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This charming story by Virginia Woolf’s lover hid in a dollhouse for more than 90 years

“A Note of Explanation” by Vita Sackville-West is a precursor to Woolf’s Orlando.

The ghost enters her new home.
The ghost enters her new home.
A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West,‎ Illustrated by Kate Baylay, Afterword by Matthew Dennison, Published by Chronicle Books 2018. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

At Windsor Castle, there is a doll’s house that is a perfect miniature replica of a 1920s house. Built in 1923, it’s called Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, and it’s elaborately detailed, with real electricity running through its wires to light up its tiny lamps, and real water running out of its tiny faucets; it has tiny flowers in its garden and tiny cars in its courtyard. In the shelves of its library there are tiny books, each about the size of a postage stamp. And every one of those tiny books is printed with real stories, which can be read with the aid of a magnifying lens.

Some of the books in the library are reproductions of classics, but others are original stories written specifically for inclusion in the dollhouse by authors like Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Edith Wharton. (George Bernard Shaw was asked to contribute but said no, in perhaps the most on-brand move possible.) Most of the original stories have been reprinted in the years since the dollhouse went on display — but this year, for the first time, an original dollhouse story by Vita Sackville-West is coming out in print for the rest of us plebes to read.

A viewer examines the dollshouse. A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West,‎ Illustrated by Kate Baylay, Afterword by Matthew Dennison, Published by Chronicle Books 2018. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Vita Sackville-West was an accomplished author and poet in her own right, but today she’s best remembered as Virginia Woolf’s lover. “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,” Sackville-West famously wrote, and Woolf responded, “Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads.” Their love letters are much-celebrated and widely reproduced, and Sackville-West is believed to be the inspiration for the androgynous, long-lived hero of Woolf’s Orlando, who moves from century to century and gender to gender with enormous style and flair.

Sackville-West’s dollhouse book is, in some ways, a precursor to Orlando. It’s called A Note of Explanation, and it purports to explain — “if anybody cares to ruin his eyesight by reading the books in the library” — why the dollhouse seems to become messy and disarranged from time to time: It’s because it’s haunted by a ghost of extreme glamor and elegance, and every so often she has friends over to the dollhouse for dinner.

Left, the ghost hides from an observer. Right, the ghost reads. A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West,‎ Illustrated by Kate Baylay, Afterword by Matthew Dennison, Published by Chronicle Books 2018. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Like Sackville-West, the ghost wears her hair in a bob, so that her “dark little clubbed head” has a “boyish, page-like appearance;” the new edition of the story from Chronicle Books, with illustrations by Kate Baylay, shows her flitting through the dollhouse in all her Art Deco splendor. And like Orlando, the ghost takes pride in her ability to move seamlessly from time to time and country to country while always keeping up with the latest fashions: with Scheherazade, who the ghost finds “long-winded and a bore,” she wears a yashmak; with the Marquis of Carabas she wears a tricorne and powders her hair.

A Note of Explanation is not about to dethrone Orlando any time soon: it’s more a trifle and a curiosity than a fully-fledged story. But it’s an immensely charming trifle, and in Chronicle’s new edition, it’s an elegant and sumptuously illustrated one — haunted by the liveliest, most inquisitive, and most glamorous of spirits.