Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget

de la MareThis strange and beautiful novel was published in 1921, perfectly positioned among Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922) and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926).  All belong to the category of fantasy that allows the fantastical to live alongside the mundane, without comment or criticism, although mild resentment may be present, humans and inhumans being what they are.

De la Mare was better known for his stories and poetry for children, and for his horror stories and tales of the supernatural. Memoirs of a Midget is a novel a child might tire of quickly due to its weight (it’s long), or fall headlong into with enthusiastic curiosity. But it would take a singular and precocious child to really love this novel, as it deals with love and emotional fidelity in the most oblique way, obcuring the most interesting points out of discretion, and deliberate omission. It has been described as a novel Henry James could have written, had he been interested in a tiny doll-sized woman living a retired life in the country under the protection of her gaunt and faithful landlady Mrs Bowater. But there is so much disinterested love in the story of Miss M, the Midget of the title, that Thomas Hardy might be a better model.

The novel opens in the words of the framing narrator, Sir Walter, who relates how he had become the advisor of the orphaned Miss M while she was staying with friends in a rather inimical great house in London. On her return to the country, they saw each other frequently, and she entrusted him with her Memoirs, bundles of carefully folded and sealed brown paper, in which she had written the story of her life. One evening Mrs Bowater summoned Sir Walter to Miss M’s cottage in a fright, because Miss M had disappeared, leaving only a note pinned to the carpet saying ‘I Have been called Away’. She was never seen again.

The novel begins properly at this point, with the Memoirs, relating the story of Miss M’s life, her parents, her early orphaning, her life under Mrs Bowater’s care, her love for Fanny Bowater, the faithless governess who is an evil Jane Eyre, and her passion for wandering the fields and the woods, star-gazing, and feeling at one with a world from which humans excluded her by their size, and the size of what they make. Miss M is taken to London to be shown to Society by the benevolent but malicious Mrs Mommerie, and finds a way to escape by performing in a circus. But the great secret of her life is her loving admirer Mr Anon, whom she meets in a field, and resists to the very end.

T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) could easily have been influenced by the stately dignity of this small lady, and her ingenious contrivances for living. Miss M is also a scholar, being particularly interested in astronomy, botany and entomology. She loves Fanny hopelessly, giving her money, and acting reluctantly as a messenger when the curate falls desperately in love with her. Their relationship is a very strange and tortured one, and dominates the novel with a black feeling of despair, and looming betrayal. The love of Mr Anon for Miss M is similarly grim, though we see from the beginning that he is an honourable man, if rather odd. Miss M wants his friendship rather than his love, because she cannot feel love for him: an unusual statement of emotional independence.

The Memoirs of a Midget is a perfectly written curiosity, of beautiful prose and shining goodness in a world of the slightly grotesque, and I was so pleased to find a modern copy, published by Telegram Books.

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