Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse” is one of my favourite books. I picked it up when I was about ten in a Waterstones, chiefly because it had a unicorn on the front cover and I was obsessed with them.
It was first published in 1946, but is set in the late 1800s. Newly orphaned Maria Merryweather, her governess Miss Heliotrope and spoilt spaniel Wiggins travel to Moonacre Manor in the first chapter. It’s a long journey from London to deepest Cornwall, in a rickety carriage far removed from Maria’s comfortable life in London. The first chapter is a fantastic introduction to Maria herself, who gets through the long, uncomfortable and boring journey by taking solace in her new boots. A girl after my own heart, then.
When they finally arrive in Moonacre Manor they are introduced to Maria’s second cousin, Sir Benjamin. The picture that Goudge paints of all of the characters is so vivid you can almost touch the scene. The gardens of Moonacre Manor, bathed in moonlight and full of menacing yew trees in the shape of cockerels and knights, roll out in front like a film. Everything is so well described that there are characters everywhere – the house itself, the valley of Silverydew and the menagerie of animals that make up a large part of the cast.
This is a large part of what makes the book so charming. The Merryweather family, as we find out with Maria, have a long history of being bold, passionate and stubborn. They have driven out friends, family and made enemies of their closest neighbours, the so-called Men of the Woods. Maria concludes that in fact, the only people to have any sense are the animals in the family – the little white horse in the title, the dog Wrolf, the pony Periwinkle, Zachariah the cat and Maria’s addition – Serena the hare. Goudge artfully gives the animals personality and communicates their feelings without resorting to cheesy manufacturings like telepathy, or Maria imagining what they feel like. Zachariah in particular is a very clever, very large cat who gives messages to the rest of the house by drawing hieroglyphics in the hearth ash – simple drawings which don’t require a huge leap of faith to believe that Zachariah drew them. Add that to the fact that the cook, Marmaduke Scarlet, laments Zachariah for eating all of his birds, and he’s simply a cat who can draw.
Even the house itself is a character, and is definitely the best house ever. It’s described basically as a castle, complete with towers. Maria’s room is in one of the towers, and is just big enough for a thirteen year old girl – she has sugar cookies in a box given by a mysterious benefactor, and clothes laid out for her every day.
Although it’s set in the 19th century, it’s still relevant today as Maria struggles with her family temper and other vices such as greed, pride and selfishness.
I wasn’t going to mention the film, but I think I should. The plot for imdb says that Maria has to save Moonacre before it falls into the sea, on the five hundredth full moon. This is not what happens in the book. Apart from anything else, Ioan Gruffudd as Sir Benjamin is all wrong, along with Natasha McElhone as Loveday Minette. The problem that Goudge wrote for herself is that her characters are so detailed (right down to their buttons) that the film makers either had to follow it to the letter, or make their own way. After reading the cast list and the plot summary, I think they chose the latter.
“The Little White Horse” is a lovely book – well-written, well-rounded and one I can read time and time again.
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