Classic Children's Literature Month

The blog Simpler Pastimes is hosting a month-long Classic Children’s Literature Event. Given that I’m only reading from my TBR piles and have plenty of children’s classics, it was ideal to join in with. But which one should I read?

Should I revisit a much-loved tale that I loved as a child?  Or one that I’d missed reading before?

After some perusing of my shelves, I came up with the choice below – by an author I don’t think I ever read as a child, but whom I know is highly regarded after all the reviews of new reprints of The Runaways (formerly Linnets and Valerians) by her, not least the one in Issue 1 of Shiny New Books – always good to get a plug in! So what did I choose? …

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

It was first published in 1946, but I had bought my copy only a few years ago (with my daughter in mind I expect) because it is a film tie-in one. They had to go and change the title to ‘The Secret of Moonacre‘ too for the film for some reason. This edition also includes a section of colour stills from the film with its great British cast – Ioan Gruffudd, Natascha McElhone, Juliet Stevenson. Tim Curry and, as the young heroine, the over-named Dakota Blue Richards.

My daughter bypassed this book in the end but I kept it for a rainy day to read myself. So, what did I think?  Well, I’ll save that for after a little resumé of the story…

Maria Merryweather is newly made a poor orphan and as the book starts she is in a carriage on her way to Moonacre, where she is to live with her Uncle Benjamin as they had to sell the London house to pay off her late father’s debts. Accompanying her is her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins.

Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.

Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people – those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.

So, from page one, we know that Maria is used to the finer things in life. Miss Heliotrope is long-suffering and bookish, and we think Wiggins might be a dog – he is.

They eventually arrive in the valley of the Moonacre estate, coming through a tunnel in the hill which was opened for them.  They meet Uncle Benjamin, who is large and jovial, and are shown to their rooms in the manor-house.

No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. …

The ceiling was vaulted, and delicate ribbings of stone curved over Maria’s head like the branches of a tree, meeting at the highest point of the ceiling in a carved representation of a sickle moon surrounded by stars.

It’s all too lovely.  A small four-poster bed, sheepskin rug, and silvery-oak chests finish off this dream interior.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

Everything about Moonacre seems perfect. But it isn’t long before Maria starts to find out about the legends surrounding her ancestors, who had stolen lands and sheep from the other local squire and engendered long-lasting bad relations with the fishermen in the bay. There is much talk about how Moon Princesses never stay long at Moonacre, of which of course, Maria is the latest and last of the line.

Maria being more than a little bossy sets out to put things, by which I mean everything, right, and we never doubt that she’ll succeed for a minute … and that is where my problems, reading this book as an adult, lie.

Maria is just too good!

She does have her good points though – she listens, but she uses what she hears to her advantage – she shamelessly manipulates everyone – thank goodness she only does it in their best interests. I’d hate to think what she’d be like crossed!

She and village boy Robin, do have an adventure when she goes to bargain with the wicked decendant of Black William, wronged by her own antecedent. But although chased by the men in black, you never feel that they’re in any real danger. To me, it felt as if it already had a Disney-type of gloss. Maybe the film stills insert gave me the wrong picture (it was Warner Brothers by the way). Everything was too easy for her and too obvious for me.

I did like the animals though. She rescues a hare from a trap and calls her Serena, and then she is kept safe in her escapades by Wrolf, who is essentially a lion pretending to be a giant hound. Trusty little steed Periwinkle the pony, and of course, Wiggins the spaniel complete the menagerie.

Underneath the sweetness of the narrative are themes of atonement, redemption, and a strong reminder that pride is a sin and will do its best to get in the way of true love (nearly made me choke saying that), and they all lived happily every after. To saccharine for me, however, it’s perfect fun for eight-year old girls who like a fairy-tale adventure. (6/10)

Am I being too harsh?
Have you seen the film?

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon (via affiliate links), please click below:
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, Lion books paperback, 224 pages.
The Secret Of Moonacre [DVD] [2008]

11 thoughts on “Classic Children's Literature Month

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I suppose I was only 8 when I read it and I loved it. In fact, I was so keen on it, I made my mother listen to me reading it out loud to her for several chapters a day (at some point I got bored and she breathed a sigh of relief).

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I loved the Runaways, as I felt there was a real undercurrent of threat which gave it a bit of an edge – but I admit I’ve balked with this one, thinking that it might be too saccharine – and I think from what you say it may be! 🙂

  3. Spade & Dagger says:

    I’m undecided on reading or rereading children’s books as an adult. I enjoyed reading everything with my children, but I don’t seem to get the same pleasure reading them alone. A lot of these earlier books were unavailable to me as a child and I feel as if I should catch up on some ‘classics’, but can’t get in the right frame of mind. Unfortunately, reading alone, my literary critic mode kicks in long before I have a chance to suspend belief and go along with the story in the way children do.

  4. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I know what you mean. But there are plenty of children’s classics that do hold up for a grown-up read – this wasn’t one of them! I re-read my childhood fave Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr (from the 1950s) a couple of years ago and loved it all over again – finding it creepier than remembered.

  5. helen says:

    Gasps! I loved A Little White Horse as a child and I love it still. Everything you write is absolutely true, the sweetness perhaps dates it, but it just doesn’t bother me and does make it an enormously comforting read (although I can’t bear the thought of salmon pink geraniums, ugh!). And a bossy little girl! Usually bossy types get squashed in children’s literature, or used to, anyway.

    I do think that the rule ‘If you didn’t read it as a child, you won’t enjoy it as much as an adult’ is almost universally true but Diana Wynne Jones is, I am finding, an exception to this. And I should reread Marianne Dreams, which scared the pants off me as a child.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      What you say about the experience being different re-reading much-loved childhood favourites and coming new to classic children’s books is so true as a rule. It won’t stop me trying the odd one I missed as a child though. I re-read Marianne Dreams a couple of years ago – you’ll find it on here somewhere and it still scared the pants off me!

      Must read more Diana Wynne Jones though – I’ve only read the one, and that was an adult and I rather enjoyed it.

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