Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Appeal of the Miniature, Part 1

Budza is enjoying a new audiobook in the mornings before school, courtesy of iTunes this time: Mary Norton's The Borrowers. I think I didn't get into these (The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Aloft, The Borrowers Afloat) until I was a page working at the Mary Riley Stiles Library in my hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, in the mid-1970s. In these books, small Folk called Borrowers live behind wainscotting and under floorboards, borrowing what they need from the house's human inhabitants. The Borrowers' parlor is papered with old letters, with the writing running vertically in stripes. Half of a manicure scissors is an all-purpose blade; a hat pin is a good weapon against an unfriendly mouse.

These books float my teeny weeny bottlecap boat in so many ways. It's exactly the kind of magic-just-under-our-noses stuff I really like in a fantasy (though I like my fantasy high and low and most altitudes in between, actually). What made it particularly appealing to me then and now was how well it fit with my obsession with dolls' houses, or, more properly, doll house sized miniatures and an invented culture of trolls and Wishniks.

This was the late 1960s when I was living in Magallanes Village in the Philippines. I would spent my allowance on troll dolls, either authentic Dam trolls or Wishniks. My friend Eleanor had trolls two, and we got together regularly for long sessions of trolls, sometimes acting out long story lines, sometimes sewing troll clothes. We made clothes from them out of scraps of felt and ribbon and sequins. I had a jester with a cap and bells. My mother gamely knitted one troll a shrug on tiny needles.

There was great satisfaction in taking an everyday object and finding a way to make it work at roughly 1:12 scale. Miniatures made for the doll house were always fun, and I was always on the lookout for good ones, which were coveted (especially because so few worked with the trolls' squat bodies), but there wasn't the same pleasure in the clever transformation of the ordinary thing into a troll artifact. A soap dish made a very credible bathtub, a small glass topped tricket box an elegant vitrine. I fashioned a bamboo newspaper rack from toothpicks, and made a pretend ham wrapped in brown paper and string.

You develop a borrower's eye, a habit of looking at objects with the view of someone very small. So it was frustrating to me that the recent Spiderwick movie didn't spend more time letting me see the house brownie's magpie-ish nest with its repurposed household detrius of buttons and fasteners and odds and ends.

About 13 years ago I started a project to create a troll-scale naturalist's studio, and it's been a delight to collect natural objects at the right scale, and find buttons or beads that work as anthropological objects. I commissioned a leafcutter ant's nest from a miniature maker in Florida, and she made the ants out of three poppy seeds, glued together. There is a bead that is just right for an ostrich egg, and some actual books of the right scale. I have made a credible elephant's foot umbrella stand with a pill bottle, part of a grey leather kid glove, and some press-on fingernails (not my idea, I got it from a book). A visit to a really out of the way museum in Maine allowed me to pick up an actual ammonite the size of a nickel, and a tiny piece of petrified wood. I am still waiting for the right display setting for everything. I'm picturing it as a length of tree trunk with doors.

Some good miniature reads:

Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White (Lilliputians in the bottom of the garden...plot is very Joan Aikenish and would appeal to fans of Lemony Snickett)

Decorative Dollhouses: Original Interiors for Twenty-Five Dolls Houses by Caroline Hamilton (Clarkson Potter, 1990)

And some nice student guides and activities around The Borrowers, from literatureplace.com.

Nice discussion of The Borrowers and Mistress Masham's Repose here at Crooked House.

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