Friday, February 22, 2008

Improving upon a Classic

Mistress Masham's Repose, penned by T.H. White (author of The Once and Future King, another favorite of mine), filches Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians, making them far more fascinating and fun. I always liked the concept of Gulliver's Travels yet found it rather a dull read. White even offers a brief but meaningful literary critique of Swift's work in a lighthearted discussion between two characters.

In Repose, young Maria is an orphan living in her crumbling family estate under the thumb of a cruel governess and a dishonest vicar. She discovers a secret outpost of Lilliputians living on a small island on the estate, and after some initial misunderstandings, they become friends. The action really picks up near the end of the book when Maria and the Lilliputians are threatened.

White has an extraordinary ability to take an existing myth and give it new life and depth. His prose is beautiful and painstaking, and he can poke fun at characters in the manner of Wodehouse. Repose is a children's book, the sort that assumes children are intelligent but don't have to understand every detail to enjoy what they are reading. How many children's novels include amusing anecdotes about Rousseau?

"He searched the Chinese Parlor, into which Rousseau had suddenly rushed in 1768, when he had indignantly read out an interminable and incomprehensible letter from himself to Diderot, leaving all hearers completely stunned."

White knows what children like. He condemns Algebra lessons as the worst kind of punishment, allows his protagonist to explore the grounds freely and happily at night, and proves her to be cleverer than her wicked oppressors. Like all the best children's stories, it concludes at Christmas with a generous exchange of gifts and a large meal.

I suspect Maria has much in common with young T.H. White. He suffered an unhappy childhood with parents who "loathed each other," but like Maria, he enthusiastically threw himself into learning and adventure. He taught himself Latin shorthand and falconry; he became an airline pilot, a fisherman, and a deep sea diver, not to mention the author two of the better novels I've read in my lifetime. His biography says:

"T.H. White seemed to follow the same advice he has Merlin give in The Once and Future King: 'The best thing for being sad is to learn something.'"

Imagine how different we would be if we always took this advice.

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