A New Book Examines 100 Years of the Historic Queen Mary's Dolls' House Library

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Many of the postage stamp-sized books in the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House hold handwritten, original works by famous authors, from J. M. Barrie to Arthur Conan Doyle.

Created between 1921 and 1924, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House was a present from childhood friend Princess Marie Louise (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) to Mary of Teck, the consort of King George V. As befits a luxurious townhouse built for British royalty, the residence designed by architect Edwin Lutyens features a superbly stocked and walnut-paneled library.

The doll’s house is on public view at Windsor Castle in England. The 1:12 scale detailing of it is fine throughout, but particularly spectacular is the library, the story of which is chronicled in The Miniature Library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, an excellent new illustrated history by Elizabeth Clark Ashby, curator of books and manuscripts at the Royal Collection Trust.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

As well as a doll-sized leather-top desk, ivory paper knife, leather-upholstered armchairs, and miniature bronze busts of German writers Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the library is stocked with 595 miniature books, 176 of which are handwritten manuscripts. These were commissioned by the Princess and her friend, the writer E. V. Lucas, from the country’s leading authors, including Max Beerbohm, A. A. Milne, and J. M. Barrie. Edith Wharton also contributed an original poem, Elves’ Library. The writers were sent four-centimeter-high blank notebooks in which they wrote their contributions. (Rudyard Kipling also decorated his selection of verses with pen-and-ink drawings.) The notebooks were then bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, Rivière & Son, Zaehnsdorf, and Birdsall & Son in leather with gold tooling and finished with bookplates designed by E. H. Shepard.

Fougasse’s J. Smith is perhaps my favorite,” said Ashby of the tiny books. “Fougasse was the pseudonym of writer-cartoonist C. Kenneth Bird, famous for the Careless Talk Costs Lives Second World War posters. His rhyming story is about a fairy who finds himself in London, and both the story and Fougasse’s illustrations are excellent.” 

She also noted a Sherlock Holmes story written by Arthur Conan Doyle just for the library. “‘How Watson Learned the Trick’ is an amusing vignette of Dr. Watson trying to make deductions about Holmes and failing,” Ashby said. “And one I am particularly fond of is by Mary C. E. Wemyss, unknown today. Her tale of a mother losing her sons in the First World War is very moving.”

There are also several books about dolls, including Principles of Doll-Surgery by surgeon John Bland-Sutton, as well as M. R. James’s short horror story “The Haunted Dolls’ House,” which is also the longest piece in the library at 5,000 words. (The shortest was provided by philosopher and journalist William Courtney, who offered an eleven-word quote from La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, which took up just one page.)

Lilliputian Library
Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Each book in the tiny library has its own bookplate created just for the doll’s house collection. 

Lilliputian Library
Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

“As well as being small, the books are incredibly fragile,” Ashby said. “Too much strain on the joints will cause the leather to break. Some are sewn very tightly, meaning they do not open well, and it is difficult to read them. Photographing the contents has been challenging, and for the illustrations in The Miniature Library, we designed special stands to hold each book open just at the angle at which it felt safest.”

According to Glenn Bartley, head of the Royal Bindery, the doll’s house is kept in climate-controlled conditions, so the books are in very good shape. “None have been rebound,” he said, “and over the years, we have only ever had to do minor conservation.”

There are also 132 printed books, many made before the doll’s house’s creation. The oldest is Biblia, a miniature abbreviated Bible made for children in 1727. Others were specially printed for the library, such as the Ashendene Press’s collection of poems by Horace, Carmina sapphica. The library also holds newspapers, railway timetables, a complete Shakespeare (forty volumes), two dozen music scores, two stamp albums, and 241 blank books.

“We have records of books that are no longer in the collection,” Ashby said. “It is an ongoing project to trace them. A tiny collection of autographs of parliamentary figures, including seven prime ministers, was found in 1973. A book collector who purchased it at auction realized its significance and offered it back to Queen Elizabeth II, who gratefully paid for its return. It would be lovely to find more missing books.”