Books about miniature worlds
We need to deal with the two giants of miniature at the very start. Gulliver’s Travels and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a shrink’s dream, and these masterworks cast such a long shadow that there’s hardly an imaginary narrative of scale (or a monster movie) that doesn’t owe something to them.
The writing that owes most to scale may indeed be “Scale”, a short story by Will Self. This plays on scale in a kettle and scales on a lizard, and an affair the narrator had with the family au pair on a set of bathroom scales. Punished and banished, he finds himself living in a bungalow on the edge of the real-world Bekonscot model village in Buckinghamshire, and dreams that he has entered his own miniature dwelling within it. He battles wasps the size of zeppelins and only escapes with the help of carpet underlay. Nightmare? Or the best fun you can have in millimetres? Only the reader can decide.
Made wealthy by his tales of Martian invasions and time travel, HG Wells liked nothing more than to scramble down on his knees and play with model soldiers. He wrote about the appeal in Floor Games and its sequel Little Wars, two of his least known and shortest works, the first influential in its playroom diplomacy and the second poignant in its rejection of actual military conflict. Little Wars was published a year before the first world war, and Wells included a warning: “All of us, in every country, except a few dull-witted energetic bores, want to see the manhood of the world at something better than apeing the little lead toys our children buy in boxes.” Fat chance HG.
Jessie Burton had a smash a few years ago with The Miniaturist , a novel both lush and precise, and wholly engulfing in its sense of place (Amsterdam, late 17th century). A woman’s life is mirrored in the tiny ornate objects in a beautiful doll’s house, which is also a model of her own home. Who is the mystery puppetmaster sending her these things, and will they set her free from her stifling marriage?
The darkest book on the subject is perhaps The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death , a coffee-table guide to the extraordinarily unnerving dioramas of Frances Glessner Lee. The photographer Corinne May Botz traces Lee’s journey from a wealthy but lonely childhood in Chicago to becoming the creator of 18 detailed crime scenes designed to train police detectives in the art of long-looking and forensics. Lee made most of her boxes (bloodied corpses in moody attics and cabins formed from wool, felt, paper and wood) in the 1940s, but they continue to set the imagination aflame. Just how did a woman’s body end up in the bath with her clothes still on and the tap still running? The answer is almost besides the point: the point is that we learn how to look.
But if it’s obsession you’re after, look no further than Jay’s Journal of Anomalies , the late Ricky Jay’s compendium of the wondrous and the magical. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the tricksters and hucksters he describes, not least the flea circus, where Victorian insects such as The Great Herman performed their stunts twice-nightly, pulling a chariot, jumping through hoops. How could such a marvel ever be allowed to fade?
Simon Garfield’s In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World is published by Canongate.