Often there are so many shiny new books coming out that I put off reading older titles. I put this one on my want-to-read list after Charlotte was talking about Elizabeth Goudge on her blog, and I realized that one of my childhood favorites was also by her. I’d never found her other works, nor have I gone back to Linnets and Valerians… but I think I should! I’ve seen this listed as a favorite by lots of UK children’s fantasy writers, too – I think the current paperback edition is blurbed by J.K. Rowling herself!
This is a classic of British children’s fantasy, and won the Carnegie Medal (the equivalent to the American Newbery Award) in 1946. We first meet our heroine, recently orphaned 13-year-old Maria Merryweather, as she and her governess Miss Heliotrope are traveling from London to her uncle’s country estate. She can tell that her life is going to be more exciting just from the journey there, as they are attacked by bandits and she catches a glimpse of something that looks suspiciously like a unicorn as they ride through the woods surrounding the manor. It’s a story of family and magic filled with colorful characters and beautifully described places. She is welcomed as the Moon Maiden, and learns that Moon Maidens have left the estate after being wronged generation after generation. This sadness is causing the manor and the village that depends on it to fall apart, and naturally only Maria can stop it, though she will have help from everyone around her, including the old vicar, the little person cook with an extraordinary vocabulary named Marmaduke Scarlet, the motherly woman in a hidden cottage named Loveday Minette, and her son Robin, who is also Maria’s best friend.
I’m always a bit nervous going into books like this, especially when the vicar starts scolding Maria for her feminine curiosity. Much to my relief, Maria stays curious and ends up solving the problems. I do wish that the robbers living in the forest did not have dark complexions listed as one of the things that made them suspicious, even if they were dark-skinned from coming from France, not Africa – still! The ending, where our 13 and 14-year-old lovebirds announce their intention to marry and the adults convince them to postpone the wedding for a whole year – is both squicky and unnecessary to the plot. It wouldn’t have changed the ending at all to have them be sweethearts for another, say, 7 years, and wait until they were at least out of their teens to marry. I had a version without illustration, and I would have loved to see those described on some Amazon reviews of other editions. Those misgivings aside, however, I was charmed by Maria and her journey from individual vanity to focusing more on curiosity and helping others. The writing is delightful, and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever happened to be nearby. As an example, here is a scene near the beginning where Maria’s little lap dog Wiggins and her uncle Sir Benjamin’s majestic dog Wrolf are protesting being forced to live together.
“But they asked no more questions, because at this point Wiggins created a diversion. Overcome by greediness, he spashed a bit, and a small piece of carrot shot out of his dish and landed upon Wrolf’s nose. The indignity was too much for Wrolf. Outraged, he arose, and slowly and with measured gait left the room, lifting the latch of the front door with his nose. So majestic was his exit, so incomparable his dignity, that it was not so much an exit as a royal progress that compelled all eyes.
There was a momentary cessation both of conversation and mastication as he departed….” (p 28)
This is a lovely book to share with lovers of classic fantasy, though parents might wish to discuss some of the points with their children. And now I also want to re-read another childhood favorite British fantasy classic, E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.