Pat takes a small and well-earned break from writing chapters for The Masked Ball and offers something different instead:
For someone like me, interested in both miniatures and the Eighteenth Century, there is no more wonderful book than T. H. White’s MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE. Like most American girls, I read it at about the age of ten, the same age of the book’s heroine, and it instantly became a defining part of my life.
“Maria was ten years old. She had dark hair in two pigtails, and brown eyes the color of marmite, but more shiny. She wore spectacles for the time being, though she would not have to wear them always, and her nature was a loving one. She was one of those tough and friendly people who do things first and think about them afterward.”
To begin with, what was marmite? Did people still call glasses “spectacles”?
Maria lives in a vast, crumbling, Gormangast-like 18th century house, her parents dead, ruled by the petty tyranny of her governess and the local vicar:
“…built by a friend of the poet Pope, and it was surrounded by Vistas, Obelisks, Pyramids, Columns, Temples, Rotundas, and Palladian Bridges,”
I knew by now that this book wasn’t going to wait for me, and that I would have to scramble to keep up. But how could I put it down, when such tasty crumbs tempted me onward?:
“ Both the Vicar and the governess were so repulsive that it is difficult to write about them fairly.”
This was a long way from Nancy Drew.
Maria wanders the enormous abandoned estate, finding her own entertainment, and one day, playing Pirate on a small island in one of the artificial lakes, leads the story, already strange enough to an American ten year old in the ‘50s, right down the rabbit hole: she finds half of a walnut shell with a live baby in it.
A Professor who lives in a remote part of the estate figures out the baby’s origin: a whole society of Lilliputians, escaped from GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, have secretly colonized the tiny island, and now their secret is at the mercy of a ten year old human girl.
The story has a purpose: Maria struggles to do the right thing by people over whom she has power, as she opposes those who have power over her. But what makes the story so fascinating is the book’s glittering texture, informed by White’s great knowledge of, and affection for, the late 18th century:
The castle’s dungeon: “In one corner stood the Rack: the improved pattern, perfected by the villian Topcliff.”
The castle’s collonade: “where the great poet Pope himself had walked with William Broome, on the night when he was persuading the latter to persuade Tonson to publish a letter from Lintot, signed however by Cleland, and purporting to have been written by Bolingbroke, in which Lady Mary Wortly Montague was accused of having suspected a Mr. Green of persuading Broome to refuse permission to Tonson…”
Some idioms at the end of a Lilliputian-English dictionary: “Pray order me a Dish of Coffee.” “Odd-so! I have broke the Hinge of my Snuffbox.” “Come, Gentlemen, are you for a Party at Quadrille?” “Madam, the Chairs are waiting.”
T. H. White wrote two other small masterpieces of late eighteenth century lore, THE AGE OF SCANDAL and THE SCANDAL MONGERS. Both are out of print, but a search of ABE will turn them up. They are both enchanting, but MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE is enchantment itself.