Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White


What if the Lilliputians were real? What if one of Gulliver’s rescuers had backtracked along his presumed route and found Lilliput or Blefuscu with the intent of capturing some of the residents (and their livestock) and brought them to England?

Maria is the nominal owner of the Malplaquet estate, in Northamptonshire, England. As she is only ten, however, she hasn’t really any control over her estates and properties, much less her own time or person, any more than any other ten-year-old would. The manor and estate have a grand past but are gradually disintegrating from neglect. Maria’s financial affairs are in the hands of her guardian, the local vicar, Mr Hater. She is looked after by her governess, Miss Brown but cared for by the cook (called Cook) and an absent-minded impoverished professor, himself living in a disintegrating cottage held up only by the books within which he uses for reference in abstruse matters of only limited scholarly interest.

Lonely and quite alone, Maria is for the most part left to look after herself physically, wandering the estate. One day, she is paddling about on the folly lake, when she decides to land upon the titular “Mistress Masham’s Repose”, an artificial island in the middle of the similarly manmade lake. Having hacked through some not terribly surprisingly tangled brambles, she finds herself, scratched and hot, on a suspiciously neat lawn, nibbled to a neat evenness that generations of sheep on better funded estates would do well to emulate. Curious, but not suspicious, she explores the island and finds what is clearly a baby though bounded in a nutshell: it’s quite alive, though small enough to sleep in a walnut shell cradle. Interest piqued, she picks it up, only to find an outraged woman, five inches tall, pricking her ankle with a spear the size of a pin and shrieking what is clearly invective against the mountainous creature who has stolen her child…and Maria captures the mother as well.

Taking them with her in her punt, she absconds to the cottage of her friend, protector (in an absentminded though affectionate way) and ally, the Professor. The Professor, being familiar with the great works of English literature, not surprisingly identifies the woman as a Lilliputian; he is quite firm with Maria, at this point in the book and throughout subsequent chapters, that she is to treat this woman and the other Lilliputians as real people, not toys, worthy of the respect which Maria feels herself due.

This lesson does not at first sink in; Maria falls into the trap that many older and wiser persons might, that of regarding them as playthings rather than playmates, and a foolish young Lilliputian aviator plays along–until he falls from (for him) a great height from a toy airplane. This brings home to Maria the reality of their lives; she is banned from the island. After another stern word from the professor, and some soul-searching, she returns with a heart-felt apology and various items she thinks the Lilliputians might really be able to use, being too small to mine or forge or even travel far in a world designed for people twelve times their size: needles, small nails, caramels purchased from Woolworth’s, discarded pans, finest fishing line, and the like.

Unfortunately, this renewed relationship with the little people attracts the attention of Miss Brown and Mr Hater, who being greedy worldy people who deserve one another. The two decide to capture the ‘minnikins’, through manipulation of Maria herself, in order to profit from their sale. The Lilliputians team up with the Professor and Cook (and the local nobs and the law enforcement agent) to rid themselves of the governess and vicar.

This isn’t quite a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, but it builds on the events in same, and presumes some knowledge of Swift’s work. (Young) readers might do well to know a bit of English history before reading the book; Malplaquet supposedly reflects Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Malborough, as the first duke of Malborough’s first battle was at Blenheim (for which his palace was named) and his last at Malplaquet. From a literary standpoint, readers might enjoy Mistress Masham’s Repose better if they’ve read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, as the language is very similar–somewhat archaic, even for books sixty and seventy years old–and some of the characters in the one bear a vague resemblance to characters in the other, though I’m not sure how intentional this was on White’s part. Perhaps just a similarity in writing style? At any rate, it’s perhaps best for children with a fairly advanced ability to decipher strange language, sentence construction and archaic language.

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