I had dimly heard of Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) before somebody lent it to me, and I think that must have come through reading about Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett, both of whom were good friends with old T.H. Indeed, he dedicates this novel to Garnett’s daughter Amaryllis, to whom it is supposedly being read. White has been in the news recently, featuring in Helen Macdonald’s extremely successful H is for Hawk (which I have yet to read), but I don’t think many people have been talking about Mistress Masham’s Repose. Like me, you may have assumed it was a historical novel. Turns out, it isn’t – but it is a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels. Intrigued?
I have never read Gulliver’s Travels, to my shame, but I am (of course) aware of the Lilliputian characters – and that is pretty much all you need to be able to enjoy the context to this book. The repose of the title is a small, overgrown island in the middle of a lake in the grounds of Malplaquet, the estate where ten-year-old Maria lives. Though her governess Miss Brown, and the local vicar Mr Hater, torment and defraud her, she has enough freedom to wander around the grounds – which is how she discovers that the descendants of the Lilliputians are still living, and living on her lake, no less.
At first, she treats them as playthings – kidnapping a mother and daughter for her personal toys. White writes quite movingly about the mother/daughter relationship of these tiny people, viewed from the vantage of a not-especially tall child: we get something of her surprise at their humanity. Quickly, she realises she has gone about things the wrong way, replaces the child, and speaks with the schoolteacher of the group – who knows and speaks 18th-century English, having had it passed down through the generations from the Lilliputians who learnt it from Gulliver himself. (Gloriously, later, he speaks with the professor – Maria’s only human ally – in Latin, as being the correct way to address an educated man.)
Maria’s involvement with the Lilliputians sometimes goes well (they love making clothes from her fabric offerings) and sometimes disastrously (as you will find out if you read it) – but things take a turn for the worse when Miss Brown and Mr Hater get wind of the Lilliputians’ existence, and want to exploit them for money. Then the novel turns into a fairly conventional story of good vs evil, as Maria and her small friends try to outwit their rather cartoonishly evil nemeses.
That was a little less interesting for me – though perfectly right and proper for what is (I think?) a children’s book (so uncertain about that now). Luckily, this section also comes with some of the book’s funniest passages. There is light humour throughout, and White has a deft hand with it, but the introduction of the Lord Lieutenant is his comic masterstroke. The Professor goes to him for assistance, and the Lord Lieutenant is the epitome of absent-mindedness and loquacity…
“My dear old boy, look here, be advised by me. You drop the whole thing. You’ve got it muddled up. Perfectly natural, of course; no criticism intended. Anybody could get muddled on a thing like that, I should have done it myself. But when you’ve been a Lord Lieutenant as long as I have, or a Chief Constable, or whatever I am, you’ll know that the first thing a Lord Lieutenant has to get hold of is a motive. Can’t have a crime without you. I assure you, it’s an absolute fact. First thing a criminal must do is get a motive. It’s in a book I read. Printed. Now what motive could Miss What-you-may-call-it possibly have for wanting to handcuff young Thingummy in the what’s-it?”
I suspect I’d have got more from this novel if I’d read Gulliver’s Travels – and I probably should have done, considering my English degree background – but I still heartily enjoyed it. A great deal more than I would have done (I imagine) had it been the historical novel I’d thought it was…