15 Feb 2010

My most beautiful book

This is the most beautiful book on my bookshelves. It is bound in deep red watermarked silk with gilt illustration on front and spine, and is illustrated by Charles Stewart.

It is a magical cover for the most magical of children's books - Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White.
She saw: first, a square opening, about eight inches wide, in the lowest step, which she took to be the ventilator of a damp course - but there was a path leading to it, trodden in the fine grass, a path for mice; next, she saw a seven-inch door in the base of each pillar, possibly also connected with the damp course - but, and this she did not notice because they were nearly as small as match heads, these doors had handles; finally, she saw that there was a walnut shell, or half one, outside the nearest door. Several walnuts grew in the park, though none were very close. she went to look at the shell - but looked with the greatest astonishment.

There was a baby in it.

T. H. White, Mistress Masham's Repose 1947
Our heroine is ten-year-old Maria. Maria is the heiress of Malplaquet, an enormous house in the wilds of Nothamptonshire, which was about four times longer than Buckingham Palace, but was falling down. It had 365 windows, all broken but six, fifty-two state bedrooms, and twelve company rooms.

Maria is an orphan. Her guardian, the Rev Mr Hater, is an odious man. The vicar has appointed Miss Brown, to be her governess. Miss Brown is worse than odious, she is cruel.
Both the vicar and the governess were so repulsive that it is difficult to write about them fairly.
It is strongly believed that Mr Hater has a Rolls-Royce and spends much of his time in London, while Maria lives in her ruin of a house on sago and other horrors.

It is hardly surprising that Maria often escapes the confines of her life by spending her time in the overgrown wilderness that was once the estate's manicured gardens. One glorious June day - the first of June, in fact -Maria discovers something remarkable. She discovers the descendants of Gulliver's Lilliputians - a people so tiny that they eat the leg of a frog, instead of turkey, for Christmas dinner. They are living on an island in her garden!

Maria has two friends - Cook, whose speech is refined but tangled. Like this:
Alas, my poor Miss Maria, thought Cook between her nods; alak, my dowsabelle. But Rule Britannia is my motter, and while there is life there is hope. Supposing as which her old gentleman was lucky enough for to lay his hand upon her nest, according to the Scriptures, before them tryons has her imbrangled, which is what we must imprecate the Almighty Powers for the accomplishment of before the expiration of which, I wouldn't be surprised but what there was some of them eternal hope-springs for the deliverance of whom, not with the aid of them Glorious Shiners which we wot of. Dearie me, dearie me. I'm sure I didn't hardly have the heart to darn her little stockings...
-and the professor.
He was a failure, but he did his best to hide it. One of his failings was that he could scarcely write, except in a twelfth-century hand, in Latin, with abbreviations.

...He would dream of impossible successes: imagining that the Master of Trinity had referred to him by name in a lecture...
White speaks of the professor like this:
The professor was busy with Camb. Inuv. Lib. I(I).4.26 and was stuck on the first leaf with Tripharium. He had looked it up in Lewis and Short, to no avail, and had also tried to verify it in a charter-hand manuscript called Trin. Coll. Camb. R. 14.9(884), where he had found Triumpharion, partly scratched out. This had made confusion worse confounded.

He motioned the retrieving puppy to his soapbox absently, as it slunk into the cottage with its tail between its legs, and observed: 'It says Huius Genus Thipharium Dicitus, but the trouble is that a part of the line seems to have been erased.'

'I came about something terrible.'


"It might be,' said the puppy, blushing all over.

'Whom have you murdered? The Vicar, I hope. The word has evidently proved a stumbling block to other scribes, who either evade it by omitting the sentence, or make wild guesses, or, as in this case, resort to some erasure and to complete obscurity.

"He was an unpleasant man,' he added. 'I never liked him much.'
Together Maria, the Professor and Cook must protect the Lilliputians from the clutches of Mr Hater and Miss Brown and then live happily ever after. How to they do it? Aha, you'll need to read the book to find out!!

Can you see that Mistress Masham's Repose is not your usual children's book? Can you tell that this is the type of book that transcends age barriers and works as well at 8 as it does at 80? T. H. White assumes an intelligence amongst his readership that the usual eight year old is not going to have. His allusions to artists, designers and authors expects a general knowledge of extraordinary breadth, but these, instead of making us feel foolish when we do not know something, make us feel wise when we do. This is such a clever book.

I first read Mistress Masham's Repose in 1990 in my 20s. It remains one of my favourite books. When I finished reading it aloud to Jemimah and her Daddy last night I felt sad that it was finished, but so glad that I had passed on the legacy of this beautiful book. At 8 there were many passages that Jemimah did not understand, but at 28 she will understand a little more and at 48 even more. She will read it again, I'm sure of that.

So that's my most beautiful book. What's yours?


  1. Hi Jeanne,
    My most favourite book is Ussher's Annals of the World - it is a new book, and it smells great, but I love it because of the Creation dates that it gives, and it's a great history resource.

    Have a wonderful week,

  2. This is a book I have never seen. The cover is truly exquisite! I tremble at a mininster named Mr Hater...that does not bode well.
    Strangely, I don't think I have a favourite book(aside from the Bible :-) and certainly none with such a beautiful cover. but I have a few that I have read over which is unusual for me.

  3. Yes, isn't it sad that the bad guy is so often a man of the cloth.

  4. what an enchanting book...and book report!

    i loved the cook's dialogue, and especially,
    "my dowsabelle"

    wsh i could hold that beautiful book in my
    own hands!

    will be back for many more visits!

  5. Wow, that book is beautiful!

    I'll have to think a bit on what I think is my most beautiful book.

  6. Not a fair question, Jeanne! Why, it would take days for me to go through all my bookshelves trying to decide. Our copy of Mistress Masham's Repose is not one particle as gorgeous as yours, but it does retain its dust jacket and has several finely detailed pen and ink sketches. It's on my list to read with Anna Rose this year.

    I will say that off the top of my head, we do own a beautiful oversized copy of Pilgrim's Progress published in the 1800's. Now I've got to go scratch that itch you gave me! :)

    Have a blessed day in the Lord!

  7. I have a lovely copy of Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur with watercolour illustrations by Rackham. Not as exquisite as your White but lovely just the same.

  8. Your question is difficult because your _Miss Masham's Repose_ is not only beautiful to look at, it's beautiful to read as well. I don't know that I own a book that fits both categories as well as yours. For me, I enjoy lovely illustrations, but the text is what entrances my mind.

  9. Off to find that book! - How often your blog makes me do so which is why I often come back for more. I don't have any books as beautiful to look at as yours and at the moment I don't have a favourite either - I'd need to spend more time thinking about it too.

  10. I was just captivated by the beautiful cover of the book...and then I scrolled down. That book has gorgeous illustrations. xo

  11. So in this case, we can judge a book by its cover. Stunning!

    I just checked our shelves and there is a tie in the beauty category:
    John Matthews' "Arthur of Albion" with its black cloth spine, gilt lettering, hauntingly beautiful illustrations by Pavel Tatarnikov and a large, pull-out map of the realm of Albion suitable for framing.

    In a completely different vein of beauty, honorable mention goes to our Soviet avantgarde 1934 edition of "Post" by Samuil Marshak and Mikhail Tsekhanovsky.

  12. Oh, I'm drooling over this one. This is a book I've wanted to read for a while now. But that cover! Those illustrations! Beautiful.


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