T.H. White





First Published 1946
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood


Ten-year-old Maria is heiress to a pile of debts and the broken-down palace of Malplaquet, in Northamptonshire, England. Her guardian, the local vicar, is rightfully named Mr. Hater, and her governess Miss Brown takes pleasure in ruining anything Maria enjoys. Whenever these two unpleasant people are out of the way, Maria is able to exercise her vivid imagination all over the unkempt palace grounds, and talk to her eccentric friends: the Cook and a poor Professor who is a tenant of the estate.

One day Maria discovers a race of people six inches tall, living on an overgrown island in a weed-choked lake, where a Mistress Masham of old used to take her ease. The People are descendants of Lilliputians, who were captured in the time of Gulliver and made their captor rich performing circus tricks throughout England. The prisoners escaped after giving a show at Malplaquet, and flourished in their hidden colony. The group’s history of slavery makes them reluctant to establish relations with the "man-mountains". However, Maria has found them, so they must make the best of it.

Young Maria is fascinated, but she has things to learn about how to treat people smaller than herself. The road to understanding between Maria and the People is rocky but eventually accomplished. On the other hand, it is easy to guess what Miss Brown and Mr. Hater will want to do when they discover such unusual people living on land they consider their own. Maria and her friends must figure out how to deal with these villainous tyrants when that dread time comes.

MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE carries a constant thread of laughter through its pages. I’m going to have to quote to give you the flavor. For example, Maria’s friend the Professor:
"He was a failure, but he did his best to hide it. One of his failings was that he could scarcely write, except in a twelfth-century hand, in Latin, with abbreviations."
 "...He would dream of impossible successes: imagining that the Master of Trinity had referred to him by name in a lecture..."
Here is the Professor, thinking intensely of ways to get Maria out from a multi-locked room:
"...His skull could almost be seen to swell and rise like a football being inflated. His white hair stood on end like a thunder-stricken cat’s, when stroked; his eyes sank into their sockets with the effort of concentration; the veins on the side of his temples throbbed like a frog’s heart beating; the temples themselves lifted like a cockchafer’s wing cases, when about to fly.
"The door shook on its hinges."

Other treasures of humor are Cook’s refined but tangled speech, Cook’s dog who adopts the Lilliputian School Master, and the convoluted dottiness of the Lord Lieutenant of the Shire, who takes – shall we say – some persuading, before he will rush ineptly to the rescue.

I only wish I could quote for you all the many silly reminiscences about unused rooms in the ancient palace. I give you two samples. The reader may recognize satires of guidebooks to Stately Homes of England:
"He searched the Orangery, where Gibbon had scratched out a semicolon in the famous last paragraph of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, before presenting the eighth volume to the Duke of Gloucester – who had observed affably: ‘Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?’ ...
"He searched the Chinese Parlor, into which Rousseau had suddenly rushed in 1768, when he had indignantly read out an interminable and incomprehensible letter from himself to Diderot, leaving all hearers completely stunned."

MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE cries out for comparison with two literary works in particular. For whimsical detail, the Harry Potter books. T.H. White’s style is even more whimsically detailed, but more sedate, than J.K. Rowling’s delightful series. For satire on humanity, White is gentler than Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, where the Lilliputians originated. Personally, I think the REPOSE far funnier than GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

Who should read MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE? My mother read it to us, slightly edited, when we had barely entered school. Maria’s age suggests this is a children’s book, but if so, English children of 1946 were far more advanced in education than American children of today. Again like the Harry Potter books, this is fantasy suited at least as much to adults as to children. Sometimes the author loses us in English slang, with which most American children will not be acquainted. If you can get a first edition, the illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg are wonderful: such as the valiant hunter, studied by fox, owl, and toad, all much larger than he is.

MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE was written by T.H. White, the author of THE SWORD IN THE STONE. Remember the hit animated movie? Remember, some of you, the classic Arthurian fantasy THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, from which THE SWORD IN THE STONE was taken? MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE is another enduring classic, re-released just a few years ago in illustrated hardcover.

February 2004 Review


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