RogerBW's Blog

The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge 15 July 2021

1946 children's fantasy. In 1842, newly-orphaned Maria Merryweather leaves London to live with her only relative, somewhere in the West Country. Everything seems idyllic, except…

It becomes clear that although it's mostly a perfect rural idyll some things are definitely Wrong, such as the Men from the Dark Woods stealing food and preventing anyone from fishing in the bay, and Maria (being a good person, or at least trying to be) sets out to put things aright. Many of the things she has to do seem surprisingly unchallenging, but I suspect that Goudge's point is not so much that they hadn't been done as that nobody had realised that the problems were ones that were amenable to solution, or in some cases problems at all.

Goudge is prone to moralising, sometimes explicitly ("nobody ate or drank too much, because they did not want to spoil this happy day by having aches in their insides later on"), more often diegetically: Maria is explicitly commanded to suppress her "excessive female curiosity", though I can't help but notice that if she had actually done this (other than in one specific and obvious case where she's warned off anyway) much of the story wouldn't have happened.

In an unusual step, there are animals who are clearly people, but they aren't Narnia-style talking animals – though they evidently have thoughts and internal lives. This even includes Maria's dog Wiggins, who is brought along on various adventures and contributes absolutely nothing to them.

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 for ever, and Wiggins’s beauty was of that high order that can only be described by that tremendous trumpet-sounding word ‘incomparable’.

There's an Old Parson (of course there is), but his religion is clearly much more about appreciating and respecting the wonders that God has made than about doing what a book tells you to.

There is the standard English post-war obsession with food, which makes itself particularly obvious at times, with whole paragraphs given over to listing delicious things; there is an awful lot of coincidence (a particular plot element is found by Maria in a place where other people would surely have looked when it went missing generations ago); there's pathetic fallacy practically personified. One has to take the thing on its own slightly weird terms. But if one can, it's great fun, a fantasy of rural life and of doing the right thing because one can see what the right thing to do is, and nothing more is needed.

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