Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909
by D. Barton Johnson
page two of five

Even more than particular passages, the family situation of Misunderstood might have led Nabokov to recall the story when writing his memoirs in the late 1940s: the two boys on a idyllic family estate attended by a staff of servants, the father a national political figure, etc. The relationship between Volodya and his younger brother was not dissimilar to that of Humphrey and Miles, although the high-spirited Volodya was both the boisterous and the favored child. The recollection of their unequal favor distressed Nabokov when writing his memoir after Sergey’s death in a Nazi camp (258).

Beyond the Blue Mountains

The second title recalled by Nabokov is the “shamelessly allegorical” Beyond the Blue Mountains, featuring “two pairs of little travelers—good Clover and Cowslip, bad Buttercup and Daisy.” The book’s unnamed author was L.T. Meade (Mrs. Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith [1854-1914]). A prolific writer of stories and novels for the new working woman, Meade was, inter much alia, the editor of the popular girl’s magazine, Atalanta. Her role in defining “the new girl” has recently become an object of study in women’s’ history.8 Beyond the Blue Mountains, published in 1893 (and again in 1903) is among the less-remembered of her 250 books.9 It relates the adventurous journey of the four children, a pair of brothers and sisters. Clover, age 14, is a stalwart lad, quick to perceive the path of virtue, arduous though it may be. He is paired with his somewhat frivolous sister, the twelve-year-old Cowslip. The younger pair, Primrose (13) (not “Daisy,” as Nabokov recalls) and, especially the eleven-year-old Buttercup, are less steadfast and more easily diverted from their goal. The children are sent for by the king of the land beyond the Blue Mountains to rejoin their parents who have gone there some time before. Good Clover and Cowslip set out the next day at dawn, but Buttercup and Primrose, reluctant to rise so early, are left behind. Although beset by many seductive obstacles and false “friends,” Clover and Cowslip, aided by good helpers -- Mrs. Modesty, Charity, the Guide, -- surmount their trials and temptations and eventually arrive at the entrance to the golden gates of the land beyond the Blue Mountains. The less virtuous Primrose and Buttercup, often seduced into taking the easier “down hill” route, have a considerably more exciting time of it as they encounter the likes of Mrs. Discipline and her father Mr. Penalty. At one point they rely on the services of Fungus the Ferryman to cross a river in order to get to Castle Dangerous. Once across, they face an impossibly high cliff to gain the Castle. Fungus advises each child to seize upon a strand of his long black beard so that he may pull them up after him.

Buttercup is so easily lured from the path of virtue that he becomes separated from Primrose and arrives only later at the golden gates where his father promises to take them all to see the King of the land where “when a wish comes into our hearts it is at once granted, for no one thinks of naughty wishes..." (280).

Mavis Reimer, a leading authority on Meade, remarks that the work is clearly modeled on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, adding that the allegory “demonstrates the traps and pitfalls as well as the rewards that attend the journey of particular personality types.” Nabokov remarks only that the book contained “enough exciting details to make one forget its ‘message’” (82).

Nabokov’s fondest memories of early childhood reading are reserved for those large, flat, illustrated books in which the text was adjunct to the picture story: “I particularly liked the blue-coated, red-trousered, coal-black Golliwogg, with underclothes buttons for eyes, and his meager harem of five wooden dolls” (82). He goes on to recount favorite scenes from several of the thirteen Golliwogg books that appeared in London between 1895 and 1909. The earliest is The Adventures of two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. The story opens in a toy store on Christmas Eve. As midnight strikes, the toys come to life and begin to frolic. Among them are several “Dutch” dolls, also called “penny-woodens,” which have jointed limbs so that they can be arranged in various poses for sketching. (Often used by artists as models, the sexless dolls can be gendered and clothed as one wishes.) The two larger dolls, “Peg” and “Sarah Jane,” immediately set about making themselves outfits out of an (illegally) ripped up American flag. Peg uses “the motherly stripes;” Sarah Jane—the pretty stars. (The other, smaller doll characters, the twins, Meg and Weg, remain unclothed, as does the tiny “Midget.” ). As the toys prepare to dance, they hear a sound:

“They all look round, as well they may
to see a horrid sight!
The blackest gnome
Stands there alone
They scatter in their fright.”

Far from being a menace, the Golliwogg invites Sarah Jane to dance, sparing her the embarrassment of being left a wallflower. In another scene a rude jack-in-the-box springs up and frightens the “lovely Sarah” -- an image Nabokov finds distasteful since it reminds him of children’s parties at which a bewitching little girl would “expand into a purple-faced goblin, all wrinkles and bawling mouth.” Nabokov next recalls the scene of the dolls leaving the shop to engage in a snowball fight by a frozen pond.

The Golliwogg falls through the pond’s ice and is rescued by the Dutch dolls who carry him back to the toy shop. At dawn the toys all resume their appointed places in the shop and all ends well.

In a later book , The Golliwogg’s Bicycle Club, the companions bicycle through Paris, Japan, Turkey, and Africa. In the last, they stop to refresh themselves at a pond where they are attacked by cannibals: “Over the shoulder of my past I admire again the crucial picture: the Golliwogg, still on his knees by the pool but no longer drinking; his hair stands on end and the normal black of his face has changed to a weird ashen hue” (82-3).

Another of the books, The Golliwogg’s “Auto-Go-Cart” evokes the image of “Sarah Jane, always my favorite, sporting a long green veil.” The adventure ends, as usual, in crutches and bandaged heads (83).

Nabokov’s final image is from The Golliwogg’s Air-Ship made up of “yards and yards of yellow silk” with a tiny separate balloon for Midget attached to the larger by a cord. Excitement looms when...

A gust of wind unloosed the cord,
And ere our travelers knew,
Her small balloon had blown away,
Alas, how fast it flew.
Interestingly, Nabokov identifies not with the Golliwogg who pilots the bigger balloon but with tiny, lone Midget: “At the immense altitude..., the aeronauts huddled together for warmth while the lost little soloist, still the object of my intense envy notwithstanding his plight, drifted into an abyss of frost and stars—alone." (83).

[ page one | page two | page three ]
[ page four | page five ]


8. Sally Mitchell, The New Girl (New York: Columbia UP, 1996). See Chapter One: “Girls and Their Culture: The Case of L.T. Meade.”

9. L. T. Meade, Beyond the Blue Mountains (London: Cassell and Company, Ltd, n.d.).

[ page one | page two | page three ]
[ page four | page five ]

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.