Some scholars have suggested that Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is—ahem!—nothing but a bitter satire on Human Politicks and the Despicable Ways of Human Nature. Others, such as the Learned Scholar T. H. White, perhaps best known for bringing us the True History of King Arthur and His Issues With Metal Objects Most Unaccountably Left in Stones, know better, and have Continued Researching some of the Remarkable People and Their Animals Encountered by Gulliver.
In Mistress Masham’s Repose, the Most Learned Mr. T. H. White takes the time to share his most Recent Researches with us, letting us know the eventual fate of that Most Remarkable Race, the Lilliputians.
Nine-year-old Maria lives in a giant, crumbling home called Malplaquet, which, like many other castles and palaces in postwar England, is in dire financial straits. Any income from rents or any other source has long since been swallowed up (White makes an offhand and dire reference to “Rates”), and the building cannot even be sold. Maria and her governess sleep in the two remaining functional bedrooms of an original 52, which gives you some sense of the level of entertaining the house used to have. She has two friends—the cook and an absent-minded old professor—and two enemies: Miss Brown, her governess, and the Vicar, who is a very evil and greedy Vicar indeed. And plenty of free time, which allows her to explore the nearby countryside and the lake and a small island called Mistress Masham’s Repose.
The Repose happens to be sheltering some refugees from Lilliput. Yes, that Lilliput. As they tell it, chaos erupted after Gulliver’s departure, starting with war between Lilliput and Blefuscu, and continuing with the kidnapping and capture of many of the Lilliputians by one Captain Biddel, thanks to Gulliver’s complete lack of discretion. Biddel, another Mountain (the Lilliputians’ word for normal-sized humans), had intended to display the Lilliputians for cash. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending upon your point of view—Biddel also had a fondness for drink, which leads, as you might guess, to Great Carelessness, allowing the Lilliputians to escape. And escape they do, to the small secret island in the lake on the crumbling estate, slowly rebuilding their Culture and Heritage over 200 years, while never losing their fondness for Capital Letters. Readers of Gulliver’s Travels will be relieved to know that the Dissention and Bitterness over Big-Ends and Little-Ends has finally been resolved: The Lilliputians now break their eggs in the middle.
Maria promises not to tell any other Mountain about their continued survival. She has, admittedly, broken this promise even before giving it, by telling her friend the absent-minded old professor. On the whole, however, that turns out to be a very good thing: If the professor is not very good at such things as earning a living or protecting Maria from her rapacious guardians, he is very good at getting Maria—and readers—to see things from alternative viewpoints. He is, admittedly, too late to prevent Maria from kidnapping a Lilliputian, although he is able to convince Maria to free the tiny woman. He is unable to keep Maria from attending a Lilliputian whale hunt, with disastrous results:
Maria paddled round, to see the capture brought in. She wanted to help with the victory, and was so excited that she nearly trod on the haulers, as the rats strained wisely at the seven ropes, under whips which cracked with a noise she could have made between her finger nails. She cried: “Here, give it to me! Let me pull! I can get him out!” She snatched several of the cables to tug, and each one broke in her hand. She was too big for them. The many small fists could control the horsehair, which only snapped in hers. The dead fish sank heavily beneath the water-lilies, and was lost. The precious harpoons would have to be dived for. She stopped when she saw what she had done, and the People tried to be polite.
(Incidentally, I am going to try very hard to look past the fact that they are not actually hunting whales, but a fish that is, I guess, whale-size to them, but seriously, couldn’t this have been called a Fish of Enormous Size hunt? Or a Leviathan hunt? Moving on.)
Maria does not learn that much from this; she continues to regard the Lilliputians as her toys, even after an aside from the narrator pointedly notes that the Lilliputians are quite Civilized: they even have Bad Poetry and Essays. (A mark of civilization if ever I’ve heard one.) An attempt to introduce air travel with toy airplanes goes even more badly, and she does learn from that, and slowly, Maria and the Lilliputians develop a working relationship. Unfortunately, this very relationship allows Miss Brown and the Vicar to discover the Lilliputians. And their intentions are even less benign than Maria’s.
White is never as bitter as Jonathan Swift. (Few are as bitter as Jonathan Swift.) But for all that this is ostensibly a children’s book—White even addresses an unknown child reader, Amaryllis, from time to time, as if to remind us that this is nothing but a bedtime story—White is as serious as Swift in this book. Mistress Masham’s Repose is set in a post-World War II age—characters casually refer to General Eisenhower and others, and White throws in a thoroughly nasty comment about Clement Attlee and a somewhat more complimentary one about Churchill—and betrays all of the concerns of that era. Quite a lot of this involves various nasty asides about the Inland Revenue (a general bugbear for British authors post World War II), but more than taxes, he is far more concerned about how people treat those they consider inferior.
The Lilliputians function as none-too-subtle representations of various marginalized and refugee groups. They bow to their fate with some grace, doing what they can to work with Maria. The friendship that they eventually build with her does have some genuine moments, especially after Maria begins to learn how she has to interact with them to avoid killing or harming them. But for all their fine and Capitalized Dialogue and welcoming gifts of impossibly fine linen (like spider silk) and other gifts, the Lilliputians really have no choice. Their panic when Maria does not show up for meetings is not merely for Maria’s sake, but their own. They have experienced enough danger from the Mountains to know what danger they are in.
Some of Maria’s ideas for saving the Lilliputians—in reality, exiling them to another land—sound very much like the ideas for resettling various groups after the disruption of two World Wars. Others sound unpleasantly like social and biological experimentation on humans. Maria even plans to do some of these experiments herself, and is thrown when the Lilliputians are not at all grateful or appreciative of her (unsolicited) attempts to help them out and improve their lives.
Maria, incidentally, is a remarkable figure in children’s literature: thoroughly realistic, initially completely self-centered, and often forgetful. Her mistakes are all those of a child: She is so delighted by the thought of getting revenge on Miss Brown and the Vicar by leading them on a hopeless goose chase that she quite forgets the importance of letting the Lilliputians know what’s going on—endangering the tiny people further. As I said, realistic: White is smart enough to know that Maria’s isolated, deprived existence is not the sort to create a sweet, thoughtful, unselfish child. But also, useful in a metaphoric sense: Maria has much in common with faceless bureaucratics.
This is also a book about self-justification. Miss Brown and the Vicar easily justify their planned kidnapping and enslavement of the Lilliputians by refusing to see the Lilliputians as human. The Vicar even argues (and believes) that the Lilliputians have been sent to them to solve their financial worries (well, okay, Miss Brown and the Vicar’s financial worries), a statement with some uncomfortable echoes of other human interactions. They need to go to rather more elaborate lengths to justify their treatment of Maria, which involves not just social isolation and unjust punishments, but financial manipulation.
Maria has been told that that she is supported by the Vicar’s charity; in actual fact, the Vicar has been skimming from the limited resources of the estate. He justifies this by pointing out—correctly—that Maria’s ancestors (including her great-grandfather the prime minister) were wastrels and spendthrifts who mismanaged the estate. Maria is not just too young; her family has forfeited the right to run the property. Maria manages some nice self-justifications of her own, convincing herself that things she is doing to the Lilliputians are things she is doing for the Lilliputians. It takes the professor to set her right.
It says something that arguably the only completely autonomous, moral figure is the professor—the same professor who often does not have enough food to eat.
As I said, this is ostensibly a children’s story, about a child interacting with characters from another story frequently relegated to children’s shelves. It has, as in most good children’s stories, a happy ending—if one that White somewhat manages to undercut by admitting that these days, no one sees Maria at all. Indeed, she, like the Lilliputians, may not exist. It is slow at first, and has moments of meandering afterwards, and I cannot recommend it for young children. But if you’ve ever wondered what happened to the Lilliputians, or how they would have fared in postwar Britain, or if you are interested in British meditations on colonial and refugee culture, as sifted through an update of a previous British satire, this is definitely a work to seek out.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.