Successful historical fiction invokes a point of view alien to both reader and writer– that of the past. The farther back into history an author sets a novel, the more alien the point of view becomes. First person narratives further complicate this problem of historical sensibility and challenge their authors skill. The further the point of view ventures from that of the author the more challenging the narrative becomes. Setting a story 100 years in the past, selecting a narrator of the opposite gender, and making that narrator physically different seems almost like asking for it.
But Walter de la Mare pulls it off in Memoirs of a Midget. His narrator is a nineteenth century woman and a midget. (No one in her day would have considered using any other term.)
Mr. de la Mare’s heroine, Miss M., brings her own personality to the forefront of her memoir. Hers is a life of solitude. Protected by her father throughout her childhood and young adulthood, she has few friends outside her family servants. After her father dies, the narrator finds she has just enough income to provide food, lodging and a minimum of expenses. This and the fear of society’s reaction to her size forces her to live a largely cloistered life, and gives the novel just a handful of characters: Miss M., her landlady and her landlady’s daughter.
Since so little happens in the narrator’s life and her world is so reduced, Memoirs of a Midget becomes a story of isolation. Many 19th century women led reduced lives but Miss M.’s is literally reduced, even the furniture in her single room is smaller than average. She is a doll living in a doll’s house with little to do but observe the personalities of the two women who share the same home. It’s no wonder that she falls in love with them.
Throughout her memoir, Miss M. longs to become her own person. She pursues the study of science through books and observation as she seeks the means to achieve some level of independence. The expected path of marriage to an appropriate young man is not open to Miss M., but once high society finds out about her, she receives an invitation and becomes the permanent guest of a wealthy widow, kept as a sort of pet, expected to recite poetry to entertain party quests whenever her benefactress demands. Thus Miss M. can move to London, visit France, find the means to further her self-education in the sciences, but she pays a very high price for this. It becomes clear to Miss M. that none of the people she interacts with see her a fully adult even fully human. They are pleased that she can recite poetry because they did not expect a such a small person to possess the faculties for memorization.
That Mr. de la Mare can make Miss M. a believable character and make such a strange story speak to a readership at least twice removed from its reality, is a remarkable achievement. Memoirs of a Midget is not a fast read, but it is a deep one. Though very little happens in her life. Miss M. has much to say to her readers. In the end her story is something akin to My Brilliant Career, a story of the artist as a young woman. Just what kind of artist Miss M. will become is left to the reader to decide. Her story ends when she strikes a final blow for her own freedom and cuts all ties with high society. Memoirs of a Midget is an impressive feat. I expect to find it a contender for my top ten reads of the year.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in July of 2010, I have forgotten almost everything about Memoirs of a Midget. Fortunately for me, I keep a few shelves of books to reread after I retire. This one is on that shelf, placed there five years ago after I finished it. This review makes me see why I would want to read it again someday.