Rating: Highly Recommended
Number of Pages: 231
Published by: Berkley Books
While Tim Hanbury (T.H.) White earned great acclaim for his Once and Future King stories—a skillful retelling of the King Arthur legends launched with the publication of The Sword in the Stone—he authored a wide range of works throughout his writing career. He did translations of Latin works, wrote critical essays on a variety of topics, and tried his hand at a range of literary genres.
Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) was White’s first children’s book, written first and foremost for Amaryllis Virginia Garnett, the daughter of some of White’s close friends, who went on to become an actress and was the great-niece of writer Virginia Woolf. The evidence on that front is also clear, as Amaryllis’ name comes up a few times as the one the narrator, White, is relating his tale.
The tale of Mistress Masham’s Repose follows an orphaned girl named Maria, whose family owned a great deal of land and property Northamptionshire, England. The area gets introduced as having deep-rooted historical significance. White mentions, for instance, that the poet Alexander Pope visited the area, alongside being host to many other important personages and happenings (which for the sake of not spoiling anything, I will keep from including in full detail here). After losing her parents, Maria gets placed under the care of a cruel-hearted vicar and even crueler governess, Miss Brown—with her only friends being the kindly cook in her home, and an old professor who happens to live on the grounds.
Where the action in the tale picks up is when, during an exploration of her family land, Maria stumbles across a whole community of small people—who share origins with the residents of Lilliput told of in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The main plot then follows Maria’s efforts in learning how to interact with these unexpected residents, with many references and allusions made to Gulliver’s adventures, while trying to them safe from the vicar and Miss Brown.
A remarkable aspect of Mistress Masham’s Repose is, in fact, White’s focus on expanding upon the legends of the Lilliputians from Swift’s story. Certain characters from fiction have had their tales retold over the years, from different perspectives, because they stick in the popular consciousness (like the Wicked Witch of the West, Dracula, Ebenezer Scrooge, Grendel, etc.). But Mistress Masham’s Repose was the first instance in which I’d seen Lilliputians expanded upon, despite being from a classic work of literature and easily recognizable.
White’s Lilliputian characters did bear similarities to Mary Norton’s Borrowers, particularly in their urgency to stay undiscovered by the “giants” or larger people, yet White actually published his tale half a dozen years earlier (and thus might have even acted as an inspiration for Norton’s stories). So that fact, in itself, is also an astonishing thought.
This seemingly simple (yet actually very complex) children’s story is a charming read, and one rich in historical and literary significance! So it is a read that I would highly recommend, and a book that deserves more recognition as a beautiful example of what White accomplished as an author.