White is famous for his masterful retelling of Arthurian Legend in The Once and Future King, but his book Mistress Masham's Repose is a little hidden jewel. The action takes place in Malpaquet, a huge estate that is gradually tumbling down. ("The house had 365 windows, all broken but six...") Maria lives there with her dreadful governess and guardian, Miss Brown, who is up to No Good.
While Misss Brown is laid low with a headache, Maria rows to a island on her estate and discovers, in an old Temple, a living colony of Lilliputians, who ran away from Gulliver when he brought them back to England. After some huge misunderstandings, Maria befriends the Lilliputians, and they help each other regain freedom and dignity.
Maria is a real kid - making big mistakes, loving and hating with all her heart. Her friend the Professor is an old man with a white beard, who is silly and wise in turns. The cook, Mrs. Noakes, is her friend too - an ancient retainer who rides her tricycle through the long hallways of Malplaquet with her old dog, Captain. And the house itself is almost a character; the chapter where the Professor goes in search of Maria through the Drawing Rooms, bed chambers, water closets, and halls of the estate is fascinating.
In describing the villains of the piece, Miss Brown and the Vicar (aptly called Mr. Hater,) White brings out the full force of his sly humor:
'Both the Vicar and the governess were so repulsive that it is difficult to write about them fairly.
The Vicar ... had rather pouting bluish lips, and he walked upright and slow, giving a faint humming noise from the back of his nose, like a bee...
Miss Brown...must have had some mysterious hold over him, for it seems impossible that he would have chosen her freely, considering what she was. Her nose was sharp and pinched...but the rest of her was podgy. When she sat down, she spread, as a toad does on one's hand.'
The Professor is a wonderful creation too. When Maria goes to him with a Lilliputian woman and baby, complaining that they won't do anything and won't eat and aren't any fun, he has this reaction:
'He stuffed his beard in his mouth, rolled his eyes, and glared. Then he unrolled them, liberated the whiskers, and looked haughtily up on his visitor.
"Why should she be fun?
"Why should she do anything?
"Why should she eat?
"Is she yours?"'
The Lilliputians speak 18th century English and call Maria "Ma'am, Y'r honor, Madam, Miss."
And Maria herself is wonderful too:
"She lay face downward in the punt, looking over the stern into the deep water. Her knees, and most of the front of her, were green with slime, the water from the bailing scoop had run up her sleeve. She was happy.