Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White

Mistress Masham's ReposeI 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…

17 thoughts on “Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White

  • August 10, 2015 at 4:12 am

    Well done reading Mistress Masham’s Repose as an adult for it is in essence a children’s novel and was indeed one of my most all consumming favourites in a book-filled childhood. (I still have my copy in a life spent giving books away.)
    Do read TH White’s The Goshawk before you read Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk for although she intersperces her journey with his, the horrors that both he and his hawk go through aren’t fully felt and the tragic ending of the one balances with the prosaic conclusion of McDonald’s. Her’s is perhaps the more expected but less memorable ending.
    And then there’s The Sword in the Stone.

    • August 10, 2015 at 9:42 pm

      It does feel like an odd mix of child-focused things and aspects of humour that adults would probably appreciate more – but that’s what I’d expect from T.H. White, from what I’ve read about him!

  • August 10, 2015 at 9:16 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this, because it’s quite, quite delightful. And The Sword in the Stone is even better.

    • August 10, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      One to add to the list! If I manage to overcome my distaste for historical fiction…

      • August 11, 2015 at 11:01 am

        Not really historic fiction… It’s a reworking of Mallory – and how would you describe his epic work? I’m not sure if The Sword in the Stone is quite your cup of tea or not (despite Arthur being transformed into various creatures). The first part is the bit everyone knows, and is very funny (mostly), and usually seen as a children’s book, but the rest of it is actually quite dark, with some very adult themes.

  • August 10, 2015 at 10:22 am

    The only White I’ve read is The Sword in the Stone, many moons ago, which I loved. This sounds intriguing but I certainly shan’t read The Goshawk (and probably not H either) because a. I can’t bear animal cruelty, and b. I don’t like birds – go figure! :)

    • August 10, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      An interesting combination! I am pretty ambivalent about birds, I must confess, but have heard such good things about H is For Hawk, and want to read the White first, so… conflicted!

  • August 10, 2015 at 11:47 am

    The New York Review of Books has been republishing vintage children’s books that have gone out of print (sometimes they are still alive and well in the UK); they are almost all quirky types of books.
    (Of course they have books for adults as well!)

    I read Mistress Masham’s Repose last year with my kids and enjoyed it as well. Time to read The Sword in the Stone, perhaps!

    • August 10, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      Oh, bless NYRB! I love them so much. And am immediately tempted by those cat-themed books…

  • August 10, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    Hmm, I also have vaguely heard about this book but had no idea what it was about. Interesting!

    • August 10, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      Not at all what you might think from the title! A curious title to choose, really.

  • August 10, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Awww, this sounds marvelous. I feel utter confidence that my library will have this — and I’ve just checked to see, and they DO have it. Lovely library. So trusty.

  • August 10, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Ooo, well done library! I seem to only use mine for Agatha Christies.

  • August 11, 2015 at 3:21 am

    This does sound like an interesting tale, I’ve always liked that title, and with it having humour, that would make it even better. I’ve had this book for many years and have not got round to reading it!

  • August 11, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    I read Mistress Masham’s Repose as a young teenager. I just ran across it in the stacks in the library I was volunteering at. I adored it then and went on to read The Sword in the Stone. I re-read Miss Masham a few years ago and found that some of the enchantment had worn off. It’s a crap shoot when you re-read books you loved as a child.

  • August 11, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I read this recently too, and like you haven’t read Gullivers travels but was familiar enough with it in general to still enjoy this one. It was definitely funny and deft enough to work for adults, but how I wish I’d known it as a child!

  • August 11, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Lovely book, which I read first aged about 12, and later to my own children. Incidentally, have you read ‘The Little Grey Men’ by BB ? Another recommended children’s book.

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