So let me begin by saying what did NOT work for me—namely, a few of the Christian themes that are integral to the structure of The Little White Horse, plus a couple of other philosophical ideas that underpin the book:
(i) The idea that a “sin” committed by an ancestor continues to have repercussions for each successive generation till somebody “atones” for it
(ii) The very idea of “sin”
(iii) That curiousity in a female is bad (though to be fair to Elizabeth Goudge, it seemed that Maria paid little attention to this one)
(iv) That for a relationship/marriage to thrive one must never quarrel (as italicized in the book). Though this became more understandable in context of what’s revealed later in the story, it still wielded a weight that makes me put it up here in this list.
I’m pointing these things out not to debate their rightness or wrongness or to discuss whether they’re an accurate representation of Christianity (I’ve no idea); I’m mentioning them because it was difficult for me to look past these notions and continue enjoying the story. (Also, that Maria gets married at age 14/15—maybe this was in keeping with the times (1840s) that the story is set in, and also the fact that The Little White Horse is a bit fantasy-ish but in the wake of the other things that I mentioned above, this last seemingly trivial bit just made me want the story to finish already! And if the book hadn’t been an Inter Library Loan, I doubt I’d have bothered to finish it at all)
When we begin, Maria is a 13-year-old orphan who’s on her way to Moonacre Manor in the village of Silverydew. Let me pause to reflect on these names because firstly, they are lovely, and secondly it becomes clear very early on that “silver” is of some significance in the story. Maria is accompanied by her companion Miss Heliotrope who’s looked after her and loved her since she was a baby. There’s also Wiggins, a spaniel, who’s equally lovely and vain.
They meet up with Maria’s only living relative, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, who’s genial, sharp-eyed, and exactly the kind of guardian that Maria could have wished for. Rounding off Sir Benjamin’s household are a dog-who’s-the-most-unlikely-looking-dog there ever was, a cat who communicates by drawing in the ashes, and a cook who happens to be a dwarf. We don’t get to meet these characters all at once. Instead, Goudge reveals them to us one at a time, drawing us deeper into the mystery that surrounds Moonacre Manor. All this I lapped up without batting an eyelash. Goudge is simply superb at creating a highly atmospheric setting—one can feel the hint of sinisterness lurking beneath the unabashed joy of the Moonacre Valley and the Silverydew village.
And this brings me to the aspect of The Little White Horse that I loved the most—the descriptions! I adore an author who gives a free rein to their words, letting it all tumble out, with no eye to restraint. Goudge’s descriptions are lush, detailed, and awash in colors. She fills in her scenes with such texture and dimensionality that you can’t but see the whole thing in your mind’s eye. This is true for all of her food scenes as well! I LOVE food, and I love that Goudge is so persnickety when it comes to laying out and describing all the food items that Maria consumes in the book.
But when she looked again there was nothing to be seen except the tangled briars and all the lovely little birds with their rainbow-coloured wings. They were singing gloriously this morning, twittering and chirping and caroling and shouting and fluting and humming in praise of spring, until it was a wonder they did not burst their throats.
Another example to illustrate what I mean—a description of the place where all the food is prepared! It was a toss-up between this and Maria’s room, both places that I would love to live in!
Maria, in the kitchen, once more stood and gazed. The kitchen was glorious, flagged with great stone flags scrubbed to the whiteness of snow, and nearly as big as the hall. Its ceiling was crossed by great oak beams from which hung flitches of bacon and bunches of onions and herbs. It had two open fireplaces, one for boiling stews, and cooking pies, and another, with a spit, for roasting. There were two oval bread-ovens set in the thickness of the wall, and pans, so well polished that they reflected the light like mirrors. There was a large wash-tub in one corner, and against the wall an enormous oak dresser where pretty china stood in neat rows; and an oak table stood in the center of the room. There were several doors which Maria guessed led to the larders and the dairy. The windows looked out over the stable-yard, so that the morning sun filled the room, and the whole place was merry and bright and warm and scrupulously clean. There were no chairs, but a wooden bench against the wall, and several three-legged wooden stools. One of these stools had been pulled up to the table, and standing upon it, facing Maria as she came in, was a little hunchbacked dwarf making pastry.
Throughout the book, Goudge invokes the moon and the sun as two types of Merryweather personalities. Balance between the two is important for a happy life in Goudge’s world. I don’t have a quarrel with that. Balance is important in all our lives, I agree. But Goudge’s frequent use of the silver-gold motif (especially the silver) left me feeling a little worn out. I wonder if this motif/mythology has any real world significance as well. Anyone know?
Also, as a counterpoint to things I mentioned at the start, here’s a bit of of Goudge’s representation of Christianity that did work for me:
Maria had never heard anyone pray like this Old Parson, and the way that he did it made her tremble all over with awe and joy. For he talked to God as if he were not only up in heaven, but standing beside him in the pulpit. And not only standing beside him but beside every man, woman, and child in the church—God came alive for Maria as he prayed, and she was so excited and happy that she could hardly draw her breath.
I’m pretty sure I read some of Goudge’s children’s books as a kid but for some reason I have absolutely no recollection of their overtly Christian themes. Maybe it just went right over my head? I still have Goudge’s Dean’s Watch that I got from a second-hand bookshop. I think I might give it a shot (for all those descriptions!) and see how it goes!