Maria, a plucky ten-year-old orphan, is the sole heir to a sprawling, run-down English estate known as Malplaquet (a satirical version of the real-life Stowe House) in Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White. Her guardian (the appropriately-named vicar Mr. Hater) and her toadlike governess (Miss Brown) conspire to keep Maria isolated, impoverished, and ignorant; they plot to steal the estate from her before she can reach the age of majority.
Maria’s only friends are Cook (a loving family servant) and the Professor, an eccentric academic who lives in a gameskeeper’s cottage and studies ancient Latin, so Maria occupies herself by exploring Malplaquet’s house and grounds.
On one such occasion she finds an ornamental lake and rows out to an island in the middle that turns out to be the hiding place of an entire nation: the Kingdom of Lilliput in Exile, a society of tiny people whose ancestors escaped enslavement by Lemuel Gulliver over two centuries ago. Her fascination with their miniature society turns dangerous as she begins meddling with them, then becomes dire as the adults discover and seek to exploit the Lilliputians for financial gain.
White, best known for his book The Once and Future King, has here chosen a style and tone consistent with Jonathan Swift’s original satire—including the Lilliputian dialect, which is pure 18th-century English, complete with florid Vocabulary and extraneous Capital Letters.
Not only is the book a delightful read, but it brings up some interesting philosophical questions: is the quality of being human determined by one’s size or utility? Is it acceptable to boss others around just because one can? What is the right way to “help” people, particularly when those you want to help are determined to get along on their own? Not only are these questions posed with regard to Maria’s relationship to the Lilliputians, but also her relationship to her hateful, bullying guardians.
As Mistress Masham’s Repose was published just after World War II, it has a specific period feel that may not appeal to all readers. The satirical humor also becomes overly broad and long-winded near the book’s end (particularly in one unending scene involving a Lord Lieutenant). Otherwise, it is a strong must-read fantasy for precocious middle-school readers, teens, and adults.
Release Date: 1946 (UK)
ISBNs: 1590171039 (9781590171035)
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Alcohol/Drugs: 2 (some alcohol and tobacco consumption, underage drinking)
Language: 2 (mild profanity, reference to deity)
Violence: 2 (Lilliputian hunters, cruelty to a child, implied physical abuse)