Archive for July 23rd, 2012

July 23, 2012

T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose

Since I wrote last week’s Left of Cool column I have bought a new copy of The Once and Future King because my old one (secondhand, from Delhi’s Daryaganj Sunday book market) is now genuinely too manky to be read. I have also discussed the book to the point of actual obsession with my friend Ishita, and almost entirely dreamcast a hypothetical film. I’ve acquired a copy of White’s The Goshawk as well, and if it was available in any gettable way I’d have Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of the author as well.

So attempts to stave off my White craving with Mistress Masham’s Repose can be said to have failed utterly, yet I’m still glad I read it.

 

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For weeks now I’ve been craving a reread of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. This set of four books, based on the King Arthur legend, has been one of my favourites since I discovered it in a school library in my teens. I’ve been putting off this longed-for read until a time I feel I can really treat myself. And so a few days ago I picked up another of White’s books, Mistress Masham’s Repose.

As is traditional with many children’s books, White’s heroine Maria is an impoverished orphan from an aristocratic family. She lives with her sinister (and physically repulsive, naturally) guardians on Malplaquet, a vast estate that is going to ruin. Yet Malplaquet has had a long and respectable history, having hosted in its heyday such luminaries as Alexander Pope and (possibly) his friend and contemporary, Jonathan Swift. On an island in the middle of a lake (called the Quincunx) stands a small domed building, built there years ago for a woman nobody remembers. It is called Mistress Masham’s Repose, and no human being has set foot in it for years; the lake is too clogged with weeds, and the island too overgrown with brambles.

Naturally, Maria finds her way to the island and discovers its secret. It is only now that we realise that Mistress Masham’s Repose is set in an alternate time to our own, one in which Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels actually took place. The Repose is home to the tiny descendants of Lilliput and Blefuscu, brought back to England by the mercenary sea captain who picked up the hero of Swift’s book all those years ago. It’s immediately obvious that Maria’s discovery could mean disaster for their small civilisation. It was discovery by humans that nearly brought about the end of their race, and Maria’s guardians, if they find out the secret, will think nothing of selling the Lilliputians into slavery as curiosities. Meanwhile, the guardians themselves are convinced that Maria can lead them to the hiding place document that would allow them access to a vast fortune.

Resourceful young girl helped by faithful retainers (in this case a sympathetic cook) who defeats evil adults – there’s nothing new about any of this, though it’s wonderfully done. Readers familiar with The Once and Future King will see shades of Merlyn in The Professor, an absentminded old man who nevertheless manages to teach Maria some important lessons.

But there are things about Mistress Masham’s Repose that are genuinely startling. There is, for example, the extent to which the book works as a fable about power. Maria’s dealings with the Lilliputians are at first a disaster. It is not only a question of negotiating the vast differences in physical power, but one of remembering that the Lilliputians are people at all, and even late in the book Maria sometimes forgets this. The transport of these small people to England is at one point described in terms uncomfortably reminiscent of the slave trade. And there’s a detailed description of the Malplaquet dungeons with their torture chamber. This is a world with a bloody history.

Then there’s the extent to which the book obviously expects its readers to be familiar with Swift. White has his Lilliputians speak an English that is a parody of the language used in Gulliver’s Travels, and redolent with capital letters and archaic spelling. The Professor and Maria discuss the book both as fiction and fact – the Lilliputians clearly exist in this world, but how far was Swift have been telling the truth about the flying island of Laputa? And it is clear (to the Professor, if not to Maria) that the “yahoos” described in the voyage to the Houyhnhnms are humans like themselves.

I came to Mistress Masham’s Repose expecting a funny, charming children’s story, and I received one. I was not expecting social satire, moral lessons, politics or literary criticism, yet I seem to have received all of these as well.

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