Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse, illus. C. Walter Hodges (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011 (1946))
Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people – those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food.
Over the fireplace was a shelf, and on it stood a blue wooden box filled with dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on them, in case she should feel hungry between meals.
‘Seat yourself, but do not articulate. I cannot indulge in conversation while I am engaged in the creation of a veal pie.’
A hare is not a pet but a person. Hares are clever and brave and loving… Serena is not to be put in a pie.
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Enchantment, fortitude, warmth. I wanted to celebrate The Little White Horse for some time but held back, wondering how to convey the delight it brought me. Even the purchase was in an enchanting place – browsing the children’s book department down a rickety flight of stairs in the basement of the Heywood Hill bookshop in London. The bookshop, established in 1936 in a Georgian townhouse in which you can’t take a step without a floor board creaking, had Nancy Mitford on its staff in the war. Legend has it she forgot to lock the shop one night and when she arrived in the morning, it was full of people milling about trying to buy books from each other.
I bought the book on a hunch and without having heard of the author, Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984), the daughter of an English cleric. The chunky, hardback edition reproduces the original black and white illustrations by Cyril Walter Hodges, with one lovely colour plate of the room that was allocated to Maria when she arrived at Moonacre Manor, tucked away in the top of a tower, with a tiny door that meant her governess couldn’t come in, giving Maria, for the first time in her life, her Very Own Room. The details are gorgeous, including a tiny casket over the fireplace full of biscuits decorated with sugar flowers, in case she gets hungry in the night.
‘For though this little, narrow, low door was obviously hundreds of years old, yet she felt as though it had been made especially for her. For if she had been able to choose her own door, this was the door she would have chosen … The door was opened by a silver latch that clicked in a friendly sort of way.’ 26
I read The Little White Horse in one or two nights, during which it transported me to a place of hearth-warm safety and wove itself into the tapestry of my imagination. It even fortified me at a time when my compass needle was flickeringly unsettled. It charmed and cheered, encouraged and inspired with wit and playfulness – although it’s about courage, determination and redemption, the humour precludes any whiff of piety.
A synopsis of the story is a fairy-tale archetype but like good archetypes, it reads as a tale told for the first time. An orphan (of course), is dispatched with her loyal governess, Miss Heliotrope, to live with a distant cousin in a remote place. It becomes clear that she is one of a long line of female Merryweathers who have had the opportunity to rescue the village from the pall of some wicked men in black. The village is still waiting for the one who will turn the wickedness around and restore them to full spectrum harmony. The problem being that these feisty females have always argued with the man they love and ended up stomping off in pride and sorrow before they can do the good they were made for.
Miss Heliotrope is one of a bevy of adorable characters with wonderful lines. When Maria’s cousin, the rotund and ruddy-faced Sir Benjamin who, decades behind the times, still wears ‘a huge white wig like a cauliflower on his head’, tries to persuade Miss Heliotrope to let Maria go riding on the grounds that it’s a beautiful day, she says piffle to all that with:
‘In my opinion, too much attention to weather makes for instability of character.’ 75
For a children’s story with a clear Us and Them scenario, with kindly, god-fearing people on the Us-side, and a dreadful Them (dark-clothed, dark-souled men lurking in darkened woods, poaching and stealing their supplies), it allows for complexity. It transpires that their wicked behaviour has its roots in a Merryweather misdemeanour generations ago, demonstrating that mistreating someone today can yield consequences that last for centuries.
Maria, latest scion of the Merryweather line, has to rewind and unravel the mess then and now, who offended whom, who is estranged but still in love with whom, and work out how to put it all to rights and avoid repeating history herself. She does this with psychological insight and fearless negotiation:
‘Yet his eyes, though hard, were startled, and Maria knew by instinct that if you get people thoroughly startled you can do a lot with them.’ 230
Another delight of humanity is the dwarf cook, Marmaduke Scarlet, who never fails to use six syllables or words where two will do, and who serves up miracle meals and picnics (or, as he’d have it, ‘repasts’ and ‘collations’). Even his appearance is food-likened, with a ‘fringe of whisker that encircled his whole face like a ham frill’ (100). Maria’s first encounter with him is when she is invited into his kitchen (‘culinary domain’), and he points her to a stool with his rolling pin and the injunction to:
‘Seat yourself, but do not articulate. I cannot indulge in conversation while I am engaged in the creation of a veal pie.’ 98
Quite right! And any opportunity to prepare a glorious meal delights him, as when Maria is allowed to take a day off from her studies and he sets to work as soon as he learns that:
‘Today was to be a festal day unclouded by the shadows of education…’ 218
And if you’re wondering about the menus Marmaduke rustles up, here’s a taster:
‘The supper was delicious. There was home-made crusty bread, hot onion soup, delicious rabbit stew, baked apples in a silver dish, honey, butter the colour of marigolds, a big blue jug of warm mulled claret, and hot roasted chestnuts folded in a napkin.’ 30
Or this, in an innocent world where nobody is killed by cholesterol:
‘But they didn’t have only sausages for breakfast. Digweed brought in as well a huge home-cured ham, brown boiled eggs, coffee, tea, new-baked bread, honey, cream with a thick yellow crust on the top of it, freshly churned butter, and milk so new that it was still warm and frothing.’ 48
Or tucked into a small knapsack:
‘It was amazing what he had got into a small space. Ham sandwiches. Jam sandwiches. Sausage rolls. Apple turnovers. Gingerbread. Saffron cake. Sugar biscuits. Radishes. A small crystal bottle of milk. Two little horn cups and two horn saucers.’ 220
When Maria arrives, it doesn’t take her long to realize that there is unfinished business in her new home, and to understand that it’s up to her to finish it. Her preparation for taking on this mission allows for the uncertainty that surrounds many decisions to do something meaningful:
‘But she was not idle while she waited, because she was holding herself in readiness for whatever it was that she would have to do. She was trying not to be frightened in her mind, and she found that that sort of waiting and thinking really keep a person quite busy.’ 213
Her quest to root out evil is helped by a boy called Robin and several wonderful animals, mostly wiser than their human counterparts. A lion, a hare and a massive cat called Zachariah are protective, intuitive guides, unlike Wiggins, a spoiled but beautiful dog who blatantly manipulates his mistress to secure sweet treats. Wiggins’ philosophy is more or less: to hell with heroism, as long as you get what you want. A subtle reminder to the reader not to assume moral perfection resides inside physical perfection:
‘He realized that he was fortunate in that, owing to his misleading outer perfection, people always attributed his actions to the best motives… It made for such a lot of pleasantness all round.’ 34
And the Little White Horse? An enigmatic creature, half glimpsed on moonlit nights, and only once or twice appearing at a critical juncture to light a path through darkness. After a third viewing, Maria knows she won’t see him again for some time. I was puzzled by his dominating the title without being as connected to the action as the other animals, until a friend pointed out the obvious nature of his symbolism. Leave it to you to figure that out in your own reading.
‘No past for you, little white horse, no regret,
No future of fear in this silver forest –
Only the perfect now in the white moon-dappled ride.’ 4
Over the last few years, I’ve read or re-read a good dozen children’s classics, and this is one of my two lifetime favourites (the other one is reviewed here). The Little White Horse satisfied a child’s longing in me, but while I couldn’t put it down, I didn’t want it to end, and I’ve been half-consciously looking for other books as enchanting ever since.
And if you’re longing for those flower-decorated biscuits, or Marmaduke Scarlet’s veal pie, there is an enterprising website that creates and provides recipes for fictional food, as seen in these beautiful photos. Happy cooking and eating, and wishing you all the Merryweather ‘grit and skill’ you need to fulfill your dreams, and at least a few of the:
‘Four qualities that go to make up perfection – courage, purity, love, and joy.’ 47
Note: Having seen the film based on the book, The Secret of Moonacre, I am sorry to report it makes a dog’s dinner of the story, stripping out all charm and wisdom, replacing them with clichés and cardboard cut-out acting. I hope some other film maker will be willing to do a truer, grittier version.
Maria’s room – colour plate from The Little White Horse, illustration by Cyril Walter Hodgson.
Biscuits with sugar flowers – recipe and photo courtesy Diana Ault at Fiction Food.
Veal pie – recipe and photo courtesy Diana Ault at Fiction Food.