on September 8, 2000
I have wished that i could go to Lilliput; in fact, i seem to recall reading a book with jealousy years ago in which a child or children went to Lilliput in the modern worl. Now, it seems, it would not be possible. The only remaining Lilliputians were kidnapped in the Eighteenth Century and brought to England to be displayed. They escaped and have been living for two hundred years on an otherwise empty island in the property, Malplaquet, of an ancient family. The current representative of the family is a poverty-stricken ten year old girl who discovers the little people. The tale shows the results, both bad and good, for them and for her. This is a delightful book; neither too easy for an adult nor too hard (as if there is such a thing) for a child. The villains, a Vicar and a Governess, are just funny enough to tip the balance away from any true fear for Maria ~ the little girl ~ and allow for full enjoyment of the ridiculous characters, situations, and resolutions White offers. It is quite true that "Gulliver's Travels" was, when written, a savage and cutting satire, whereas now we read it for enjoyment as children. "Misstress Masham's Repose" likewise contains more than a simple children's story; likewise, though, it is the story future generations will read it for.
on January 30, 1999
Orphaned Maria lives alone in Malplaquet, the vast and ruined eighteenth-century country house which is her sole inheritance from her parents. Her guardians, the odious vicar Mr. Hater and the oppressive governess Miss Brown, strive unceasingly to keep Maria firmly in her place and under control. But Maria has too much spirit and wit to be kept down, and though she has no friends her own age, she does have allies of a sort: Cook, who keeps a bicycle handy for getting around the vast corridors of Malplaquet, and the eccentric and distracted Professor, who lives nearby in a cottage crammed with books. Though they're adults, Cook and the Professor are powerless too against the organized, bland-faced evil of Mr. Hater and Miss Brown, and Maria is on her own when she battles them. And she does battle: at first guerrilla warfare, and later out-and-out pitched engagements, in some of the funniest scenes ever committed to paper.
Initially Maria's revolts are small. She sneaks out while Miss Brown suffers from headache and visits one of her hideaways: a pond, which has an island holding an abandoned summer-house in the center, once a focal point of the glorious gardens but now like the rest overgrown and wild. Maria lands on her island and finds that it's not, however, unoccupied: tiny people live there as well. The island is hers; the summerhouse is hers; and Maria considers that the people are hers as well.
The practical and impractical things Maria does with, and for, her little people and what they do with, and for, Maria is the heart of the book. Subtly, this is a story about power---the vicar's and governess's over Maria, Maria's over the little people---and revolt. Maria, a tough soul who nonetheless suffers under domination, faces a choice when she finds her Lilliputians, and it's not an easy one. White is too honest to give us a snap cheap solution: Maria isn't perfect, but her heart is true, and in the end she deserves the heroic efforts of her seemingly-powerless friends on her behalf and earns all the happiness we want her to have.
White was a pathologically peculiar character, yet his formula for a good children's book is still completely winning. He knew precisely which elements belong in a story about an orphaned child (Wart or Maria), a mysterious wizardly advisor (Merlin or the Professor), and a great destiny to be achieved (kingship or Malplaquet) with magical or otherworldly assistance (Merlin's enchantments or the indomitable Lilliputians). It is a shame he didn't leave us more YA writing than Mistress Masham and The Sword in the Stone, but we shouldn't be greedy: in Mistress Masham's Repose alone is a story worth any hundred others.
White never speaks down to his young reader, never misses a chance to make a reference or an intelligent observation. It's this assumption that everything that interests him will interest you, even if you're 10, that makes him so endearing and makes the writing in these stories so wonderful. The layers on layers of truths and facts and skewed references ("Like all Admirals, he sat his rat badly") make Maria's story utterly convincing, and the Lilliputians become just one more part of the eighteenth century to survive, to our eyes odd but as plausible in context as, say, Horace Walpole.
Readers who like Mistress Masham will also love Mary Norton's Borrowers series, written starting in 1953, well after Mistress Masham appeared in 1946. (The books are far better than the truly awful recent movie would imply.) They can safely skip John Peterson's Littles; Norton's Borrowers are more original and far better. E. B. White's Stuart Little, also about a small person in a big world, is a different kind of story altogether and not derivative of either.
Looking for a copy of this book for a friend, I was surprised to find only a fancy reproduction edition listed as being in print. And an edition without the essential original Fritz Eichenberg illustrations, at that. Putnam, the original publisher, had Mistress Masham in print recently, and it *must* still be available; it probably turns up on school book-club lists too.
on September 1, 1998
What if: after the publication of Gulliver's Travels, some unscrupulous men went to Lilliput, captured some of the inhabitants, and brought them back to exhibit in a sideshow? And what if some years later they escaped and took up residence in a moldering summer house on a forgotten island in a pond on the middle of a huge estate, where they lived their lives undiscovered for two centuries, until the orphan girl who lives there in modern times finds them? This is the intriguing premise of Mistress Masham's Repose, an unjustly forgotten work by the great T.H. White. This is the story of the girl's discovery, and how it changes her life and theirs. Complete with evil governess, scheming vicar, and seeming miles of passageways and mysterious rooms in the huge house, this is a great adventure book with a girl as the hero. My sisters and I loved it in the 50's, our children have loved our old copy in the 80's and 90's, and now t's being republished. Highly recommended.
on July 7, 2000
What can I say that has not already been said? Even more, what can I say that will adequately convey my love for this book? Common sense dictates that not all books ever written can be perpetually in print and easily available, but I have never understood how this book has been allowed its spotty history. It is truly a book for everyone of all ages, and in my estimation should be considered White's best, even outstripping his famous "The Once and Future King," which for all its beauty is a seriously flawed work. "Mistress Masham's Repose" is didactic, too, but its teaching is not painful, and performs the miraculous feat of sending the reader, whether child or adult, on an eager search for more information. And yet, the work is not slow or tiresome, and White never talks down to anyone, even when his comedy verges on that of the music hall. Books like this should never disappear, and once you fall under its spell you will read it again and again.