* Prices may differ from that shown
Although this is a children's book, I read Mistress Masham's Repose myself, having grown to love T H White's most well-known work The Once and Future King, his re-working of the Arthurian legend from which the films Camelot and Disney's The Sword and the Stone were adapted. Mistress Masham's Repose was first published in 1946.
Here, we have your typical tale of an orphaned heiress, grasping guardians, a forgetful professor, and escapee Lilliputians living in secret on an island within the grounds of the estate. Maria is the orphan, existing under the cruel eyes of her governess, Miss Brown and her guardian, the local Vicar, Mr Hater, who rather suspiciously has a Rolls Royce and spends a lot of time in town, while Maria is practically destitute.
Her sole allies are Cook, and the absent-minded professor who lives in a dilapidated state in a cottage nearby. The stately home to which Maria is heiress is called Malplaquet, and is described as four times longer than Buckingham Palace, but barely habitable. In the grounds there are lakes, the Quincunx being Maria's favourite, whose island turns out to be the home of the displaced Lilliputians.
Once they are discovered by Maria, she tries to keep them a secret, but her curiosity and fascination gets the better of her, with near disastrous results!
What follows is an intriguing tale of greed, bravery, and ultimately justice, punctuated by White's intriguing and inventive storytelling style which you really have to read to appreciate. His political and religious views are worked subtly into the story in various ways (you might guess from the Vicar's name and character that he had little time for the Church). He often makes the professor his mouthpiece, this is also the case in the final part of The Once and Future King (the Book of Merlyn). In fact there are many similarities between the two characters.
One example of this is a discussion on ethics which is very interesting - Maria is placed in a position where she could exploit the Lilliputians, and doesn't see her mistaken attitude until the professor brings her up sharp. This may sound a bit heavy for a kid's book, but because he's such a likeable character, it doesn't come across at all as overbearing. Maria is reasoned with as a person, not talked down to because she's young. I remember hating being patronised as a child so I think this would have appealed to me then!
Interestingly, later we have an entire chapter devoted to his own temptations of exploiting not the little people but a giant, if ever they found one. It's an interesting contrast, and highlights how White was no respecter of persons in this respect, everyone was equally capable of failure. It's also quite anarchic in a sense - none of the adults in the story are portrayed as heroes, Maria seems to be the only one capable of working with the Lilliputians to save the day.
One other thing that stands out about White's work is his assumption of the young reader's broad literary, historical and architectural knowledge, and sometimes it's hard to gauge the age for whom it's intended. Some of his long comparative descriptions are very tongue-in-cheek, but it's always done in a knowing tone, and he's never guilty of talking down to his audience.
Anne Fine, the second children's laureate, has written the introduction to this book, in which she says that this is the one children's book that she wishes that she had written herself.
The very brief biography of the author in the book reads thus: "T.H.White was born in India and lived in Ireland and later in the Channel Islands. He taught at Stowe School, which provided the model for the dilapidated ducal mansion in Mistress Masham's Repose."
Terence Hanbury White's early life was difficult. Born in 1906, his parents separated when he was 14. He was schooled in England, and he taught at Stowe from 1930-36, when he gave up teaching to pursue his writing career. He was a pacifist, and in line with this he was a conscientious objector. His private life, although he wasn't exactly a celebrity author, has been reported in widely different ways, apparently partly due to his principle biographer following her own agenda, so his character as a person is hard to nail down.
He does seems to have been a bit eccentric, and a recluse certainly for a part of his life. I've seen him labelled as a misogynist, yet he wrote with great sensitivity and empathy when he developed his female characters, so that really doesn't ring true at all for me, which casts doubt on a whole host of other things. I feel that it's clear from his writing and his characterisations that he was a very sensitive and perceptive person, particularly from his Arthurian work, where each person is invested with such humanity that you can't help but feel that you know them inside out by the end of the book. But that's for another review... He died in 1964, and is buried in Greece, as he passed away onboard ship there after a lecture tour.
The edition that I have is a recent reprint by Jane Nissen Book , this is their mission statement:
"Jane Nissen Books is an imprint founded by a former Associate Publisher at Penguin Children's Books.
The purpose of this personal venture is to bring back into print some of the best-loved children's books of the 20th century and to enable a new generation of readers to discover for themselves high-quality, timeless titles that should not be lost."
The book appears to be out of print currently, as it's not listed on the publisher's website, but it is widely available online in a variety of different editions and a wide variety of prices. I highly recommend it as a quirky and highly enjoyable read for confident and adventurous readers of 8 or 9 onwards, maybe particularly for girls but not necessarily, and it may be of more interest currently since Gulliver's Travels is doing the rounds in the cinemas!