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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“Oh-oh!” The Burnell children sounded as though they were in despair. It was too marvellous; it was too much for them. They had never seen anything like it in their lives. All the rooms were papered. There were pictures on the walls, painted on the paper, with gold frames complete. Red carpet covered all the floors except the kitchen; red plush chairs in the drawing-room, green in the dining-room; tables, beds with real bedclothes, a cradle, a stove, a dresser with tiny plates and one big jug. 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 moved when you shook it.

When Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia are gifted this magnificent dollhouse, they are enraptured by its intricate details and miniature accessories. Their obsession with these tiny features is exhibited by the fact that Kezia likes the little lamp “frightfully.” The dollhouse is a symbol of wealth: the Kelvey girls certainly cannot afford such a toy. It thus becomes a marker of social status at school. 

For it had been arranged that while the doll’s house stood in the courtyard they might ask the girls at school, two at a time, to come and look. Not to stay to tea, of course, or to come traipsing through the house. But just to stand quietly in the courtyard while Isabel pointed out the beauties, and Lottie and Kezia looked pleased.

The Burnell girls are anxious to get to school to boast about their gift and begin inviting the other girls over to see it. It is evident that the Burnell parents are strict and proud, as they do not allow their daughters’ guests to “stay to tea” or “come traipsing through the house.” There are children in the Burnell girls’ school who are from slightly lower social classes; it is likely that their parents do not want anyone of even slightly lower status invited into the house. While children from other social classes might be allowed to view the dollhouse, the Kelvey girls—the daughters of a washerwoman—are where the Burnell parents draw the line, and they are not allowed to come at all. 

Playtime came and Isabel was surrounded. The girls of her class nearly fought to put their arms round her, to walk away with her, to beam flatteringly, to be her special friend. She held quite a court under the huge pine trees at the side of the playground. 

Mansfield’s comparison of the group of girls to a “court” demonstrates the social hierarchy in place in this community—even among schoolchildren. A court is usually presided over by a person of nobility: in this case, Isabel, with the news of her grandiose dollhouse, is the royal member, and her friends are subjects vying for her attention. Just as people of the lower classes are not allowed at court, the Kelvey girls stay outside the group but within earshot.

Dreamily they looked over the hay paddocks, past the creek, to the group of wattles where Logan’s cows stood waiting to be milked. What were their thoughts?

Presently our Else nudged up close to her sister. But now she had forgotten the cross lady. She put out a finger and stroked her sister’s quill; she smiled her rare smile.

“I seen the little lamp,” she said, softly.

Then both were silent once more.

Unlike her sisters, friends, and parents, Kezia feels that Lil and Else Kelvey should have a chance to see the dollhouse. She invites them into the courtyard to see it, and they are almost immediately scolded and insulted by Kezia’s aunt Beryl. Despite this treatment, Lil and Else reflect “dreamily” on the dollhouse, and Else, smiling and speaking for the first time in the story, remarks that she was even able to see the lamp Isabel and Kezia had so vividly described.

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