I haven't been reading as much as I usually might this year, though post clear out I'm feeling more enthusiastic about books again, so hopefully that's about to change (having said which I've spent all weekend looking at Twitter and reading election analysis, so maybe not just immediate change). 'Mistress Masham's Repose' was a postal book group choice that I put off picking up until the last minute and then raced through, thoroughly enjoying every moment.
Curiously, for something that clearly looks like the children's book it is (to me at any rate, am I wrong about this?) everyone who saw it at work homed in on the Mistress part of the title before being deeply disappointed to learn it was not along Fifty Shades lines. I don't doubt they would all be better for reading T. H. White rather than E. L. James.
Since reading 'H is for Hawk' last year White has been high on my to do (to read?) list, I even got as far as buying a copy of 'The Once And Future King', but am now pleased to have started with 'Mistress Masham's Response'. It's short, funny, and thoughtful; the sort of book which works as well for adults as for children, and has been a perfect introduction to White's work.
Maria is a ten year old girl, heiress to the vast but derelict Malplaquet palace, and - in the best tradition - she is an orphan entrusted to the care of two deeply unpleasant individuals. Mr Hater (splendid name) the vicar and Miss Brown a particularly nasty governess. Mr Hater used to be school master, the sort who liked to beat boys, and Miss Brown was his matron. Mr Hater drives a Rolls Royce, suspiciously considering his official source of income, and Miss Brown is given to considering what would happen if Maria were to meet with an accident.
One day whilst out exploring the grounds Maria discovers a colony of Lilliputions (kidnapped after Gulliver's return by the captain who picked him up, and used for exhibition purposes until they managed to escape and live in peace for 200 years until Maria finds them). The friendship which grows between Maria and the Lilliputions eventually leads to their discovery, attempts to entrap them and dispose of Maria, and finally the reinstatement of her inheritance. It also lets White muse upon how we treat those we see as lesser than ourselves whilst having quite a bit of fun in the process.
For me the stream of references to 18th century writers, artists, actors, and architects - some of them relativley obscure - was perhas more of a pleasure than it would be to a much younger reader but the real joy is in how White describes the world. He makes it magical, sometimes dark and terrifying - it's full of predators if you're 6 inches tall - but always magical.
Everything I know of White as a person comes from 'H is for Hawk', but it's more than enough to add something to the reading of Mistress Masham's Repose. Malplaquet is apparently based on Stowe where White first taught and then later lived in a cottage in the grounds - as he has a character (the professor) do here. In Hawk, Macdonald suggests he had to curb his own sadistic impulses when it came to punishing boys, which makes the repulsive Rev Hater interesting (his predilection for corporal punishment is mentioned a couple of times), mostly though it is still the delight in the way he describes the landscape that makes this book a joy. It's worth hunting out.