Friday, August 13, 2021

The Centenary of 'Memoirs of a Midget'

It must have been around this time of year, one hundred years ago, that Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget was on the bookstalls. It was his longest prose work and was to be his last novel. The original inspiration, according to Teresa Whistler’s biography of him (2003), was a visit to a circus as a schoolboy, where he was fascinated by a performer who was a dwarf, and began to imagine his world.

He also always liked miniature objects, and saw them as symbols of a world, dream-like in quality, similar to our own yet different to it. The biographer also suggests there are many aspects of the protagonist of his novel that apply to de la Mare himself, particularly the slightly old-fashioned, reserved character, and the sense of being not quite wholly in this world.

I have to admit to not being previously especially devoted to the book, because it is just a bit too leisurely in pace, too intricate about details, to quite hold the attention over a fairly long narrative. It certainly has some enjoyably eccentric characters and some beguiling episodes, but it requires a certain steadfast patience from the reader as it slowly unfolds. However, I also think it will always reward a fresh look, to discover its thoughtful and curious perspectives.

Though they all have attractive qualities, none of his longer works quite succeed as novels. Henry Brocken (1904) is really a series of episodes, The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910) a children’s story. The Return (1910) is the nearest to working well, though the idea is perhaps a bit over-stretched. The short story form was clearly de la Mare’s true metier. Perhaps he eventually came to accept this. Teresa Whistler reveals that he began, but abandoned, two further novels, Mr Fox, and Mr Cat, in both of which a creature has animal and human traits.

The Memoirs has certainly had its admirers, though. In thanking de la Mare for a copy of the book in a letter of 9 August 1921, Thomas Hardy said that he ‘liked the story very much’, that many parts ‘have so subtle a beauty’, but he thought that it might be wasted on ‘the tribe of ordinary novel readers’. Forrest Reid thought it: ‘Surely the quaintest, curiousest and most enticing romance ever imagined’. The book was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for the best novel of 1921, and it did find some delighted and sympathetic readers, some of whom sent de la Mare exquisite miniature objects in thanks. Katherine Mansfield wrote a letter to the Midget herself, though it went astray.

Doris Ross McCrossan, in her 1966 study of de la Mare in the Twayne’s English Authors series, devotes a whole chapter to the Memoirs, sub-titled ‘The Self Surprised’. She traces some probable literary precursors for the character, particularly Gulliver’s Travels, a ‘very tiny woman’ in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, and the Alice stories, which de la Mare much admired: he wrote a monograph on Lewis Carroll.

But this critic also makes the perceptive point that it is not the fact of its heroine being physically diminutive that is the essence of the book. That is just a device to take the reader at one remove from the everyday world. Rather, it is a story about ‘any sensitive, perceptive individual’, ‘an odyssey of a soul in search of itself in the world of no particular time or place’. This, I think, is an enriching insight into the true quality of the Memoirs, and suggests that the book does have affinities with de la Mare's elusive and enigmatic short stories.

However, that is not to say it is simply a dreamy fairy story or a mystical reverie. Michael Dirda, in discussing the Memoirs in the ‘Everyday Magic’ section of his Classics for Pleasure (2007), observes that it is ‘a book containing a considerable amount of death, violence, madness, and grotesquerie’ if only the reader is alert to what is implied between the lines. He also detects the influence of Henry James. 

The insights of both these critics suggest that, as with de la Mare’s stories, there are several hidden dimensions to this novel. In his oblique, diffident way, de la Mare offers us in Memoirs of a Midget sharp reflections on passion, cruelty, unrequited love, suffering and mortality, as well as his more ethereal themes of strangeness, beauty and wonder. 

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Just a few tiny facts to add. The book was published in the UK on 21 July 1921, and it followed in the US on 3 January 1922.

  2. While I don't disagree about the slow pace of the book--though a lot of older books are slow-paced--I do think "Memoirs of a Midget" an astonishing tour de force. John Clute feels nearly as strongly about "The Three Mulla-Mulgars." The initial premise of "The Return" is thrilling, but the book does grow a bit headspinning in its presentation of seemingly overlapping realities. Still, De la Mare's novels--if not perfect--are deeply impressive fictive experiments. "Memoirs" is one of those novels--Lindsay's nearly contemporary "A Voyage to Arcturus" is another--that will always be catnip to adventurous readers. --md

  3. This isn't the best place for this question, but I'll ask anyway. I have the impression that Arthur Machen somewhere referred to Sir Richard Burton's translation of The Arabian Nights as execrable. I haven't managed to run down that reference. Can anyone help me locate the remark -- supposing I'm not imagining it?

    More pertinently to the subject of this posting: and speaking of imagining a remark by one author on another -- I was so sure that C. S. Lewis had said he liked Memoirs of a Midget that, in an article published many years ago on Lewis's interest in weird fiction, I said so. But when I came to wonder just where I had read that, I couldn't find it -- and I never have been able to since then.

    Dale Nelson

  4. The Machen remark on Burton was in Far-Off Things.

    I am sorry to have to confess that the rectory shelves held no copy of "The Arabian Nights." I made up this deficiency soon after I went to school by buying an excellent edition, issued, I think, by Routledge for a shilling. This edition is now, the booksellers tell me, out of print, and it is a pity, for now if you want the book there is nothing between an edition obviously meant for the nursery, with gaudy plates, and Lane's version for thirty shillings. I speak not of Burton, for I found myself unable to read a couple of pages of his detestable English, made more terrible by the imitations of the rhymed prose of the original. I came upon something which went very much as follows:—

    Then followed the dawn of day, and the Princess finished her allotted say,
    Praise be to the Lord of Light alway, who faileth not to send the appointed ray——

    and so on, at much greater length; highly ingenious, no doubt, and also infinitely foolish.

    Dale Nelson