Mistress Masham's Repose

By T. H. White

(1946) Mistress Masham’s Repose is the story of Maria, a 10-year-old orphan who lives on her huge, dilapidated ancestral estate in England with her abusive governess, Miss Brown. The local vicar, Mr Hater, is Maria’s cruel guardian. The only other tenants of the estate are the old cook, Mrs. Noakes, who lives in the kitchen, and the professor, an elderly and destitute scholar living in a small cottage in the ridings.

Neglected, Maria often takes advantage of Miss Brown’s frequent headaches to go on adventures. One such excursion takes her to a small ornamental island, called Mistress Masham’s Repose, in the middle of one of the lakes in the grounds of the palace. There she discovers a colony of miniature people; Lilliputians, in fact, who were accidentally allowed to escape onto the estate many years before by an associate of Lemuel Gulliver (thus the story can be said to be a sequel to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

From there the story deals with Maria’s struggles with the knowledge of this discovery. She confides this knowledge only with the professor (Maria’s only friend beside the cook). He provides her with moral advice, but Maria must decide for herself how she will handle her secret. She visits the people whenever she can, swearing to them that their safety is secure. But, being only ten years of age, Maria cannot resist the temptation to treat them all like dolls. So it is that the people eventually dread her visits, which only serve to dehumanize and humiliate them.

Maria gets further and further carried away until she eventually injures one of the Lilliputians in a toy airplane. Having had enough, the people decide to banish her from their ‘‘Isle of Repose’’. So Maria goes, having learned a painful but valuable lesson.

Meanwhile, Miss Brown and Mr Hater are conspiring to steal Maria’s family fortune by altering a legal document, if they can find it, which they believe to be somewhere in the house. Eventually this evil pair discover the Lilliputians when, thinking that Maria is being held prisoner in her room, the little people climb in the window with peace offerings. In the ensuing confusion, one of the people is caught. This turns Maria’s guardians’ attention toward finding out, at all costs, where they can find the rest of the little people; intending to sell them and become millionaires.

Now Maria really is being held prisoner. This ignites the concern of the cook, who visits the professor to tell him of her suspicions... (to be continued)

Jason W. Moulder, 1996

From the 1946 book jacket:

(1946) Not since The Sword in the Stone has that unique genius, T. H. White, produced so fresh and enchanting a tale as this story of a new Lilliput in our own day.

Maria, ten years old and an orphan, lived in Malplaquet, with an unkind governess and a kindly old cook. The house, "surrounded by Vistas, Obelisks, Pyramids, Columns, Temples, Rotundas, and Palladian Bridges, was about four times longer than Buckingam Palace, but was falling down."

Not since the death of Queen Anne had anybody reposed in a temple on an island in the lake called Quincunx, but it was known as Mistress Masham's Repose. There Maria, freed by one of Miss Brown's headaches for a piratical excursion, came upon the first of her Lilliputians. She abducted two of them, a mother and baby, who were not pleased, but returned them to the island when her friend the Professor pointed out that she would scarcely win their love by wrapping them up in dirty handkerchiefs.

The story of the Lilliputians gradually came to light. Some two hundred years before, their forebears had been carried off from Lilliput by the notorious Captain Biddel and brought to England to be exhibited. The venture was all too successful, but the Captain, on a visit to Malplaquet, had imbibed too freely and gave them their chance to escape to the secret island, where they had lived ever since, continuing their civilization and cleverly adjusting themselves to the new environment.

Try as she would, Maria could not quite resist the role of benevolent dictator; she could think up such handsome ways to help her little people. But eventually she learned to let them live their own lives, to exercise their own quite marvelous ingenuity. So she and they gained, both in self-respect and in mutual respect. She had reason to be glad of their devotion when Miss Brown and the wicked Vicar learned her secret and incarcerated her. The Lilliputians bravely swarmed to her rescue and not only freed her but brought her enemies to their destruction and restored to Maria her great inheritance.

The astute reader may discover some profound truths lurking in the shadows of Mr. White's fantasy. But they do not force their way to the foreground, and the story is none the worse for their presence.

Historical notes:

Selected by the American Book of the Month Club in 1946, this continued to provide a broader awareness and readership of T. H. White’s work.

Mistress Masham’s Repose was illustrated by the late Fritz Eichenberg; one of the greatest illustrators and printmakers of the twentieth century.

The huge estate of Malplaquet, with its grand monuments, gardens and lakes isn't exactly fictitious. T. H. White based Malplaquet on a composite of Blenheim Palace and Stowe Public School. In fact, White superimposed many of the names and dates historically associated with Blenheim and Stowe directly into Malplaquet.

The name Malplaquet itself was suggested from the Battle of Malplaquet (1709), one of the Duke of Marlborough's minor victories. Blenheim Palace was a gift to him by the crown.

England Have My Bones: For the Reader of the Works of T. H. White
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Unless otherwise noted, entire contents 1996, J. Moulder and M. Schaefer. All rights reserved.
Revised Saturday, 28-Sep-2002 22:11:44 CDT.