Terrence Hanbury White (1906-64) was an English pacifist, scholar, and social critic who preferred the company of animals to that of people. He was also a gifted and prolific writer whose books reflected his wide range of interests. Today he is chiefly remembered for his spectacular retelling of the Arthurian legend in The Once and Future King. Good as this book is, and it is very good indeed, it is not T.H. White’s masterpiece. That accolade should be reserved for his tale of adventure and fantasy, Mistress Masham’s Repose, a book White wrote with both children and adults in mind. First published in 1946, it is now back in print, 60 years later, with its original glorious illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg.
The heroine of Repose is Maria, 10 years old, intrepid, and an orphan. She lives in Malplaquet, a decaying, 18th- century palace set in a vast estate. Her governess and her guardian, the local vicar, are after Maria’s inheritance. Hypocritical, censorious, and sadistic, they are in their comical way two of the most memorable villains in children’s literature. As White himself remarks, “Both the vicar and the governess were so repulsive that it is difficult to write about them fairly.” Maria’s only friends are the cook, a kindhearted illiterate countrywoman, and the professor, who has read a thousand learned books but hasn’t a penny to his name. It seems unlikely that they can protect Maria from the machinations of the governess and the vicar — but then the fantastical makes its appearance.
One afternoon, while Maria is exploring the palace grounds, she comes across a gazebo, “Mistress Masham’s Repose,” that dates from the time of Queen Anne. And there she encounters a colony of Lilliputians. Their forebears had been carried away from Lilliput by the notorious Captain Biddel and brought to England to be exhibited. They had escaped his clutches and wound up in Malplaquet, where they and their descendants have lived in independence and secrecy ever since.
Maria’s remarkable discovery sets in motion a sequence of events that will soon involve all the characters — including the Lilliputians themselves — in a swirl of intrigue, pursuit, imprisonment, and escape. It would be cruel to reveal the twists and turns of the plot or how White ties everything together at the finish, but it is to give away nothing to note that Maria wants desperately to be loved. She is brave, she is smart, but she is also 10 years old and thinks that the Lilliputians belong to her, in the manner of toys or dolls. The professor tries to tell her otherwise. But it is the consequences of her own acts that will teach Maria what words cannot.
T.H. White was an acute observer of humanity, but he was never a solemn one. Repose is both a fast-paced adventure story and a charming fantasy. It is also, and on every page, a wise and funny book. The New York Review Children’s Collection is a splendid project; each title is republished in its original format with its original illustrations. Twenty-four titles have appeared so far, and every one is a gem. Mistress Masham’s Repose is a diamond.
Review by JOHN SISCOE, Contributing Writer
Book: Mistress Masham’s Repose By T.H. White. Illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg. The New York Review Children’s Collection, Random House, 2004. Hardback, 260 pages, $16.95
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/01/10/jan-10-2007-entire-issue