If you have noticed that my reading of late – the little I’ve actually mentioned here – inclines towards children’s books, you’d be right. I consulted my list of books read, and this year I’ve only managed seven ‘grown-up’ books (not including Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna, by which I really did try to do my duty but within whose pages I just couldn’t find anything to interest me, sorry Barbara) – and twenty-seven ‘children’s’ books (if you include The Nutcracker). And the latest of these is The Little White Horse, a childhood favourite I last re-read only a couple of years ago – and yet I’d forgotten so much of it.
[Sir Benjamin said,] ‘In our family, Miss Heliotrope, we spell Wrolf with a W, for we are of Viking ancestry and great fighters.’
‘Yes,’ sighed Miss Heliotrope. ‘When Maria was little, I had great trouble in getting her to eat rice pudding.’
Those who are going to read The Little White Horse have probably already read it. Unless they are still a small child. It’s a delightful story about the reconciliation of opposites (female and male, night and day, moon and sun, good and evil) suffused with a rather pantheistic High Anglicanism I mentioned when I wrote about another of Goudge’s books, Linnets and Valerians). In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s a righting of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, but with a girl as the redeemer and the place as England. The orphaned Maria Merryweather is sent to live with her cousin, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, in a beautiful Devon valley quite secluded from the rest of the world. It is a bucolic idyll, there is even a Paradise Hill upon which stand the ruins of a monastery. However, all is not perfect: the Black Men who live in the pine forest steal sheep and lambs (and other, less Biblical things, like cider and cake), and the Merryweather family lives with the consequences of pride and greed (which sins were also the causes of the Fall). Female curiosity (for which Eve was blamed) is a vice which must be conquered if Maria is to right past wrongs and restore peace and harmony to the valley. The presence of, among several intelligent and helpful animals, a lion and a unicorn who assist Maria in her task gives a specially English flavour to it all, I can’t help but think of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, the re-imagining of Christ’s story in England.here)
Accompanying Goudge’s trademark humour are luscious descriptions of food. All the Merryweathers take their food seriously, and the power of a shared meal to reconcile plays its part in Maria’s dealings with the Black Men. The novel (almost) ends, as I shall, with the masterpiece of meals, Maria’s wedding feast:
The white-iced wedding-cake was the size of a cartwheel at its base and was six feet tall, mounting up like a pyramid. It was decorated with sugar flowers and fruit and birds and stars and butterflies and bells, and right at the very top there was a tiny sickle moon and a tiny sun enclosed within a silver horseshoe. There were lots of other kinds of cake, of course, and every possible sort of sugar biscuit and iced bun, and all the different kinds of sandwiches it is possible to think of, and dishes of candied cherries and crystallised ginger and sugared almonds and chocolates. And there were jellies and creams and syllabubs and ices, and hot coffee and iced coffee, and tea and lemonade and sherbet, and mulled claret and champagne.
Everybody had lots to eat and drink, and everyone enjoyed it, but nobody ate or drank too much, because they did not want to spoil this happy day by having aches in their insides later on; they wanted this day to be happy right through to the end.