Monday, 27 June 2011
The Little White Horse
If Proust had madeleines that took him back to childhood Sunday mornings, I have books that can transport me to a place and time. The place is the mobile classroom where I was for my last two years of Primary school, the time is 1978 and one of the books is Elizabeth Goudge's Little White Horse. It was first published in 1946, and won the Carnegie Medal in 1947.
It is the story of recently orphaned Maria Merryweather, and the first chapter opens with Maria, her governess Miss Heliotrope and spaniel Wiggins travelling to the West Country to live with Maria's uncle, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, the squire of Moonacre Manor. On re-reading this passage I found that the description was so powerful that it has stayed with me for over 30 years, and I remember struggling over the word "bereaved", having sounded it out as "be-rev-ed". My teacher told me how to pronounce it, and to look it up in the dictionary. Maria is wearing lavender and grey, so presumably her father is not recently dead- this detail stayed with me for years, until I read Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels and the fashions in mourning became clear (although The Little White Horse is set in 1842, well before Queen Victoria went into protracted mourning for Prince Albert, so mourning etiquette was not quite so formalised).
Moonacre, Maria discovers, is a fantastic, almost magical place, cut off from the rest of the world by hills and a forest on two sides and the sea on a third. It is accessible by a tunnel through the hills. In the manor house, Maria is doubly secluded as her bedroom is a tower, with a door so small that neither Miss Heliotrope or her uncle can enter; for the first time in her thirteen years Maria sleeps alone. However, there is someone who can get in her bedroom; she wakes to a fire, her clothes laid out for her and a bunch of fresh flowers, and at night her bed has been warmed and milk and biscuits have been set out. (Elizabeth Goudge writes an amazing meal, by the way- expect to feel hungry throughout this book!)
However all is not perfect in the valley; there is a gang of poaching fishermen in the woods and a parson with a secret, and why is Sir Benjamin so adamant that no female has entered the manor for twenty years? Luckily Maria is a determined young woman who is convinced that she must make amends for a wrong done by her ancestors. And then a mysterious boy that she used to play with in London turns up to help her...
I was reminded of this book by my recent reading of Stephanie Burgis's Kat books, and by Astrid Lindgren's Ronia, the Robber's Daughter; the magic and the feisty protagonists of both, and the robbers in the forest of the second. It is well worth re-reading. It has, I think, been in print since 1946, and gained interest after J. K. Rowling named it as her favourite book as a child. Possibly as a result, it was made into a frankly awful film. It is now printed by Lion Books, a Christian publishing company. Goudge was an avowedly Christian writer, and while much of the action is built around the church, parson and atoning for past sins, she is not a "preachy" writer.
One of the joys of the book for me is the character of Maria. Re-reading it as an adult, it is great to see that she is brave, stubborn, curious and a little vain ( the latter two traits are portrayed as faults, for which she is gently reprimanded but not punished), but very much portrayed as a girl, who likes to dress fashionably while still running, climbing and reading. At the time, the most popular author for my contemporaries was Enid Blyton, and the Famous Five was being serialised on TV. Approved girls seemed to me to be honorary boys, but Maria is truly a heroic girl. It's a great read for 9-13 year olds, or to read to 7+ year olds. Or enjoy it yourself!
I have a copy of the Lion reprint to give away. If you would like it, please make a comment telling me so, and for an extra chance to win, please tell me how you have spread the word about this giveaway, by tweeting about it, or by posting a link to your Facebook page or blog by Sunday 3rd July. The winner will be picked at random.
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