The Little White Horse.
The Little White Horse, the best loved of all Elizabeth’s children’s books, is the story that pulls the majority of her readers into her own special world, a place that we are often guided to by someone, anxious to share their find. That’s the way of her writing, her readers become passionate and involved the more they discover, and want to share the experience.
The book starts with an example of Elizabeth’s own verse, The Little White Horse, and then crashes straight into the action, the main protagonists swaying along dark misty roads in an uncomfortable, old fashioned carriage, into the heart of the West Country.
It is high Victorian Gothic, with distinct shades of Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen), a writer that Elizabeth had read and admired. Living as she had in Edwardian Somerset, she had always maintained that the West Country had a distinct air of fairy about it.
We are straight into the heart of the moral fibre of the story too, setting up the testing of Maria, with her strength and courage, her forthright manner, making her a most suitable and appealing person.
The story opens with the red haired orphan Maria and her Governess Miss Heliotrope going to live with Maria’s cousin Sir Benjamin Merryweather after the death of her father which had left “so many debts that everything he possessed, including the beautiful London house with the fanlight over the door and the tall windows looking out over the garden of the quiet London Square, where Maria had lived through out the whole of her short life, had had to be sold to pay them.”(Goudge. 1946 p3)
Although this didn’t happen to Elizabeth and her Mother, they had seen it happen to many other clergymen’s families. Often, in the days of pre Social Security, people felt themselves fortunate to find relations willing and able to take them in and help them.
The manor house is in fact a Norman castle, set in a valley, surrounded by green rounded hills, with the village of Silverydew at the foot of the cone of Paradise hill. The house is inhabited by her cousin, his male cook Marmaduke Scarlett and the coachman Digweed. It is the proud boast of them all that “You (Miss Heliotrope) and Maria are the first members of the fair sex to set foot in this house for twenty years.”(Goudge 1946 p26)
But they are made to feel welcome and Maria soon finds that the castle is more like home than anywhere else she has lived. She also starts to discover the history of her family and the curse that it has lived under for centuries. She uncovers the true identity of the dog Wrolf, and the beautiful apparition of the Little White Horse, first seen on her way to the castle.
In 1946 when the book was written, Elizabeth would have had some formidable rivals in the world of children’s books. Five other children were “Going Off in a Caravan” (Enid Blyton) and the Lone Pine Club (Malcolm Saville) were solving Welsh Border mysteries. But one of the reasons I think that Elizabeth won the Carnegie Medal that year for this book, was her cleverness at making it timeless. By setting the novel in Victorian England, a time she knew well and could emphasis with, it would not become dated. Think how silted some of the Famous Five books can be now.
Another reason is her ability to move the action of a story along in the most lyrical and effortless prose, such as these, taken at random from pages 77/79. “It was lovely in the stable yard, with the white doves just coming out from their cote cooing softly, flying down to the cobbles to strut and flutter their wings in the sweet morning air, and the sky was like a rose over the old stable roofs still glistening with dew” Another lovely dawn and the beginning of an adventure for our heroine. ” And then the little cavalcade, Maria on Periwinkle with Wrolf and Wiggins one on each side of her , trotted gaily out of the stable-yard, through the garden and out through the door under the great archway into the park. Without a moments hesitation she swung east. She must not go to Merryweather Bay, but she would explore the park in that direction. She might perhaps see the sea in the distance.” East towards the rising sun and towards the alter of the sea, a metaphor that writers have used for the unconscious for generations. Too deep for a children’s book? I don’t think it is. It may have been unintentional on her part, but C.S. Lewis used Christian myths and symbols in his work, and I think Elizabeth does too.
“as she rode they thinned out more and more, the beeches and oak-trees and bushes of golden gorse giving place to solitary groups of wind twisted pines, with here and there boulders of grey rock pushing their way through the tussocks of heather. To the cold fresh tang of the frost there was added now the salt tang of the sea.”
I would love to think that this is a description of a ride that Elizabeth took. We know from Joy of the Snow that she had learnt to ride and certainly did in Ely, perhaps Elizabeth too rode in sight of the sea in her Devonshire days.
One place and experience in the book which is drawn from her life is the bay and cliffs that Maria and Robin find at the end of the pine wood tunnels, it sounds just like the description of the bay in Guernsey that she visited with her Aunts and cousins. She describes the rock climbing capabilities of one Aunt in particular. “I am ashamed now when I think of the furious rages when my aunts interfered with rock climbing. Aunt Emily was easy to shake off for she was no more than a gripper of the ankle. With a quick wrench and a quick scramble upward one could get rid of her. But Aunt Marie, a spare agile person who could climb better than I could, was another matter. If she caught me starting to climb she did not grip my ankle but simply came after me to take care of me. She was the dearest of my aunts but I hated her, and said so, when she shared my rocks.” (Goudge 1974.p 47) It sounds just like Maria fearing the grip of the Black Men’s hands on her ankles in the climb that she and Robin take to elude their pursuers. The caves that she describes and all the colours of the seaweeds and rocks and sand, could be Saints Bay.
But Maria is halted in her joyous ride by “a thin high screaming that came threading through the happy sounds, pushing into her heart like a sharp needle.” She is riding to the rescue of Serena and her first encounter with William Coq du Noir.
In only three pages the action is set up against its contrasting background of beauty and the normality of daily life, we find out more about Maria, her character and previous life, and what she is capable of achieving. She tests her own strengths against the cruelty of life and finds out that with help she can beat them.
Yet Elizabeth maintains and uses many of the other ingredients of the current adventure books of the day. There is the map that Sir Benjamin shows her of the valley of Moonacre, surrounded by its green hills very much as Wells is situated, the tunnels which bore through them, and the passages and caves down from the pine woods to the sea, with the hidden treasure of the Moon Princess along the way, the robbers in the pine wood, sinister shapes in the landscape, all could have come from any children’s adventure book.
So could her preoccupation with food. In all the Famous Five books their picnic’s and slap up meals with lashings of ginger beer are lovingly described.
Elizabeth goes one better by having Marmaduke Scarlett as cook to the Merryweather household. His meals, the surprise party in particular are lavish. I think this epicurean fantasy stems from War time austerity, ration books and a distinct lack of sweets.
The valley is filled with the delightful characters that pepper all of Elizabeth’s works and tells us something about her natural friendliness towards all differing sorts of people. Elizabeth one feels, would never judge a book by its cover; an attribute she gives to Maria, and her devotion and love to the outwardly unappealing Miss Heliotrope. Her “invented” London play mate, Robin who turns out to be the shepherd boy come gardener at the manor, is not an unsuitable suitor, and his Mother, Loveday Minette, is “a dream come true. For when in lonely moments the motherless Maria had imagined for herself the mother she would like to have, that mother had been exactly like Loveday Minette.”(Goudge p. 131)
Her first encounter with her larger than life cousin, a “Sun Merryweather” is memorable. “He was so tall and so broad that seemed to fill the big door way. 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 He had a huge white wig like a cauliflower on his head, and his double chins were propped by a cravat of Honiton lace.” (Goudge 1948 p.17). His kindness. love and warm welcome to the stranger that is his cousin Maria endears her to him instantly, and they continue to become closer and more indispensable to each other as the story progresses.
Digweed the coachman/gardener at the manor is pencilled in the margins of the tale like the illustrations that Edwardian letters often contained. “she watched the gnome-like little man as he scurried to the rusty chain, seized hold of it, lifted both legs off the ground and swung there like a monkey on a stick.”(Goudge 1946 p12)
“Seeing him in daylight without his hat, Maria immediately loved old Digweed. He had wide innocent blue eyes like a baby’s, a high wrinkled forehead and a completely bald head.”(Goudge 1946 p45)
Then, Maraduke Scarlett the cook is introduced as “a little hunched backed dwarf,” with his”!fringe of whisker that encircled his whole face like a ham frill “and his propensity to use long words and lots of them, an artist in the world of Cooking.
Finally, Old Parson, the vicar of Silverydew, a formidable person of great intellectual and spiritual power, the Mentor of the story. Who, never the less is given a very human twist at the end of the tale.
All of these portraits are detailed and drawn with insight, humour and understanding.
Maria as well as Elizabeth was an only child, and so relates well to the grown ups around her, there is very little us and them mentality.
It is the marginalia of her stories which helps to give depth to her writing. Every setting and every person is detailed and important, a way of looking at life that Elizabeth liked in the paintings of the old masters, who never left anyone out, giving importance to the great and the small. Her stories became the tapestries that she tired to make during her Art College course in Reading.
Yet it is the animals that have some of the biggest personalities of the book. Elizabeth’s love of dogs is evident in her lavish descriptions of Wiggins. “But though Wiggins’s moral character left much to be desired, it must not be thought that he was a useless member of society, for a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Wiggins’s beauty was of that high order that can only be described by that tremendous trumpet sounding word incomparable. His tail was like an ostrich feather. He was proud of it and carried it always like a pennon in the wind. His coat was deep cream in colour and smooth and glossy everywhere upon his body except upon his chest, where it broke into an exquisite cascade of soft curls like a gentleman’s frilled shirt-front” (Goudge 1946 p9). He is self centred and pleasure seeking, yet insists on being near Maria, not because he loves her but because “he thought it good policy, from Maria there emanated all those things which made his existence pleasant to him.”(Goudge 1946 p 8)
Wrolf is introduced as an animal of mythic proportions, stretching the length of the hearth, has a huge shaggy head and from his first sniff thinks little of the pretentious Wiggins. “Through his cascade, of reddish hair that fell over them (paws) eyes ;like yellow lamps shone disconcertingly upon the assembled company; disconcerting because they were so terribly penetrating. What sort of creature was he, Maria wondered. She supposed he was a dog, and yet, somehow, he wasn’t quite like a dog………”The dog Wrolf,” said Sir Benjamin, answering her unspoken question” (Goudge 1946 p19)
Zachariah the cat who lives in the kitchen with Marmaduke Scarlett is also no ordinary animal. “He was enormous, twice the size of any cat she had seen in London. His black fur was short, but so exquisitely glossy that it gleamed like satin. His tail stretched out along the floor behind him for a good yard and looked like a fat black snake; He had a noble head, with a great domed forehead, and large but beautifully shaped ears. His chest, as was only to be expected when one considered the volume of sound that came out of it looked unusually powerful, and so did his broad shoulders and powerful haunches and strong looking paws. He was altogether a most imposing animal, and when he turned his head and his great emerald green eyes blazed out at her, she was almost as scared as she had been when she was introduced to Wrolf. She just stood where she was a dropped him a curtsey.”(Goudge 1946 p94) He will come to play a big part in her future adventures. His intelligence like the other animals out strips the humans. They are the “spirit guides” in a way that help the children achieve their quest.
Serena the creature Maria rescues from the trap is the archetypal symbol of the Moon and Moon magic. A creature associated with witch craft and the supernatural. “But a hare, now, that is a different thing altogether. A hare is not a pet but a person. Hares are clever and brave and loving, and they have fairy blood in them. It’s a grand thing to have a hare for a friend.” (Goudge 1946 p85).
Even the horses that pull the carriage and of cause Periwinkle, her “Joy of the Ground” have an important places in the story and a part to play in helping the humans to realize their potential.
Dedicating a book to someone is a very personal statement to make, and the book is dedicated to the illustrator and artist Walter Hodges who drew the defining pictures to the story. His line drawings and fine water colours suit the gentle tone and mood of the book. I feel that the movie will have to work hard not to disappoint, with air brushed persons playing her characters. Strong faces are needed like in the film Tess, of Thomas Hardy’s work, and I hope they pay attention to details of appearance, even if the title of the work has to be up dated. The dedication is another example of Elizabeth’s admiration for the artists of this world. This work has lived on, forever fresh and eternal, pleasing generations of young girls, and famously being J.K.Rowling favourite children’s book.
Elizabeth Goudge 1946 The Little White Horse
Elizabeth Goudge 1974 Joy of the Snow.