The rotunda at Stowe in Buckinghamshire was designed by Vanbrugh in around 1720, and stands on a sweeping lawn in front of the grand mansion. In the middle of the 20th century author T.H. White used a little artistic licence, and for the purposes of his story moved it to an island in one of the two lakes. There it became home to a colony of tiny people, and the adventure that is Mistress Masham’s Repose began.
Ten year old Maria, who has ‘eyes the colour of Marmite’, is an orphan. She has been placed in the care of a scheming governess who is in cahoots with the local vicar to steal her inheritance – the vast Malplaquet estate. The house at Malplaquet is ‘surrounded by Vistas, Obelisks, Pyramids, Columns, Temples, Rotundas and Palladian Bridges’, all of which are slipping into decay after years of neglect. On an island in the lake stands a domed open rotunda called Mistress Masham’s Repose, home to around 500 little people who we learn are Lilliputians ‘in exile’, this being a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels. Can Maria and the little people thwart the gruesome governess and her vile vicar sidekick? The Folly Flâneuse will reveal no more here.
In the story, the Malplaquet mansion is shut up apart from two rooms where Maria and her governess live. It has been abandoned because ‘nobody could be persuaded to buy the place for a school’. This was of course an in-joke, for Malplaquet was based on Stowe, near Buckingham, which had been a school since 1923 after descendants of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos sold up. Terence ‘Tim’ Hanbury White (1906-1964) was the Head of English at the school in the early 1930s, and then spent some time living in a cottage in the grounds where he could concentrate on his writing (and in which guise he appears in the books as an eccentric academic). Familiar features at Stowe appear in the novel: the Temple of Concord and Victory for example becomes Neptune’s Temple, but the garden buildings, including some not mentioned in the text, are most easily identifiable in the wonderful map that forms the endpapers.
The map was drawn by White’s friend from his Cambridge days Raymond McGrath (1903-1977), an Australian born architect, illustrator, watercolorist, printmaker and interior designer, who arrived in London in the 1920s. In 1940 he moved to Ireland, where White also spent the war years. There he became an architect to the Ministry of Works, whilst still sketching and illustrating both for fun and commercially. McGrath was paid $50 by the American publishing house, G.P. Putnam & Sons, for the map of Malplaquet, apparently a ‘top fee for a map of this sort’.
Tim White’s Arthurian stories (later published together as The Once and Future King), were already very popular and would be adapted for the stage as Camelot, and by Walt Disney as the animated The Sword in the Stone. So his reputation was well established when Mistress Masham’s Repose was published first in America in 1946, and then in Britain by Jonathan Cape early the following year. The press advertisements announced it amongst other ‘forthcoming novels’, and were clearly targeting an adult audience with the blurb ‘a richly amusing fantasy with philosophical implications’. Reviewing it for the Daily Herald John Betjeman described it as a ‘thrilling story’, and concluded that ‘Mr White has written a story which will be good reading for all people from 12 to 100’. Tim White would have appreciated this comment, as he didn’t like to be pigeon-holed and said he never wrote for ‘anybody in particular’. The book was an instant success, bolstered by being chosen as a Book of the Month in America – this subscription scheme had close to 900,000 members when Mistress Masham’s Repose was selected.
The story was dedicated to Amaryllis Virginia Garnett, daughter of White’s friend and agent David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, a member of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’. Although the story is written as if being read to Amaryllis, she was only born in 1943 and must have had to wait a few years to hear the story.
The Folly Flâneuse throughly enjoyed revisiting the story, which is still in print today but not as well known as it should be. Although there was a radio play in 1952, the book has never been adapted for the screen. The late screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman owned the film and TV rights, but despite hints at a film in 1967, and discussions with Granada Television for an adaptation using the very latest technology in 1983, the projects were shelved.
Like the Lilliputians, White too enjoyed life on an island, and moved to the channel isle of Alderney after Mistress Masham’s Repose success to avoid what he saw as punitive British taxes. He also had a folly of his own, building a Temple to Hadrian (‘a very fine fellow’) in his garden. You can catch a glimpse of it in this wonderful bit of archive footage from the BBC, in which White is interviewed (? interrogated) by Robert Robinson https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013h5b3
Mistress Masham’s Repose is a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, and in turn Andrew Dalton’s Malplaquet trilogy beautifully illustrated by Jonny Boatfield advances Maria’s story. You can read Rita Boogaart’s account here http://follies.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/ebulletin/Foll-e-46-Malplaquet.pdf Rita sadly passed away recently and will be greatly missed.
Read about Raymond McGrath’s amazing design for a modernist house in Surrey here https://www.themodernhouse.com/journal/architect-of-the-week-raymond-mcgrath/
Stowe House remains a school, although visitors are welcome at certain times of the year (under normal circumstances), and the pleasure grounds are in the care of the National Trust. The park is now open for pre-booked visits https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe
Mistress Masham’s Repose has been through many editions and is still in print https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1098952/mistress-masham-s-repose/9780099595175.html