It is a surprise to me that I had never heard of this fantasy novel for children until I was researching for a book from the ‘40s to include in the Decades Project. I’m sure it would have appealed to me a decade later, full of the necessity for patience and sacrifice, ideas current when I was a girl. I would have lapped it up. I enjoyed my first reading, but with a more critical eye than my 12 year-old self would have brought.
This is the fifth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 4 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine.
The Little White Horse
The story is set in 1842, when 13 year-old Maria Merryweather, an orphan, must leave a comfortable life in London to live with a cousin in the West Country. She travels with her beloved governess Miss Heliotrope and her faithful but self-indulgent King Charles spaniel called Wiggins.
Naturally she is anxious about her new home but she finds that it is an idyllic place, called Moonacre. Her cousin is the flamboyant, huge and welcoming Sir Benjamin Merryweather. There are other strong characters who are pleased that Maria has come to live there, including Wrolf, a kind of huge dog/lion, a horse (Periwinkle), the Old Parson and the even older retainer Digweed. The little white horse of the title makes just three appearances, offering hope to the young girl.
But this place is menaced by the Men from the Dark Wood. There is a tense and unhappy relationship between these Men and the Merryweathers having its origins in a centuries-old feud. And the adults of the place seem prone to separation from their life partners, often through their own quarrelsomeness.
Maria is determined to set all this right, which of course she does. But first she must overcome her own weaknesses, a fiery temper, a hot headedness and a little vanity. Above all she must make sacrifices to learn patience and perseverance.
She is helped in this by the Old Parson, and by the kindness and hopes of the people and animals she meets. Maria brings reconciliation between the branches of the Merryweather family, peace to the valley and reunites two couples years after they were separated. It is not an easy path, but the adventures she has, especially when she strays into the halls of the Men from the Dark Wood led by Monsieur Cocq de Noir, are enough to keep one reading.
The many characters in this novel are all described in detail, each one having some characteristics that mean that have a special part to play in the story.
Maria, though decidedly vain and much too inquisitive, was possessed of the fine qualities of honour and courage and fastidiousness, and Miss Heliotrope was entirely made of love and patience. (13)
Maria sees Sir Benjamin Merryweather for the first time.
But her cousin was really odd to look at, and once she started looking at him she found it very difficult to leave off. He was so tall and so broad that he seemed to fill the big doorway. His face was round and red and clean-shaven, and his big hooked nose put Miss Heliotrope’s entirely in the shade. He had three double chins, a large smiling mouth, and twinkling eyes of a warm tawny-brown, almost lost beneath bushy white eyebrows. His clothes, most scrupulously cared for, were very old-fashioned and most oddly assorted. (19)
And each person’s clothes are also described in detail, for they too reveal something of their attitude to life, including our heroine’s vanity.
In addition to sartorial details, we read a great deal about food. One of the worst sins of the Men from the Dark Wood is their theft of the food and cider of the villagers. Sausages for breakfast, picnics for the children and animals on their expeditions and the celebration tea. Marmaduke Scarlet, the magical chef, dreams of the menu he will conjure for feast. And Marmaduke does produce all this.
‘Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops. Parkin. Cream horns. Devonshire splits. Cornish pasty. Jam sandwiches. Lemon-curd sandwiches. Lettuce sandwiches. Cinnamon toast. Honey toast …’ (221-2)
If you need an explanation for this great list of delicious, mostly sugary food, remind yourself that the novel appeared at a time of war-time and post-war rationing and austerity. The Second World War is the backdrop to this novel. Maria is following the path of many children evacuated from London and the cities, to live in an unknown place, with unknown people for an unspecified length of time. Many children would have identified with her exile.
In addition, the Men from the Dark Wood (from Germany?) must be forgiven if the future is to be more peaceful. Reconciliation is required, and who better than the young to make this happen?
Elizabeth Goudge knew the power of imagination and old stories to help with that healing.
As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself. [The source of this quote is the Wikipedia page on Elizabeth Goudge.]
Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the daughter of an academic theologian, so it is not surprising that her novel was threaded with Christian themes. But hers is a very humane and generous outlook and the Old Parson one of the most delightful characters in this novel. Especially as he sings and plays the fiddle with great gusto!
I was pleased to discover that Elizabeth Goudge was living in Marldon, near Compton and Berry Pomeroy Castles, when she wrote this novel – only 5 miles from where I live. She and her mother had come to Devon in 1939 for a holiday, and when war broke out they decided to stay. They lived here for 12 years.
Elizabeth Goudge was another prolific writer, of adult as well as children’s literature and her novel The Rosemary Tree (1956) was the subject of a plagiarism case in the 1990s.
JK Rowling is quoted on the cover of the edition I used saying ‘I absolutely adored The Little White Horse. It had a cracking plot… It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.’ And she says that she followed Elizabeth Goudge by including the food her characters eat.
A footnote: The book was dedicated to Walter Hodges, who illustrated the original edition.
The Little White Horseby Elizabeth Goudge first published in 1946. I used the edition published by Lion Hudson in 1988. 238pp
The Decade Project in 2019
In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1950-59.
Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)