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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Little White Horse: Curb your Curiousity (or Not)

Elizabeth Goudge's children's book called The Little White Horse tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who goes with her governess from London to live at her relatives' magical estate in the West Country in 1842. I am reading it in part because a Quaker friend recommended Goudge, in part because this book influenced JK Rowling, and, primarily because, having just submitted my finished Bonhoeffer and women manuscript to the publisher on Thursday, I am ready for a gentle read.  

I see the influence of The Little White Horse all over the Harry Potter novels: like The Little White Horse, they evoke a magical, alternative universe. Rowling's fantasy world bites harder and is sharper edged than Goudge's, as is her sense of humor, but her predecessor's fingerprints have left their imprint, especially in teaching the power of scene setting and description. Clearly, Rowling learned from a foremother. I am also finding parallels between Goudge and Frances Hodges Burnett: both comprise part of a female line of descent to Rowling. 

In reading about Goudge on Wikipedia, I learned a curious story: an Indian writer plagiarized several of her books in the 1990s, simply changing names, religion and locales to India. The novels, dismissed as sentimental when by an English writer, received high praise (if also comments about veering towards the sentimental) when seen as Indian or post-colonial. This stands as yet another example of the ease of denigrating (or exalting) literature based on external markers, such gender or fashion, and points to the need for all of us to think for ourselves and develop strong internal critical apparatus.

White Horse is domestic fiction in being centered on the home and the village. This puts it squarely in line with the work of writers like Jane Austen, who as Walter Scott noted, moved away from the big bow-wow to books about everyday life. Goudge depicts having a room of one's own as a great good. Maria, the protagonist, arriving at Moonacre, gets her own room for the first time. This represents a move away from the patriarchy embodied by the albeit very feminine (but for that reason patriarchal) governess she has previously roomed with. It's also highly important--and life-giving--that the rooms at Moonacre reflect the characters of the inhabitants. Selfhood is implicitly asserted by being able to be in harmony with one's place and space. This is perhaps exactly what George Santayana denigrates in a New York Times piece (see discussing domestic fiction, but which is so important a first step towards female autonomy.

The Little White Horse does, however, promote hierarchy and classism, a belief in bloodlines and the importance of aristocracy that seems alien in today's world and, especially, I imagine, to the American mind. Maria's family is the first family in the village, the grand family, and she thinks of the villagers as "her" people with a sense of ownership. We are constantly reminded that she has special blood in her veins. 

Goudge imposes female boundaries with a repeated  lesson about curbing "feminine curiosity," an evil condemned by no less than God's proxy, the village parson. (Apparently "masculine curiosity" is less objectionable.) He admonishes Maria to replace her eager curiosity with a passive waiting for others to anticipate and initiate their wishes. Bob Dixon, author of Catching them Young: Sex, Race, Class in Children's Fiction, would be frothing at the mouth and rightly so. 

The novel is also a fantasy historical, set a century before it was written, which adds another layer of complexity. I am about a third through it, and curious (sorry to say--does the thrust of the narrative work against the moral message?!) about what will happen next. 


  1. I've never read any Elizabeth Goudge nor much Rowling; the cover with that unicorn looks gentleness itself. Many women writers today don't want to acknowledge their true foremothers: Virginia Woolf read 1890s women novelists but she never cites them as influential; Ann Patchett wants us to believe Mann's Magic Mountain lies behind Bel Canto when it's The Secret Garden, who would rather be caught really dead than acknowledge memories of Little Women influence us (I thought of Meg goes to Vanity Fair at that Trollope dinner), much less P.L Travers (Drabble's Seven sisters comes from one of the Poppins stories). Yes so many genres are mixed and too much attention is paid to them - if you read an author in different genres you see that.

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  3. Dear Ellen,

    I think some of your comment was cut off, but I wanted to say I am glad you highlighted how often women writers downplay the influence of women authors on them, especially children's authors, who are often quite fine writers.