When I was young, one of my favourite books was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, by Rumer Godden (first published in 1961). The book is about Nona, who is sent away from her home in India, to live with family in England. She is lonely and homesick, as one might expect, and her cousin Belinda is cruel to her. One day Nona receives a parcel containing two Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. She realises that the dolls, too, are far from their home, and decides to make them a Japanese dolls’ house – in proper Japanese style, and takes great care to get everything right. As she creates and prepares the house, she grows in confidence and enlists the help of friends and family, eventually feeling more at home and less lonely in her new surroundings and making peace with Belinda (once Belinda does something particularly bad and then realises the error of her ways).
At the back of the book are very detailed instructions for making your own Japanese dolls’ house, which, as the kind of child who liked to make things, I thought was very cool, and I still do. I don’t know what happened to my copy of the book, if indeed I ever actually owned one – I think it might have been borrowed from the library. I was pleased to find a copy in the Shiny New Learning Centre – a hardback (‘mine’ was paperback), and a work of art in itself, I think. The illustrations, by Jean Primrose, are lovely.
After reading this book, I went through a phase of being interested in Japanese things. I got a book about doll-making from the library, and made a Japanese doll, using an old kitchen roll tube, among other things. I think my mum must have sewn the kimono, because I’m sure my sewing skills wouldn’t have been up to it. I remember having a cup and saucer set with a Japanese-type design on it – goodness knows where that came from or where it went.
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is a good book for several reasons (or at least, I think so). Firstly, because it is concerned with empathy. In the book Nona has empathy for the dolls because of her own situation. I remember my mum saying to me that Rumer Godden knew what it was like to be homesick, because she also was sent far away from her home as a child, and that taught me something about empathy, and what makes writers write the things they do. I think Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is also about learning from people who might be different to you, and the importance of caring for those who are displaced or lonely. It’s a gentle tale, which would probably seem old fashioned to a lot of people, but it deals with some important subjects.
The book is still in print, but the newer illustrations aren’t anywhere near as nice, in my view (sorry Mr Blythe), although it would be interesting to see if the new edition still includes the instructions for making the house.