I suppose Tom Thumb in the fairy story is usually the first extremely small live person we come across. Early on we’re charmed by the miniature world of dolls’ houses, but the people in them are often lumpishly out of proportion to the finely detailed furniture and possessions they may live among – and they have no opinions, and they never eat the midget food upon their midget plates.
The heroine of the first book I ever read for myself was a tiny live doll of the strongest opinions, with a penchant for marmalade, and a crotchety relationship with the little girl who kept her in a matchbox. The delicious idea in that magical, vanished book had to last, because there seemed to be nothing else like it. But a generation or so later, the entrancing miniature world had acquired new inhabitants. There were Mary Norton’s Borrowers, who lived under the floorboards, putting to ingenious new uses the things we mislay. Mrs Pepperpot, the sensible, full-sized lady in Alf Proysen’s stories, regularly had to cope with the difficulties of suddenly becoming the height of a finger. The live toy soldiers imagined by the Brontë children returned as the dashing band in Pauline Clarke’s The Twelve and the Genii, and all these variations eventually delighted me.
Yet all the time I had been missing out on a masterpiece of the genre. In 1946, soon after the small matchbox person had so gripped me, T. H. White published Mistress Masham’s Repose, which I came across in a gloomy secondhand bookshop in a run-down quarter of Tulsa, Oklahoma, some twenty years later.
The tiny people who live in the Repose, an island folly in a great lake in the vast grounds of the palace of Malplaquet (close to Northampton), are none other than the exiled descendants of Gulliver’s Lilliput. It seems that Captain John Biddel, master of the ship carrying Gulliver home, immediately saw profit in the pair of miniature cattle with which Gulliver rewarded him. Knowing
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