Hidden joy

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Literary revivals are in the air. Denyse Lyon Presley reads Mary Shelley's long-lost children's story, now published for the first time, while Anne Fine (below right) sings the praises of a 1947 T H White classic

Only one group of children has so far been neglected in the plans for the great National Year of Reading: those who are already skilled and passionate readers. But back into print for them, just in time, comes the incomparable Mistress Masham's Repose, T H White's 1947 classic. The book is a joy, and it's an utter disgrace that it's been out of print so long.

Even talk of "inaccessibility" won't hold water now. Our children have all seen photographs of Diana's island. And it's in just such a hidden place that our 10-year-old heroine, the orphan heiress Maria (hiding from her Dahl-ish, kitten-drowning governess and the scheming vicar), stumbles through brambles into the tiny world of the left-over Lilliputians, justly proud after 200 years of secret and successful self-reliance, in the old summer temple where Mistress Masham once reposed.

This glorious book has everything a reader could want: hidden wills, dangers, chases, dungeons, revelations. T H White was a teacher to his very bones, so, as with his great Arthurian masterpiece, The Once and Future King, the reader painlessly comes out an expert on things such as bird flight, fishing, survival techniques, garden design, and what these tiny folk quaintly call "oeconomy".

It's the richest of reads, and a stretcher in places. You may find yourself with a child asking "What's fichu?", "Who was the Tragic Muse?" and "Did the Duke of Orleans really shoot larks with corks from his champagne bottles?" But let's fly some banners high. Ace readers will take to it instantly and, for others, it's the perfect adult-to-child read. So cheque books out to welcome it back. (And will someone please record the whole exciting tale on tape as soon as possible?) 'Mistress Masham's Repose' by T H White will be published by the Antique Collectors' Club, Pounds 12.99, with an introduction by Anne Fine

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