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.