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Extremely Small People

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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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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 the latitude, Biddel returned to Lilliput, snatched thirteen citizens and their herds, and toured Britain with his captive curiosities. When Biddel was summoned by the reigning Duke of Malplaquet, the Lilliputians escaped, navigated the huge sea that was the lake, and re-established their nation on the island, where they remained unseen for 200 years. They are at last discovered by Maria, White’s fierce, resourceful 10-year-old heroine, heir to the now decayed Malplaquet and in the power of her crooked governess, Miss Brown, and a criminal vicar, who are after Maria’s fortune. It was of course Gulliver who was the curiosity to the original Lilliputians. It is the opposite for their descendants on the Repose – like the Borrowers, they need great cunning to stay out of sight, cover their tracks and adapt whatever they can to use on their own small scale. All this enchants Maria when she first befriends the Lilliputians and wins their trust. But she is a child, and they are not children. She interferes in their lives, has favourites, carelessly transports people in her dirty handkerchief, and nearly kills a Lilliputian youth by getting him to pilot a toy aeroplane. The Lilliputians, of a preserved eighteenth-century diction and outlook, are appalled by the Girl Mountain and are once more afraid for their future. Maria has a hard lesson to learn before they are reconciled and together set about trouncing Maria’s enemies. T. H. White is best known for his quartet of short novels gathered in 1957 as The Once and Future King, a witty, highly idiosyncratic modern retelling of the Arthurian legend, loosely shaped by Malory’s Mort d’Arthur. Only the first book, The Sword in the Stone, a funny but serious and tender account of Arthur’s childhood, is written with children in mind. That and the rest of the quartet are crammed with White’s practical and philosophical enthusiasms, falconry and pacifism vibrating most. There are traces of that approach in Mistress Masham’s Repose – a meditation on what to do with murderers here, a little learned joke about the derivation of a word there. Yet children don’t seem to mind if some of this slips past them. The pleasure is in the finely imagined detail of the neo-Lilliput, the ingenious plot, the delicate treatment of the moral problems in Maria’s path, and the gusto of the triumphant conclusion. Republished now with its original spiky illustrations, Mistress Masham’s Repose is unclassifiable, for it delights both adults and children, and still strangely little known – a truffle waiting to be unearthed.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Mary Sullivan 2004


About the contributor

Mary Sullivan is a writer and reviewer. The hero of her children’s book Marvello Simpson and the Lost Uncle, being a ventriloquist’s dummy with unusual abilities and a superior manner, is small and lives in a box.

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