Mar 17, 2014

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth GoudgeThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

The Little White Horse tells the story of Maria Merryweather, who after her parents’ death is sent to live with a relative she’s never met before at a manor house in the West Country. The year is 1842, and 13-year-old Maria is accompanied by her governess, Miss Heliotrope, and her dog, Wiggins, on her journey to Moonacre Manor. Upon arrival, they meet Maria’s cousin, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, and an unusual-looking dog named Wrolf. Maria falls in love with Moonacre and takes to Sir Benjamin straight away — but those familiar with the history of the valley, like Sir Benjamin himself, fear that trouble may be on the horizon. As Maria uncovers the history of her family (and with it, the tale of the first Moon Princess and of the little white horse Maria thinks she may have seen the night she arrived at Moonacre), she understands the importance of bringing peace to her beloved valley once and for all.

I really enjoyed The Little White Horse, even though I started out thinking that I maybe wouldn’t. The 1946 Carnegie Medal winner is beautifully written, and that drew me in straight away. Goudge excels at conveying atmosphere and a sense of enchantment from the very first page — even the place and characters’ names make you feel that magic is just around the corner. However — and this is quite a big “however” for me — I was initially thrown off by the strong undercurrent of misogyny that underpins the story.

Maria Merryweather and Miss Heliotrope are among the most literal excepto-girls I think I’ve ever encountered: when they arrive at Moonacre, they’re told they’re the first women to set foot in the place in two decades, as neither Sir Benjamin nor his cook Marmaduke like women one bit — but if they behave themselves and refrain from “female curiosity”, an exception can perhaps be made for them. Passages like the following, of which there were quite a few, actually hurt to read:
‘Does my appearance suggest to you that of a female lady’s maid?’ he demanded. ‘Does any self-respecting male concern himself with ribbons and laces and female rubbish? Allow me to inform you, young Mistress, that if there is one thing in the universe for which I have not the slightest partiality it is a female. And my master, the Squire, entertains in his bosom the same sensations of distaste for the daughters of Eve as those that lodge in the breast of his humble retainer.’

‘You, Mistress, are of tender years; and femininity, my dear young lady, grows on a female with the passage of time, like all bad habits, and is less objectionable in the early stages. And as for your lady governess, she is a distinct improvement upon that other duenna, who resided here before with the younger mistress, and never stopped asking questions.’
SOB. Later we learn that “Sir Benjamin and Marmaduke’s dislike of women had been slightly mollified by the good behaviour of herself and Miss Heliotrope.” There’s of course a backstory to their grudge against women, which is eventually explained and resolved; but this didn’t lessen my discomfort with the idea that it’s okay to hate all women because specific women have hurt your feelings in the past, which is an idea the narrative never really properly challenges. Sir Benjamin and Marmaduke are proven wrong in their dismissal of women, but the way the story sets this up makes it much too easy to just think of “good” women as the exception that proves the rule. (If by now you’re thinking, “Why, then, did you like The Little White Horse so much?”, never fear — I’m getting there.)

The other think that put me off at first was the fact that The Little White Horse is a feudal fantasy, with all the murky political implications attached to that. Take this bit, for example:
The cottages all looked prosperous and well-cared for, and besides the flowers the gardens had beehives in them and fruit bushes and herb-beds. And the people looked as prosperous and happy as their homes. The children were sturdy as little ponies, healthy and happy, their mothers and fathers strong-looking and serene, the old people as rosy-cheeked and smiling as the children. And their clothes were bright as their gardens, the dresses sprigged with flowers, the bonnets tied with bright ribbons; the colours of the men’s well-worn Sunday coats, bottle-green, hyacinth or plum-colour, rather beautified than dimmer by age.
Remembering some ugly things that she had seen in London — tumbledown houses and ragged children and poor barefoot beggars — Maria said to herself: ‘This is how it ought to be. This is how it always must be in Silverdew. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep Silverdew always like this.’ And she braced her shoulders and tilted her chin and looked very determined indeed.
The undercurrent of condescension here is quite obvious, as is the idea that power fuelled by inequality is okay as long as it’s wielded benevolently. There’s a lot more that could be said about the topic of urban vs rural poverty in the Victorian era, as well as about the novel’s politics in general. I can see the multiple pitfalls in the sort of nostalgia embodied by the paragraph above, but I want to explain why I enjoyed The Little White Horse so much in the end. To put it simply, it was because while it’s shorthand, some of the ideas it’s shorthand for are ones I want to embrace.

Spoilers for this paragraph: Maria brings peace to the valley by talking to the bad men in the Dark Woods and inviting them around for a tea party. The fact that this actually works made me want to give The Little White Horse a hug. You could argue it’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy, but it’s not really any more of one than the patriarchal sword-filled narratives we normally indulge. I like the idea of a story like The Little White Horse shaping the kinds of imaginative possibilities that are available to us. If we’re going to have fantasies, I’d rather have ones where people talk things through and reason with each other, where former enemies have a glorious afternoon tea together (oh, the food descriptions in this book!), than ones that end with swords and killings and blood-soaked triumphs against the odds.

Maria’s solutions to the problems that had plagued the valley for centuries are coded in markedly gendered ways, and while I think the framing of diplomacy as opposed to violence as feminine is worth deconstructing, I like how The Little White Horse puts this forth as a possibility that can be imagined by everyone. This was why I liked the book so much in the end — plus the writing, as I’d mentioned before; plus Maria herself, and the fact that despite the aforementioned problems with the male characters’s unaddressed misogyny she has a refreshing degree of agency; plus all her valiant animal helpers and how adorable they were. As much as I enjoyed it now, I know I’d have reread The Little White Horse until my copy fell apart as a child.

Lastly, the ending really moved me. There’s a strong religious subtext to it, but my reading was slightly different. It reminded me of the scene with Branza and the wolf at the end of Tender Morsels, the mere thought of which makes me tear up to this very day. Goudge conveys some of that same feeling of… oh, I don’t know, awareness of life’s brevity and your own impermanence and longing for other possibilities even if you’re content with the choices you’ve made. It’s a beautiful closing scene, and it adds another layer of depth to an already complex and resonant novel.

They read it too: Shelf Love, Charlotte's Library, The Indextrious Reader


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  1. Last year, I read one of Goudge's novels for adults (The Bird in the Tree), and my feelings about it were similarly complex, although, like you, I was won over in the end. I had to get past the fact that certain values were assumed to be correct that aren't as obviously correct today as they might have seemed in the past. (In that case, it was about preventing the dissolution of a marriage.) But what I loved about it in the end was that the narrative was so honest about how difficult the choices are and how important it is to really look at such a choice from every angle and talk it through with people you trust. And the writing is just gorgeous. It's hard not to be won over by a book with such gorgeous writing.

  2. I have always loved this book so much I cannot be objective about it! So it was interesting to read your take on it, especially the misogyny. I had never thought very deeply about it before. To me it seemed that the action of the book, with Maria as the heroine who reconciles everyone, and the obvious wonderfulness of Maria and Miss Heliotrope, was enough to prove the idiocy of Sir Marmaduke's position even if it hadn't struck me from the beginning as being stupid. But perhaps this is a rather naive reading? I will definitely think about it further.

    The benevolent paternalism is unarguably unchallenged though. ('murky political implications' - so true!) It's present in some of her other books too. I still love her work though, especially this book.

    As for the food - oh yes! Rationing was in full swing in Britain when it was written, so I think there must have been lots of wish fulfillment for writer and readers going on there.

    Sorry this comment is so long!

  3. I really enjoyed this one when I read it years and years ago. It is decidedly old-fashioned and seems like it was written earlier than the 1940s, so I didn't mind the feudalisms, and I can't say as I noticed the misogony, but that isn't to say it isn't there :)

  4. I think some of the things you object to are there to show that Maria is really up against it, to highlight her patience and faith.
    And yes, the ending is wonderful.

  5. Teresa: Yes, complex is the right word, even if there was definitely more than enough to win me over in the end. I'm curious about her adult novels - I'm always drawn to that kind of emotional honesty, even if the ideals that constrain the characters' choices are very far from my own.

    Helen: I don't think it's naive - multiple readings can coexist, and that's part of the joy of literature, after all! I agree Sir Benjamin and Marmaduke are proven wrong, but at the very least the implications of their willingness to condemn all women for personal hurts is defanged, you know? And that made me uneasy because even today you see it at work in the real world in really ugly and damaging ways. I didn't put two and two together about the book's date, the food, and the post-war rationing, but that makes perfect sense. And no sorry - I love long comments!

    Fence: As Teresa said above, complex feelings! Though I really did love it in the end.

    Jeanne: I can see that, but even then it felt to me that Maria's patience and faith were set up as exceptional; as something that distinguished her from other girls and women. Still, she's a wonderfully written character, and all in all this was such a thoughtful and beautifully written book. I'm really glad I read it.

  6. Elizabeth Goudge is my go-to author when I am feeling blue and hopeless. The first book of hers I read was Green Dolphin Street, one of her adult novels, many years ago. I have since read all of her adult novels and her autobiography. I can understand your discomfort with things that we now know better about, but the book you read was published in 1946/7. I was born in 1947 so I happen to know that is what life was like then. Maria WAS exceptional as was EG,as were all of us who grew up in that decade and decided to change the consciousness. Please excuse me for being defensive about an author that has brought me so much reading pleasure, but to quibble about views that came with the territory in older eras seems not right somehow. It would be like criticizing The Secret Garden because Mary's parents died in India and she had to be sent back to England. It is just the way things were. I am glad you found Elizabeth Goudge and can recommend all of her novels to you. She was a Christian humanist when they were few and far between and she has a wonderfully light touch when she promotes her views. As you said, the writing is beautiful!

  7. Judy Krueger: You don't have to apologise! Let me see if I can explain why I disagree, though. First of all, Maria and Miss Heliotrope being exceptional human beings is not the same as them being exceptional in a markedly gendered way that sets them apart from other women. It was framing the characters in this way that made me uncomfortable, for all the reasons the post about the concept of the excepto-girl I linked to in my review details. The historical argument you make is one I have mixed feelings about. I think taking context into account both matters and doesn't. First of all, if we do pay attention to the context, it's useful to remember that even back in the 1940s there were plenty of people who'd have resisted these views and who made that fact known. Dorothy L. Sayers published "Are Women Human?" a decade before, for example. Goudge was influenced by her context in the same way all of us are, but this context wasn't exactly uniform. I think that's important to remember, because it shows that even back then it wasn't impossible to see that, for example, Marmaduke's "femininity is a vice" line is not a harmless, fangless thing. That's not to say I don't think Goudge's historical context is an important piece of information - it is, but what for? The fact that Goudge was born in 1900 makes me feel a lot differently about her and the existence of these mixed threads in her work than I'd have felt if I'd found them in a contemporary novel, of course. But at the end of the day, my personal feelings don't much matter when it comes to the posts I write, because I don't really blog to pass judgement in a black and white sort of way. I'm not interested in warning readers away from The Little White Horse because it's sexist and therefore bad; when I blog, my focus is on discussing the different ideas I find in a book (often complicated and contradictory ones, as in this case), the different thematic threads; and most of all in thinking out loud about how these relate to our world, past and present. This is a huge part of why I blog. I completely understand feeling protective of a book you really love, but my desire to discuss the complications I saw in it really don't mean I'm out to judge the book, or its fans, or Goudge herself. It saddens me to see this desire, which has always been so central to my blogging, dismissed as "quibbles". If none of this comes across clearly in my post, I can only apologise myself.

  8. Hello again Ana, I do like the term 'defanging', I've never come across it before. For me, the book is about reconciling opposites, including gender extremes, as it were, but reconciliation doesn't have to mean unchallenged ideas, does it? Although I think it must be hard to tread a line between defanging and introducing excepto concepts. I'll shut up because I don't want to hijack your comments, but you've given me lots of food for thought, thank you. :)

  9. Helen: "But reconciliation doesn't have to mean unchallenged ideas, does it?" Yes, exactly. And it is indeed a fine and difficult line to tread. To be honest, this kind of often unresolved tension between contradictory ideas and points of view is one of the things that draw me to older works. I find it so interesting to think about. And I'm sure the very same tensions are there in books written today - I just wonder how many of them are invisible to me because I'm immersed in their cultural and historical moment myself. Anyway, feel free to "hijack" my comments anytime! Always a pleasure to exchange ideas :)

  10. Sometimes when I come across passages that are so remarkably misogynistic, I remind myself that I live in a time where people can actually pick out those passages; that not all of us gloss over them anymore, that more and more people are recognizing it, talking about it, and hopefully doing something about it. Makes it a bit easier to swallow.

  11. Trisha: True! I love that so many of us are willing and able to discuss things like this today.

  12. I did indeed read my (sister's) copy until it fell apart! The pictures the book made in my mind are still as lovely today back then, which I think is why Goudge in general is one of my favorite authors--she paints such lovely word pictures.

    I would be really really curious to read your take on my other childhood favorite Goudge, Linnets and Valerians.....

  13. Charlotte: I'm definitely planing to read it!

  14. I think this was made into a film? There's a movie called The Secret of Moonacre which my nine-year-old has watched several times; parts of the storyline sound familiar to me. Is there a scene at the end on a cliff over the sea, involving a necklace? (although I realize they could have changed a lot in the film)

  15. I just finished Linnets & Valerians and liked it MUCH MORE than TLWH. My absolute favorite Elizabeth Goudge though, is the 2nd in the Eliot trilogy, Pilgrim's Inn, It can be read as a stand-alone. I read it whenever I need something especially moving. If you are a Wind in the Willows fan, the book plays an important part throughout. Lovely, lovely book.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.