The Little White Horse (1946)

There was no award in 1945. 

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was one of the Carnegie Medal Winners I had read before embarking on this chronological project. It was given to my daughter by her Godparent as it was her favourite book as a child, and apparently, it was J K Rowling’s too. In my view, this is the kind of romantic fantasy that is the most dangerous of all – nicely wrapped in domestic and sartorial beauty and detail, yet with an utterly deadly morale. My daughter (at 9) sensed this too and told me it was ‘creepy’ when she saw I was reading it.

The Little White Horse is set in 1842 in a Devonshire countryside obviously beloved by the author. It was written as a temporary escape from the destruction and upheaval of WWII and, like The Wind on the Moon, is full of the things that contemporary Britain was short of; lovely and lavish food, beautiful clothes and pastoral landscapes.

Accompanied only by her dog and her governess Miss Heliotrope, 13-year-old orphaned Maria arrives in the beautiful valley of Moonacre to live with her uncle. The description of their journey there has more than a touch of the Gothic about it, but the second Maria reaches the house, the story slips from Gothic to fairytale. Her uncle’s beautiful estate and the perfect village nearby is shadowed an ancient feud and by the memory of the Moon Princess and the mysterious little white horse. Maria is determined to restore peace and happiness to Moonacre Valley. With the help of her newfound friends and magical animal helpers, she succeeds and everyone, literally, lives happily ever after.

Full of cosy, domestic details, lovingly described, the story is exceptionally seductive on one level. It is the sort of book to grab if you are feeling the world is against you, or you are ill in bed. The descriptions of the food alone does it. But for me, the seductive pull is interrupted too many times by an incredibly jarring view of femininity. First, there is the focus on clothing and outwards appearance: “she took, if possible, a more burning interest in her boots than in her mittens and gowns and bonnets”, coupled with class: “Maria was one of your true aristocrats: the perfection of the hidden things was even more important than the outward show. Not that she did not like the outward show. She did. She was a showy little thing”. From the outset, Maria is not exactly set up as the kind of heroine that I personally would warm to. Then there is Robin’s angry proposal to Maria, which eventually lead to them getting married when she’s 14. Worst, though, are the overt messages about ‘feminine virtues’: don’t be curious, don’t ask questions, wait for men to explain things to you and tell you where to go. And the most important moral lesson: don’t ever quarrel with someone you love, because they will leave you forever. These are not things I want my daughter to learn!

Some people will also find the overt Christian messages a bit hard to swallow. The valley of Moonacre itself is like Paradise entered through a door in a wall; it contains Paradise Hill which Maria makes her uncle give ‘back’ to God and Old Parson is forever telling people how they should behave. I personally don’t mind religious elements in books, per se, but Goudge’s treatment of it here bears no semblance to the complex and sophisticated examination of faith and what it may mean in Antonia Forest’s Marlow books. 

Plainly, I have issues with the book, but in the course of researching this blog, I looked at my collection of literary criticism from the 1960s and 1970s to see what critics who were more contemporary to Elizabeth Goudge thought. Not a single mention!* Only Marcus Crouch devotes space to it in Treasure Seekers and Borrrowers (1962) and is generally positive, though he does bemoan (rightly) the fundamental lack of humour. This kind of neglect always gets my antennae up – often women’s literature is dismissed as whimsical and not serious enough, ignored and forgotten, despite its actual popularity with the audience that keeps buying and reading it.

On the surface, The Little White Horse is a low fantasy romantic fairytale, and it is easy to dismiss it as only that. If, however, we dig a bit deeper, we might gain a deeper understanding by looking at it as belonging to the tradition of magical realism, like The House of Spirits or Beloved, books which we take very seriously indeed. This is Teya Rosenberg’s contention in an article Genre and Ideology in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. Though novels in this tradition usually have a strong left-wing political message, Rosenberg suggests that The Little White Horse is a political work but with a robust Ruskinian message – that Goudge is reacting against the disorder and upheaval of war by suggesting a return to a pastoral, utopian medieval feudalism favoured by Ruskin. 

In the chaos and scarcity of a postwar world, the themes of abundance, reconciliation and restoration must have had a powerful resonance when it was first published in 1946. With the seductive pull of lovingly described domestic detail and long lost lovers finally restored to each other, it still does to the many who keep buying it. However, I think this is one of those books where if you don’t read it as a child, you will never fully appreciate it as a jaded, cynical, literary-minded adult. Goudge fans everywhere, I’m sorry, but this was a 3/10 for me. 

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