Reviewed by Jodie Robson
“It was a glorious day in June – for that matter it was the Glorious First of June – and the sun was resounding on the great, green sweep of lawn. The farmer who rented the land was chasing his sheep about, with a hot-buttered face, waving a bottle of lotion for maggots; the grey squirrels were chattering and cursing in the Chestnut Avenue; the bullocks in the Jubilee Field, safe on the other side of the Quincunx, were flicking their tails and occasionally thundering off elsewhere, because the clegs bit them; cuckoos were changing their tunes; the insect world was humming in the wilderness of shining evergreens; there were rabbits, and long grass, and small birds, and Maria was as brown as a berry.”
Ten-year-old Maria, whose eyes are “the colour of marmite”, owns Malplaquet, larger than Buckingham Palace, with 52 state rooms and 365 windows, all but six of them broken. Her guardian, Mr Hater – ex-public schoolmaster and now Vicar — is systematically milking the estate for everything he can, and has appointed the thoroughly nasty Miss Brown to be her governess; between them, this repulsive pair have plans to cheat Maria out of her inheritance. Fortunately for Maria, Malplaquet is also home to Cook, to Captain the dog, and to an elderly Professor who is obviously the reincarnation of Merlin from The Sword in the Stone. Indeed, now I think of it, Maria has much in common with the Wart: an enquiring mind, a capacity to lose herself in the contemplation of nature, fierce loyalty to her friends – all ideal qualities for a hero/ine.
Malplaquet is so immense, and Maria’s opportunities for escape so few, that until now she has never explored Mistress Masham’s Repose, a classical temple on an island in the Quincunx, one of the estate’s lakes. So overgrown is this island that it seems likely that no-one has been there since the reign of Queen Anne (the book’s title reminds us that Queen Anne referred to herself as Mistress Morley, subtly underlining Malpalquet’s provenance as one of the great English estates – as indeed, does the estate itself, commemorating, like Blenheim, an English “victory”; Abigail Masham, although it has no relevance to the story, was a cousin of Sarah Churchill, “Mistress Freeman”). Battling her way through a thicket of fairytale dimensions, Maria discovers the centre of the island, and the temple itself, meticulously cared for:
…what was strange – and here Maria’s heart went Pat, she knew not why – the strange thing was that everything was neat.
She looked everywhere, but not a soul was to be seen. Not a leaf stirred in the little amphitheatre, nor was there any trace of a hut to live in. There was no shed to hold a lawn mower, nor any mower standing on the lawn.
Yet somebody had mowed the grass.
What Maria has found, and it’s not giving anything away, since it says it on the cover, is a lost colony of Lilliputians, brought back to England after their discovery by Lemuel Gulliver.
Thus begins one of the most original and wonderful of children’s books, one I have loved since I was Maria’s age. White was not a writer to make concessions to young readers – I suspect that, although the reader is occasionally and haphazardly addressed as “Amaryllis”, a reference to Virgil’s Eclogues, his imagined audience was a sort of idealised prep-school boy, already reasonably well-acquainted with Gulliver’s Travels, English military history, the writings of Richard Jeffries (Bevis being staple reading for boys of White’s generation) and so on. Like his Once and Future King, Mistress Masham’s Repose addresses some fairly weighty themes: in her dealings with the Lilliputians, Maria has much to learn about herself, and the Professor guides her (when he can divert his attention from his search for the works of Du Cange) in these explorations with all the shrewdness of Merlin. For Maria, utterly beguiled by the tiny people, desperate for friends, too young to realise that her size necessarily bestows power, and that even well-meant power can be abused, and failing to notice that they have managed quite well for two centuries without her, rapidly assumes the role of benign(ish) dictator, and has difficult lessons to learn before she can earn their love and respect.
For the modern young reader, perhaps unused to such discursive novels (this edition states “original unabridged text” on the back, suggesting that previous editors have felt that the musings on utopian societies or the nature of retribution were too long-winded) a splendid adventure ensues when Mr Hater and Miss Brown discover the existence of the Lilliputians, as you know they must. How can Maria and her friends – Cook with her rheumatics, the absent-minded, impoverished Professor, the tiny Lilliputians – possibly outwit the villainous pair? The real power at Malplaquet all-too-clearly lies in their hands and much ingenuity will be called for…
A brief word about this new edition from Vintage Classics: a list of difficult words is included, very useful for both young and adult readers, since not many people nowadays will know what a “bloater” is, nor are likely to be familiar with words such as “brailed”, “imbrangled” and “mort d’ancestre”. There’s a brief biographical note about White, some background to the book and setting, and some suggested further reading, including a helpful comment that Gulliver’s Travels is tough going (I wish someone had warned me when I was a child!). If I have a single thing to carp about it’s the section entitled References, which I think could helpfully have been twice as long, and in alphabetical order: since there are no page numbers given it is very hard to look up a reference – a properly designed list could have served the double function of informing the interested reader and introducing them to the sort of back matter that they may well need to become familiar with later in their reading careers. Aside from that minor niggle, it’s a lovely book with an attractive cover which will find a well-deserved place on my shelf of enduring favourites.
Jodie Robson, aka GeraniumCat, blogs at GeraniumCat’s Bookshelf.
T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose (London: Vintage Classics, 2014). 978-0-099-59517-5, 310pp., paperback. Glossary, references, author bio.