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  • Suspended Animation:Picture Book Storytelling, Twentieth-Century Childhood, and William Nicholson’s Clever Bill
  • Nathalie op de Beeck (bio)

My Uncanny Little Doll

I once had a sweet little doll, dears, The prettiest doll in the world; Her cheeks were so red and so white, dears, And her hair was so charmingly curled. But I lost my poor little doll, dears, As I played in the heath one day; And I cried for more than a week, dears, But I never could find where she lay. I found my poor little doll, dears, As I played in the heath one day: Folks say she is terribly changed, dears, For her paint is all washed away. And her arms trodden off by the cows, dears, And her hair not the least bit curled: Yet for old sakes' sake she is still, dears, The prettiest doll in the world.

Charles Kingsley, "My Little Doll" (1862)

In William Nicholson: The Graphic Work, Colin Campbell writes that the plot of Nicholson's 1926 Clever Bill "is a variation on a theme which earlier generations had enjoyed in the form of Charles Kingsley's poem ['My Little Doll']" (Campbell, William Nicholson, 159). In a broad sense, Campbell is correct. Both texts concern a lost toy, which is [End Page 54] restored to its owner. In The Water-Babies, Kingsley's stanzas are sung by a fairy, mimicking someone who left a favorite doll outdoors. Nicholson's pictorial narrative concerns a girl who neglects to pack her toy soldier, Clever Bill Davis, when she goes on a train trip. In both cases, the child's forgetfulness results in the doll being "terribly changed." Yet Campbell fails to note that the terrible changes in the dolls are markedly different. Kingsley composes a first-person poem whose literary imagery suggests a pastoral existence and nostalgia for time past, represented in the once-pretty, now-decayed doll; the wistful rhyme captivates the water-babies, the purified souls of abused chimney sweeps who understand death and lack middle-class luxuries. Where Kingsley's doll changes in appearance and age, Nicholson's is imbued with glittering life and exhibits no wear or tear. More than sixty years after Kingsley's book, Nicholson tells a modern, frame-by-frame story in interdependent words and pictures. From Kingsley to Nicholson, and from the Victorian era to the 1920s, storytelling changed as well as human relations to the commodity (whether doll or book), and authors expressed this transformation in literature for children.

Initially, Clever Bill seems to overlook its title character, the toy soldier, and focuses on the child, Mary. Fourteen of its twenty-three panels explain how Mary receives an invitation to visit her Aunt and packs a suitcase with childish necessities such as toys, mittens, and a teapot. Nicholson strategically lays out freeze-frame images of the suitcase contents, concentrating on how Mary's beloved possessions (including Bill) are crammed into the case or strewn about the floor. The energy intensifies as Mary tries to fit everything into her undersize luggage and accidentally leaves Bill behind. Mary's mistake galvanizes Bill, who bursts into tears and dashes out of the house after her. Unlike Kingsley's female doll, which lies on the heath until the child happens upon it again, Nicholson's male soldier doll will not endure unfair treatment or deprive a child of his company. He pursues Mary and arrives at the railway station as her train glides in. He salutes as Mary and her calico doll, Anna, greet him with outstretched arms.

Both Kingsley's and Nicholson's texts are expressive cultural artifacts that construct particular concepts of childhood for their time and place. But where Kingsley's poem describes a passive, lonely object, Nicholson's picture book introduces an active, determined consciousness. Clever Bill is not only an animate doll with a mind of his own and emotions as strong as his owner's; he is a common toy soldier, set apart from old-fashioned handicrafts such as Pinocchio, whom the artisan's touch imbued with humanity. The 1862 poem and the 1926 pictorial sequence, which [End Page 55] describe two relationships between children and commodities, demonstrate the...


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