Windsor is a cute little town nestled up against the outer walls of Windsor Castle. While I’d like to tell you that I found the cutest little library outside the castle, away from the hordes of tourists that show up just to see inside the part-time home of England’s Queen, this time it’s true that the real treasure lies within the castle walls. Did you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an original manuscript, and it’s about one inch tall? It’s housed in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and for a bookworm, is there really anything cuter than a miniature library?
The town of Windsor is not without a few claims to literary history. According to two plaques I found while wandering, authors Charles Knight and H. G. Wells both made their home in Windsor. Another states that Windsor is also home to the shortest street in Britain at 51 feet 10 inches. (This last one has nothing to do with books, but I thought it was an interesting fact.)
Windsor also has so many swans on the river that I seriously began wondering if E. B. White might have confused the location in which his novel The Trumpet and the Swan took place. Unfortunately I neither had time to search for more wall plaques or determine whether any of these swans had a trumpet around its neck because the entrance line for Windsor Castle winds out the door, along the castle wall, and down the street very quickly. After selecting our morning hot beverages from one of the nice coffee shops in town we got in line early.
Once inside, after picking up an audio guide, I suggest saving the main castle for later and going straight to the Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House exhibit, otherwise you’ll wait a long time in the line to get in.
Now, before you go thinking the dolls’ house is a children’s toy and the books in its library blank, let me give you a brief history. Dollhouses were originally used as teaching tools for young girls to prepare them for running large households. The houses were unelaborate models from which girls would learn, for example, how to set a table, or where servants would stand during meal time. By the 1920’s however, dollhouses, or cabinet houses, had evolved to the woman’s equal of a man’s curiosity cabinet. Miniatures were coveted collectables much like antiques. And the wealthier the woman, the more realistic the features of the miniature house. Some houses had running water, electricity, linens embroidered with initials in linen cabinets, and the miniatures that filled the house often came from the companies that made their full-size counterparts.
In the early 1920’s as Britain’s economy was struggling to recover after WWI and women’s roles were changing drastically from before the war, Princess Marie Louise, childhood friend of consort Queen Mary of England, had an idea. Being quite well connected with those in the arts, literature, and music community, and knowing her friend Queen Mary was an avid collector, she launched a project to present a dollhouse as a gift to the queen. She commissioned an architect to build what is today still the largest dollhouse in the world. It is a three-story model of an Edwardian mansion with an outer shell that lifts off to reveal the outward facing rooms inside.
The rooms of Queen Mary’s dollhouse are filled with miniature mostly-working items. The garage has at least six working cars donated by various automobile manufacturers. Singer provided a mini sewing machine. Artists, manufacturers, and crafters all contributed to the Queen’s gift because it meant advertising for their business. And this included contemporary musicians, authors, and comics too. The collaboration was such a marvel and snapshot of British manufacturing and craftsmanship that it was displayed at the British Empire Exhibition of Arts and Manufacturing in 1924.
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House sits with the shell of the house hanging above it all within a glass enclosure. As you proceed around the display you’ll find the Library on the bottom floor of one of the four sides. The library walls are decorated with mini paintings done by artists of the time. The bookshelves are filled with one-inch tall, leather bound, original manuscripts. Authors who agreed to participate in the project were sent a small book which they filled in and sent back to be bound and put in the library. These authors include several now famous classic writers such as J. M. Barrie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the famous cartoonist Fougasse.
Unfortunately, as it’s encased in glass, there’s no way to get a good look at all the little books, but you can buy a replica of The Arthur Conan Doyle book How Watson Learned the Trick at one of the Windsor Castle gift shops. You can also buy a life-size replica of Fougasse’s cartoon, A Fairy Story.