BOOK REVIEW: Mistress Masham’s Repose

TITLE: Mistress Masham’s Repose

AUTHOR: T.H White

PUBLISHER: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

DATE: 1946

It probably says a lot about me that one of my absolute favorite books growing up was a Gulliver’s Travels fanfic written by T.H. White. This is one of those books that I can’t remember not having. My dad read it to my before I knew how to read, and when I wore out the paperback copy we had he bought me a hardbound illustrated edition that I still have to this day. It’s a very strange book to read to a small child, in retrospect. There are several long asides discussing the implications of various incidents from Gulliver’s Travels (most memorably a lengthy chapter about the practical methods for capturing a Brobdingnagian giant, which has nothing to do with anything else) and much of the book is about the ethical imperative of treating everyone with dignity and respect, even if you have physical power over them. For example, if you’re a ten year-old girl who’d discovered a colony of miniature humans in her backyard. But I loved it. I think I liked how strange it was. Instead of shying away from the implications of its premise, it indulged in them endlessly. It still holds a place in my heart to this day.

(BTW: SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING)

BACKGROUND:

Maria is the sole heiress to Malplaquet, one of the greatest estates in England—but real life isn’t as grand as that sounds. She’s an orphan, her family is bankrupt, the estate is in ruins, and she’s spent her whole life alone, raised amidst the faded grandeur of her family’s past by a cruel Governess. Then one day, while exploring the wild grounds, Maria stumbles upon an amazing discovery: a lost colony of Lilliputians! Kidnapped and brought to England as carnival performers in the 18th century, these tiny humans long ago escaped and built a new homeland on her family’s ancestral lands. Determined to befriend and help these strange people, Maria now has an exciting purpose for her life. But when her Governess and the greedy local Vicar discover her secret, it will take all her wiles to help her new friends escape….

WHY I LOVE IT:

1. When I was a kid, I loved stories about little people and miniature worlds. I read The Littles and The Borrowers and liked to imagine elaborate societies hidden around the city. I think there’s something about imagining these tiny worlds that’s very appealing to children. It lets them impose order on a chaotic world, organizing and categorizing things in a scaled-down size. I think that’s why I loved Repose so much. T.H. White doesn’t just treat the Lilliputians as a plot device, or assume that the reader will be bored by lengthy explanations about how their society worked. Instead, he lovingly lavishes us with details about their secret world, and he makes it clear that Maria is just as fascinated by this as we are. We learn about how they graze their sheep and cattle, how they fish and hunt, how they conceal their fleets of tiny canoes and miniature traps and snares, how they build their homes inside the eponymous Mistress Masham’s Repose (a decaying faux-temple). We are treated to lectures on the difficulty in feeding and supporting a population of five hundred citizens while maintaining absolute secrecy, and how they exploit the resources of this crumbling estate upon which they’ve made their home. We learn about their arts and culture and the poetical styles in vogue and how they organize their government and the history of how they were brought to England. I loved it all when I was a child and I love it now. It’s so imaginative and well-thought out and and it spends so much time paying attention to the ancillary details that don’t technically matter to the plot but that mattered so much to me. There’s a wonderful page where we learn about Gradgnag, greatest trapper of the Lilliputians. He travels for days across the grounds, hunting for furs and braving the dangers, and his dream is to follow in the footsteps of Blambrangrill. Generations before he climbed the Wall, crossed the Highway, braved the Dogs and the Horseless Carriages, and returned with the skin of a white mouse from the far-off and mysterious Vicarage. It’s a whole other story, the basis of epics and ballads, and we’re just getting a little glimpse of it. Maria is, unsurprisingly, absolutely obsessed with this secret kingdom she’s discovered, and that shared connection between reader and protagonist always draws me deep into the book. There’s a whole chapter that’s just Maria lying awake at night imagining up the utopian societies she could help design for the Lilliputians if she was rich. As someone who has myself spent many a night lying awake plotting out the intricate details of fictional worlds, this always resonated with me.

2. As benefits a children’s book, the plot of Repose is relatively simple and straightforward. The narrative is often winding and digressive, with long anecdotes and almost baroque language, but the actual events of the story fall into a very simple pattern. Maria discovers the existence of Lilliput-in-Exile, befriends them, learns about their world, her guardians discover her secret, they attempt to take get control the little people so they can sell them to a circus, Maria foils them, she recovers her lost family fortune, the villains are sent to prison, Maria and the Lilliputians live happily ever after. I’ve leaving out a lot of details, but the actual story doesn’t have a lot of dramatic twists or revelations. Everyone is who you think they are.

3. All that said, I really love Maria as a character. She’s impulsive, self-centered, and emotional. She’s clever, but not very well-educated. Naturally very kind, but prone to fits or flights of fancy. Desperately lonely and accustomed to living in her own head for much of the time. Brave, but foolish. She’s someone who always wants to do the right thing, who doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body–but who still makes mistakes or gives in to her worst impulses sometimes. In short, she’s very much a ten-year old child, with everything that implies.

4. One of my favorite things about Mistress Masham’s Repose is that it never condescends to the reader. I mean this in a few different ways. The book is very upfront about the realities of Lilliputian life–they survive by hunting and killing animals, and and they are in turn hunted and killed by other animals. It’s a brutal and dangerous life. It also presents us with a very banal picture of evil. The villains of the book, Miss Brown, the Governess, and Mr. Hater, the Vicar, are small-minded, petty, cruel people who have no real ambition or goals or higher purpose. They’re cruel to Maria because they’re cruel people and they don’t know how to do anything else, and they want to exploit the Lilliputians because it doesn’t occur to them to do anything else with them. At one point, the narrator apologetically explains that they were probably doing the best they could. They’re the type of villain one actually meets in life, and the book is very forthright about that. The narrative of Repose is filled with allusions and references that go over the reader’s head–a running joke throughout the book is that pretty much everything of importance in English history supposedly happened at Malplaquet–and there’s constant references to Gulliver’s Travels and allusions to the Classics and discourses on Latin conjugation wrapped around the plot. These went over my head as a kid (and I assume the same for most readers) but it makes you (or at least me) feel like the narrator is treating you like someone they respect. You can tell you’re not being talked down to, and I always appreciated that.

5. Another way that the book treats the reader seriously is in the themes and topics that it addresses. At its heart, Mistress Masham’s Repose is about the importance of self-governance and autonomy. Once Maria discovers the Lilliputians, the central feature of their relationship is the imbalance of power. Maria is, to them, an invincible giant, who is powerful enough to do to them whatever she wants. She has the potential to exert absolute power over them, despite the fact that they are adults (from an ancient and well-accomplished civilization) and she is a child. Maria isn’t cruel or malicious, but she has to wrestle with the tendency to see this marvelous little people as her property or her toys. She has to learn how to treat them with the dignity and self-respect that they are owed as fellow human beings. Even beyond that, she has to resist her well-meaning desires to do everything for them. She knows what hard lives they lead, and wants to help them however she can. That’s good! And they’re delighted when she gives them gifts of nails and handkerchiefs they can use. But she has to realize that if she just provided them with all their food and supplies they would become totally subordinated to her. The moral center of the book is the Professor, an elderly and poverty-stricken scholar of Ancient Latin, who serves as Maria’s mentor and is opposed to any man having power over any other man.

“I am a failure in the world. I do not rule people, nor deceive them for the sake of power, nor try to swindle their livelihood into my own possession. I say to them: please go freely on your way and I will do my best to follow mine. Well then, Maria, although this is not a fashionable way of going on, nor even a successful one, it is a thing which I believe in–that people must not tyrannize, nor try to be great because they are little.”

At one point, the relationship of the Lilliputians to the Big People is directly compared to Spanish conquest of Peru, and the entire book can be read as an implicit critique of the British Empire. A theme returned to several times is that the Lilliputians are a sovereign people with their own culture and history and language but that due to a lack of physical power they are constantly forced to cede to the wishes of others. Thus power dynamic also extends in the other direction as well. Maria has power over the Lilliputians, which she must resist abusing, and in turn is under the absolute power over the Governess and the Vicar. Repose puts the arbitrary power that adults have over children into the context of these sorts of tyrannical, imperial relationships. I think these are important themes, and lessons well-worth inculcating in The Youth, but what I really like is that the Professor (and the narrative) treat Maria as a moral agent capable of understanding and enacting proper ethical behavior. For a book with such a fantastical premise, it consistently treats its protagonist and its readers like thinking beings worthy of respect. T.H. White practices what he preaches.

6. The original Gulliver’s Travels was, of course, a satire of England in particular and mankind in general, using the protagonist’s journeys in strange lands to mock various aspects of his own. Mistress Masham’s Repose doesn’t do this to anywhere near the same extent (which, frankly is fine, Travels gets really repetitive after the first few chapters) but it’s a very funny book that quietly pokes fun at mid-20th century England. The Vicar is a loathsome man who accepted the job as Maria’s guardian solely for the purpose of finding and modifying some documents so as to steal her ancestral fortune. The narrator acknowledges that we may be surprised to learn that a vicar is a forger. “And indeed” he assures us, “some of them are not”. Of course, this doesn’t prevent him from lecturing sternly on the wages of sin every Sunday in Church. He was a great success in the Young Christians Society at school, we are told. Later, the Professor goes to the local Lord Lieutenant to try and get him to help rescue Maria, who’s been kidnapped, only to discover that the man is incapable of discussing anything beyond horses, hounds, and hunting. They finally alert him to the plot by writing a note about it and giving it to a hound to deliver. Beyond that, it’s just a very funny book (in my opinion). I deeply enjoy the discourses on the various rooms at Malplaquet (The Third Duke’s Sitting Chamber, the Utterly Inconsequential Drawing Room, the Corridor for Distinguished Strangers, the Third Best Bedroom Once Removed, etc) and the Professor’s endless quest to translate obscure Medieval Latin words. It’s kind of book that really rewards returning as an adult so you can realize all the references that went over your head before. My favorite one of these is when the Lord Lieutenant, at last alerted to the crisis, picks up the phone and calls for help. “Get me the Prime Minister!” he shouts. Then “Attlee? Who’s Attlee? Get me Churchill!”

WHAT I DON’T LIKE:

1. I love this book so much you guys

WILL YOU LIKE IT:

This is one of those books where I like it so much that it’s a little hard for me to consider an objective recommendation. But I think it really does deserve a wider audience. I’d recommend it for any children who enjoy fantasy books or other stories about Little People. The writing is often dated–it was written just after WWII and the Lilliputians speak in 18th century English–but I don’t think that’s a barrier, and to me just makes the story feel even stranger, in a good way. It really is like journeying to another world. I think a lot of adults would like it too! It’s a genuinely lovely book, one that manages to combine the simplicity of a proper children’s story with a lot more moral complexity than one might expect. Even after twenty years there are still scenes that make me laugh, and I still find myself engrossed in descriptions of the Lilliputian ‘Oeconomy’. It’s near and dear to my heart, and if you do decide to check it out, I hope it brings you some measure of joy.

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