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Elizabeth Goudge: The Little White Horse [Dec. 3rd, 2017|06:11 pm]

I think of The Little White Horse as a book to which people have a great emotional attachment, a book they speak of as something special, magical: other people, that is, not me. I read it long ago, possibly even as a child, too long ago anyway to remember when it was I first read it. What I do remember is thinking well, that was all right, but what was the fuss about? One or two touches of real magic - the little white horse, half glimpsed in the darkness, stayed with me from that otherwise forgotten reading - but it didn't become part of my world.

I have just re-read it, and my first reaction was no, I still don't get it. But a quick poke ariund the internet suggests I may be looking for the wrong qualities. Two interesting reviews (Maev Kennedy in The Guardian and Mari Ness at Tor.com) place it within a series on comfort reading. My own choice of comfort reading is Peter Wimsey and the Chalet School, but I can see how The Little White Horse might work.

For one thing, I don't think the reader is ever in any doubt that things will turn out all right. Maybe at the very beginning, as the newly-orphaned Maria, and Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins, are bumped and jolted through the cold and the darkness on their long journey. But as soon as the travellers emerge into the park, all silver in the moonlight, any apprehension vanishes: Maria knows at her first sight of Moonacre Manor that this is her home, and that she will always love her hitherto unknown cousin. This is security, this is comfort. If this certainty renders the plot utterly predictable, not much is lost: the narrative pretends to be withholding information about mysterious windows and shadowy figures, but perform an image search for the cover, and you will find that almost every edition spoilers the revelation that the little white horse is not actually a horse (and many of them also confirm that Wrolf is not a dog, either).

There is comfort, too, in the way the book gratifies every desire of its intended reader (who must surely be a girl the same age as - or just a little younger than - its heroine)*. A turret room ("the room Maria would have designed for herself if she had had the knowledge and skill..."), safely adjacent to that of an adult you trust, but with a door so small that only you can pass through it, good and plentiful food, and a supply of sugar biscuits always at hand in your very own room (and this in a book published in 1946, with rationing still in force), a variety of delightful pets, an imaginary friend who becomes real and declares that you are to marry no-one but him... Maria is 13 when thw story opens, and she and Robin are not married until the next spring, "because their elders thought they ought to have another year of learning to control their Merryweather tempers..." I read this as pointing out that thwy are still regarded as - and treated as - children playing house, and that we are not to take their wedding as saying anything about life outside the fairytale, because otherwise I con't know how to take it.

This interpretation seems consistent with the narrative voice, which is is dry and witty throughout, and maintains an amused detachment from the characters which is, in itself, reassuring: surely this urbane speaker is not going to tell us anything very terrible? Even while Maria and her companions are suffering the discomforts of that ride through the darkness, the reader does not share their apprehensions, being too entertained by the introductory descriptions of the threesome. The portrait of our heroine is not uncritical (Maria is vain, and draws her moral strength from the thought of the beads with which her boots are - invisibly, beneath her dress - trimmed) but it is not unkind. Even Wiggins, who has no redeeming features except his beauty, is not punished for this, and is introduced as a character in his own right. This is for humorous effect, of course: the reader gradually assembles the clues that of the three people in the carriage, only two are human, and this provokes a laugh of recognition. Is there a deliberate twist in the fact that, of all the quadrupeds in the book, Wiggins is the most feline? Or am I over-thinking this? It wouldn't be the first time.

Very well. I should consider the possibility that I am misreading The Little White Horse because I am looking for enchantment in what is primarily a comedy. But I don't quite believe that: the book is witty, but its primary mode is moral rather than comic, and this is where I have real problems with it. Not so much that it is steeped in Christianity; I don't have as much problem with that as you might expect. After all, I grew up loving the Narnia books. And inasfar as there is any magic in the book, a magic which lifts the curse from the Merryweathers, and from the Black Men too, it is the magic which is set in motion by the return of Paradise Hill to God, and carried through by Meria's careful cultivation of the Christian virtues of forbearance and mild temper...

Wait, what am I saying? These are two very different strands of Christianity. On the one hand is this magical Christianity, a folkloric, almost pagan religion, the children's Christianity of the Lady and the Bell, and the reclaimed ruined chapel on Paradise Hill. The white horse draws its magic from this source (and the book ends with Maria's awareness that she will see it again "and he would carry her upon his back away and away, she did not quite know where, but to a good place, a place where she wanted to be."

This runs cheerfully alongside the most conventional forms of churchgoing Christianity, in which all - The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate (literally) - turn out on Sunday to be scolded and encouraged by the fiddle-playing Old Parson. Belief is so natural, so inevitable, that atheism is no more than a youthful aberration, which can be cured by a knock on the head**: it is less deeply rooted than a dislike of the colour pink. Secular society is likewise immutable: riding to church that first Sunday, Maria contrasts the well-kept cottages and healthy villagers of Silverydew with the poverty she has seen in London - "tumbledown houses and ragged children and poor barefoot beggars" - and resolves to do all she can to keep Silverydew as it is now, and as it should be. London must fend for itself, she feels no need to reform society, or to share her wealth*** beyond the boundaries of the cup in the hills which shelters the manor and the village. Hers is the benevolence of the responsible proprietor. As Sir Benjamin reminds her, there is no need to ride through the tunnel to reach the church: "Silverydew is not in the outer world, it is in our world.". Perhaps this is another reminder that we are in the world of the fairy tale, and things are not quite real, but it is used to justify an insularity with which I am uncomfortable.

At times the insularity of the Merryweathers borders on the incestuous. Sun Merryweathers and moon Merryweathers always get on together, but they always quarrel.**** As they must, for if they did not separate, how could they marry? Loveday Minette came to Moonacre as a girl, as Maria has done, and her names are Merryweather names. But before she can marry Sir Benjamin, she must first quarrel with him, marry her lawyer ("a poor gentleman", she says, so that it was not appropriate to wear the wedding dress she had prepared - bear in mind when estimating the wealth of Sir Benjamin that a country lawyer exemplifies poverty) and have a son for Maria to marry. Loveday and Maria recognise each other at first sight as the daughter, the mother they would have chosen; is there more to this than their physical likeness, their tiny build and silvery colouring? Maria's declaration seems hard on Miss Heliotrope who has hitherto been as much her mother as her governess, but Maria creates a vacancy by instigating the marriage of Miss Heliotrope and Old Parson, which precedes her own. But the story of the Merryweathers must end here, for Maria and Robin never quarrel, so their ten children will have to go out into the world and marry other people.

In short, I found much to enjoy, to be entertained by and to puzzle over - but still not to love.

*I was puzzled, in a book of elegant style and loving descriptions, by passages in which the adjective 'beautiful' is repeated, paragraph after paragraph, sometimes three times on a page. I don't want to get bogged down in this level of textual analysis, but I wonder whether this, too, is a symptom that the reader is invited to fill in the blank with whatever she (oh, surely she) desires?

**I understand why Miss Heliotrope fails to recognise her youthful suitor, the free-thinking French marquis, in the Old Parson. But Heliotrope is not so common a name that he can be forgiven for needing Maria's help to indentify his lost love.

***Although Maria had never visited Moonacre before her father's death, she is Sir Benjamin's heir. Even before this is spelled out, she takes it for granted. She does not ask Sir Benjamin to give Paradise Hill back to God; it is her decision. She must then explain to him that he will have to renounce the revenue he obtains from the sheep he grazes there, and when he counters that his income will be much depleted, suggests "helpfully" that he could eat less. (Miss Heliotrope is not fooled by that "helpfully"). There is no sign thereafter that the Merrywearthers are any the poorer for this sacrifice, and Marmaduke Scarlet's catering continues as abundant as ever.

****There are overtones of the seasonal recurrence of the Sun God and the Moon Princess - and note that although the text refers only to sun Merryweathers and moon Merryweathers, the men are big and ruddy and sunny, and the Moon Princesses are small and dainty and not just female but feminine. One of the articles I read about The Little White Horse as a comfort read spoke of the joy of finding and identifying with a heroine who was not beautiful - but the actual words with which Maria is introduced are that she "was considered plain" (with her disconcertingly penetrating eyes, and those freckles). But she is as small as a fairy child, and has "exquisitely tiny feet", and from the first she made me feel big and clumsy and unworthy of all the dainty trimmings of Moonacre.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.