looked out of eyes that did not belong to her. And then she remembered, there was no ground either. No dirt. No grass. No branches or trunks or leaves. Just air. There may have been light. Yes. She remembered light coming from some distance—maybe a star or a moon or a lamp. She wanted it to be a lamp. And she heard a voice—a voice that whispered and whistled. That was the language of this place: whispers and whistles. [emphasis added]

When she awoke from the dream or what may have been a dream, she looked across her room to the window. The window was open, and a breeze blew in. She saw leaves on the ground. Through the window, she saw the yellow leaves. And the rain fell on them.

It should have been a familiar sight. But ever since the dream, her eyes were not her own. And ever since the dream, she knew the sky and the trees and the ground could disappear. She knew that familiar languages could suddenly become unfamiliar.

It unsettled her, the way a dream can do.

And it must have been a dream; otherwise, why would she wake to look out a window and see rain falling on yellow leaves?

She could not be sure.

The yellow leaves whistled in the wind. The rain that fell on them whispered.

~ photo by Jan Donley ~

Jan's entry provided an immediate connection to one of my favorite stories by Katherine Mansfield (1888 - 1923), "The Doll's House," in which the two little poor sisters, Lil and Else Kelvey, are lucky enough to get a quick look at the elaborate dollhouse of the wealthy Burnell sisters, Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia. But their viewing lasts only for a few seconds, before the prejudiced cranky aunt shoos them away. Instead of being embarrassed by their poverty or disappointed in not getting to admire the dollhouse, the younger sister internalizes the reward of her adventure: "I seen the little lamp!" That was enough for her! A sign of comfort, hope, stability -- the same reasons that Jan's dream girl in "yellow leaves" hopes that the distant light is coming from a lamp!

If you're interested in reading more about Mansfield's story, I have written about it in my book -- Created in Our Image: The Miniature Body of the Doll). I was inspired by On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, a fascinating theoretical study by poet and professor of folklore Susan Stewart, who calls the dollhouse "a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority" (61).

The Burnell sisters are certainly anxious to share the secret of their new possession, the "perfect, perfect little house!" (318). They are instructed that they may bring their friends from school, two at a time, to view the splendid toy. These visits are to be allowed, however, with the specific condition that the visitors are "not to stay to tea, of course, or to come traipsing through the house" (320). That is, the girls may share with outsiders the secrets of the miniature house but not those of the life - size house. The privacy and the sanctity (and the secrets) of the home are to be protected from intrusion and idle curiosity. Nor are the guests invited to actually play with the dollhouse; they are asked merely to admire it, "to stand quietly in the courtyard while Isabel pointed out the beauties and Lottie and Kezia looked pleased" (320).

"The whole house - front swung back, and -- there you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing - room and dining - room, the kitchen and two bedrooms" (319; see comment below). The girls are enchanted by the small furniture, the stove complete with oven door, the table set with tiny plates, the wallpaper, the carpeting, and the miniature gold - framed pictures. Of all the charming details, for Kezia, it is the little lamp that represents the "promise of an infinitely profound interiority":

"But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining - room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe. It was even filled all ready for lighting, though, of course, you couldn't light it. But there was something inside that looked like oil, and that moved when you shook it. . . . [T]he lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say 'I live here.' The lamp was real" (319).

Choosing which playmates may or may not see the remarkable exhibition, the children are in a position to impose the same social class barriers observed by their elders. The two girls who are excluded from the joy of viewing the dollhouse are "the two who were always outside, the little Kelveys. They knew better than to come anywhere near the Burnells" (320). Lil and Else Kelvey are shunned because their mother is a "washerwoman" who works in other people's homes, their father is rumored to be in prison, their wardrobe is made up of hand - me - downs from their mother's various employers, and their lunches consist of messy jam sandwiches wrapped in old newspaper. They are thin, quiet, shy, and strange - looking to the other children, who taunt them mercilessly. Their one strength seems to be that they "never failed to understand each other" (320 - 21). Lil and Else know, of course, about the magical dollhouse, and they accept without question the fact that, though all the other girls have been to see it, they will not be invited.

Kezia, however, decides to question the unwritten and sometimes unspoken social code by which the Kelveys are ostracized. Any class snobbery that she harbors is vanquished when the opportunity arises to treat the Kelveys to a view of the dollhouse. They, on the other hand, long accustomed to perceiving themselves in the despised position, are doubtful -- astounded even-- when Kezia extends to them the privilege of an invitation: "'You can come see our doll's house if you want to.'" Lil, the older of the two sisters, is hardly bold enough to defy convention; she flushes, gasps, and murmurs her refusal: "'Your ma told our ma you wasn't to speak to us."" Kezia is initially at a loss for words at this abrupt rejoinder but soon decides to brush the warning aside: "'It doesn't matter. You can come and see our doll's house all the same. Come on. Nobody's looking'" (324).

Finally, to placate little Else, Lil is persuaded to give in. When Kezia opens the hinge and the interior of the house swings into view, Lil and Else are overwhelmed by the marvelous despair that first swept over the Burnell children. Kezia points out "'the drawing - room and the dining - room, and that's the -- '" (325). The unfinished thought was undoubtedly to be "and that's the little lamp." But before Kezia can finish the tour of the house or even her sentence, the cold furious voice of reprimand is heard in the doorway.

It is not Kezia's mother but her stern Aunt Beryl who issues the demand that Lil and Else leave at once: "'How dare you ask the little Kelveys into the courtyard? . . . You know as well as I do, you're not allowed to talk to them. Run away, children, run away at once. And don't come back again. . . . Off you go immediately!'" As the doors slam shut, Lil and Else are not surprised that their glimpse inside of Kezia's dollhouse has been so brief. They shrink away from the courtyard, not stopping to rest alongside the road until they are well away from the scene of their humiliation. Lil, who is described as "like her mother," still feels the shame burning in her cheeks, but Else soon forgets "the cross lady," remembering only the privilege of the moment. The narrator attempts to read their thoughts as they look "dreamily" into the distance, bur Lil's remain private. Beryl's unkindness has struck her as a much deeper rejection than Else can perceive. Not only are theymu denied a view of the dollhouse, they are also barred from the vision that it represents -- the comfort and security of a middle - class home. No four walls protect them from the instability, the randomness, and the vulgarity of life.

Else, on the other hand, smiles "her rare smile." Even if only for a moment, she has been illuminated by that infinite promise of profound interiority that resides within the dollhouse. Kezia's admonitions on the playground that everyone pay attention to the lamp were not wasted on Else, who remembered every word and, in the few seconds give her, witnessed the symbolic object. Now, softly, she says to her sister Lil, "'I seen the little lamp'" (325 - 26).
I seen the little lamp!
To see many more miniature lamps, go to Ruby Lane,
where they also have a stunning collection of big lamps
and a vast collection of dolls!

Another Darling Dollhouse
Illustration by Beatrix Potter, 1866 - 1943
for her story The Tale of Two Bad Mice, 1904
"Once upon a time there was a very beautiful doll's-house;
it was red brick with white windows, and it had
real muslin curtains and a front door and a chimney."

* Previous Jan Donley
Posts on My Blogs

Lucky Rock
Lost & Found
9 / 11 Retrospective [also on Quotidian Kit]
Dagmar's Birthday [also on Quotidian Kit]
Everyone Loves Stories
There On the Edge of Autumn

Sleight of Hand
The Little Door
Savor September!
Happy Birthday Coyote!

Another Lovely Little Lamp by Jan ~ January 2014

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, November 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. I really enjoyed reading Mansfield's short story; and once again, Kitti has made marvelous connections among a such a great variety of sources. I am honored that my little piece of writing and my lamp painting have been included!

  2. Jan also writes: "I love this line from Mansfield's story: "The Kelveys came nearer, and beside them walked their shadows, very long, stretching right across the road with their heads in buttercups."

  3. More from "The Doll's House": "That is the way for a house to open! Why don't all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat-stand and two umbrellas! That is-isn't it? -- what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker. Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel. . . ."
    Katherine Mansfield, ellipses in original

    From _Lolita_: "Ah, gentle drivers gliding through summer's black nights, what frolics, what twists of lust, you might see from your impeccable highways if Kumfy Kabins were suddenly drained of their pigments and became as transparent as boxes of glass!" ~ Vladimir Nabokov