Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946)

T.H. White is best known for his retelling of the King Arthur legend in The Once and Future King, a compilation of three novels including The Sword in the Stone.

Mistress Masham’s Repose concerns the orphaned heiress to a crumbling estate, being raised by a horrible governess with the collusion of her equally horrible sidekick the vicar. One day exploring a neglected and overgrown lake on the grounds, she discovers the Lilliputians, descendants of the ones from Gullivers Travels.

But White did not just borrow Swift’s creations, he wrote a book of biting satire in the vein of Swift. (I think people underestimate how much White did the same thing in Once and Future King. It is as much a satire on British society as it is a story about King Arthur.) The only problem is, satire is lost on children. Also like Once and Future King, there is some endless cataloguing of plants and wildlife; White was a bit of a naturalist, and he couldn’t resist.

Unlike many of the books on the “Literary Greats Try to Write for Children” list that make for bad children’s fare, this one makes a pretty good book for adults. I remember it on my parents’ bookshelves along with archie & mehitabel, Chas Addams’ Drawn and Quartered, The Annotated Alice, The Thirteen Clocks, The Rescuers, and other erudite but playful books of the early-to-mid 20th century. (Yes, The Rescuers was originally for an adult audience.) Mistress Masham’s Repose has, however, been re-released as part of the NYT children’s collection, so it is now firmly understood to be For Children.

14 thoughts on “Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946)

    1. James

      8-10, she says, and returned 10 years later.
      I think I tackled The Once and Future King at about that age, but stopped hallway – once Arthur grows up!

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      1. Susie

        I loved the Once & Future King while it was about Arthur’s childhood & Education, but when Morgana started doing witch craft in the fireplace I thought ” eww.”

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      2. Cassandra

        I did the same thing with Once and Future King – got bored someway through the second book. About time I re-read it. I think I was quite young when I read it though – can you remember James? Maybe 7 or 8.

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      3. mlwilson

        Hi Cassandra, did you read a lot of adult books at an early age? What else would you recommend? I’ve read some Jane Austen to my 10 year old, and I’m about to try her on some Sherlock Holmes.

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      4. Cassandra

        I didn’t read very much adult stuff, it was mostly too boring then. Depends if you count Wizard of Earthsea? I read that around 10 and loved it.
        Not sure when I first read Sherlock Holmes but maybe around 11 or 12? Same with Agatha Christie, I definitely read some Miss Marple when I was 12. I did like Oliver Twist, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, that sort of thing. There was a period between about 8-11 when I could read that type of dense prose fairly easily, when now it’s too much and I can’t immerse myself in the story as easily.
        Also, it may be more recent but you could definitely start on Discworld age 10.

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  1. Alexandra

    I read it when I was maybe 9 or 10 and loved it (still do as of age 18). I’d already read Gulliver’s Travels, so understood most of the references to that at least. The satire definitely passed me by!

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      1. Alexandra

        Oh, I suppose it’s just a great book! I always liked books in which the grown-ups were the villains, and I suppose it does that very well. But the good grownups, all wonderfully eccentric and individual, were great too and the professor is simply lovely. The scene where he’s trying to tell the Colonel about Maria’s plight, and the Colonel just wants to show off all his horse stuff, was one of my favourites. And the illustrations were gorgeous.

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  2. Susie

    My Mom kept me supplied with a variety of books & that is how I came to read Mistress Masham at about age 9-10, although it featured neither dogs, nor horses. You are right; any satire was completely lost to me, and I remember being vaguely puzzled as to the point of the story. It did not seem to have a sense of purpose or adventure. But it was one I did not re-read later so that may have just been my immature literary perspective.

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