A famous painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck portrays Charles I's consort, Queen Henrietta Maria, and her dwarf, Sir Jeffrey Hudson. Quite touching, that "Sir," as Hudson entered the entourage of the Duke of Buckingham at age seven and was subsequently presented to the royal couple during their visit to the duke's country estate, "served up to the table in a Cold Pye." Buckingham then "gave" Jeffrey Hudson to the queen as a present. Henrietta Maria was "amused by his sprightly ways," and he became her companion and confidante. In Van Dyck's portrait, he is about fourteen; by age thirty, legend has it, he was only a foot and a half tall. But Hudson was every inch the courtier, even if the attribution of the knightly honorific is apparently erroneous. "How did Her Majestie the Queene save Jeffrey Hudson from drowning?" Lord Warwick reportedly quipped. "She stopped stepping on his head." Hudson remained in the service of Henrietta Maria until he killed a man in a duel, fought on horseback with pistols; he was imprisoned, but released upon the queen's intercession, although banished to Paris.

Jeffrey Hudson was born in the English county of Rutlandshire, whose motto is multum in parvoó"much in little." The heroine of Walter de la Mare's Memoirs of a Midget (Paul Dry Books, $15) bemoans at the very outset an inaccurate account of her story that had appeared in a few country journals but that, to her consternation, made its way in expanded form to the Metropolitan Press: "I think I can guess where my ingenuous biographer borrowed these fables. He meant me no harm; he was earning his living; he made judicious use of his åno doubts' and åit may be supposed'; and I hope he amused his readers. . . . Finally, my anonymous journalist stated that I was born in Rutlandshireóbecause, I suppose, it is the smallest county in England." Unlike Hudson, Miss M., as she is referred to in the novel, is perfectly formed, albeit around two feet tall: a midget, not a dwarf. Also unlike the little-person cavalier, her life is mostly one of reflection, not to say idleness: a curiosity to local townsfolk, a pet of the frivolous rich. De la Mare's singular novel, originally published in 1921, when the poet and writer of children's stories was at the height of his literary reputation, is set sometime in the late-Victorian or early-Edwardian period. Miss M.'s perspicuous, detailed descriptions of nature savor of Thomas Hardy, as does her rather morbid, death-obsessed view of life; the intensity of her introspection calls to mind the psychological tergiversations of George Meredith, or even Henry James. "As one morning I brushed past a bush of lads' love (or maidens' ruin, as some call it) . . . I stumbled on the carcass of a young mole. . . . Holding my breath, with a stick I slowly edged it up in the dust and surveyed the white heaving nest of maggots in its belly with a peculiar and absorbed recognition. åAh, ha!' a voice cried within me, åso this is what is in wait; this is how things are.' . . . That was a lesson I have never unlearned." Miss M.'s discovery of the mole's corpse presages the deaths of her parents only a few pages later, which ends her unusual but otherwise pastoral childhood.

The remainder of the novel is plot: Left penniless at her father's death, she moves to more modest accommodations with Mrs. Bowater, whose daughter Fanny becomes the object of Miss M.'sóor "Midgetina," as Fanny weirdly calls herópassionate but unrequited love. This is virtually boilerplate for the cultivated English novel: Desire is stoked, then repressed and denied. The narrator's well-nigh sapphic affection for Fanny perforce comes to nothing, although the reader can infer that when Fanny seeks to borrow money from her minuscule friend, it's for an abortion. She refuses an offer of marriage from a hump-shouldered dwarf. She becomes an ornament for high society, as she becomes the favorite of the ridiculous Lady Pollacke. The novel then slides effortlessly into full-blown grotesquerie when, tired of her patroness and the exigencies of being amusing, Miss M. gets a job in the circus. Had she lived just a little bit later, she might have found Hollywood an option: Just think of all the movies about little people, from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) to Sam Newfield's all-midget western The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). But these are scary movies. For some reason, the entertainment industry does not propagate flattering portrayals of little people on the whole: Few heartwarming tales of tribulation and triumph come to mind. Why not a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and a midget? The latest affrontóor is it mainstreaming?ócomes in the form of a recent FOX reality program, The Littlest Groom, wherein a height-challenged young man begins his search for a wife among twelve potential little brides, only to discover that later he will have to cope with some average-height gals who also want to become Mrs. Midget.

The diegesis of Memoirs of a Midget, if not exactly traditional in every respect, nevertheless belongs to genres with which we are familiar. Certainly, maybe too certainly, it allows for allegorical interpretations. In her useful foreword, the novelist Alison Lurie summarizes this view: "Like most good novels, Memoirs of a Midget can be read in many ways. It can be seen as an inversion of de la Mare's psychological situation: Miss M. is an adult in a child's body. It also works as an allegory about the position of middle-class women in the late nineteenth century: petted and minimized when weak, condemned when they sought independence. Except for the few days when she is displaying herself in the circus, Miss M. never earns a shilling; people take care of her because she is helpless and cute. For most of the book she lives on inherited money." Lurie adds that had a woman authored the book, it would probably enjoy the status of a protofeminist classic. All quite just as angles for literary criticism, yet Memoirs of a Midget, despite de la Mare's gorgeous but archaizing prose, benefits from a reading that holds the "meta" elements of this work at bay, emphasizing rather the minute particularities he lavishes on his heroine's bodily and mental conditions. What's going on isn't like Candide being menaced by the monkey people. And while othernessóat this date, I can't help but shudder at the word, yet there it isóis a frequent device of Romantic and modernist writers through which they express their own alienation from society, I think in this instance it proves more insightful (more sensitive?) to dwell instead on the elemental, flesh-and-bones midget. I gave de la Mare's book to a little-person friend of mine. "Well, aside from the period details, I felt like it was a mirror reflecting my own life and feelings," he said. "Life is very hard, but it's even harder when everyone on the street stares at you, or tries desperately not to stare, all the while thinking of circus freaks and Mini-Me in those dreadful Austin Powers movies."

David Rimanelli is a New Yorkñbased critic and a contributing editor of Artforum.

 
     
     
 
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MEMOIRS OF A MIDGET BY WALTER DE LA MARE. PHILADELPHIA: PAUL DRY BOOKS. 392 PAGES. $15. BUY NOW