Anyone who went out and read my last two choices is probably now in need of cheering up, so this week I’m recommending one of my favourite `comfort books’ – `The Little White Horse’ by Elizabeth Goudge. This was first published in 1946 but it’s still in print in paperback and now  available as an ebook. Some editions have the original  charming illustrations by C.Walter Hodges.  A film based on this novel, but called `The Secret of Moonacre’,  came out in 2008. The film was visually stunning but it made massive changes to Goudge’s plot and characters. So, if you saw the film and didn’t like it (or were just plain baffled by its storyline) don’t let this put you off trying  the very different  book.

`The Little White Horse’ is set in England in 1842. After her father dies in debt, thirteen year old orphan Maria Merryweather is forced to leave her London home. Accompanied by her spaniel Wiggins and her loyal governess, Miss Heliotrope, Maria is sent to the West Country to live at Moonacre Manor with her nearest living relative, Sir Benjamin Merryweather. Though he claims that no female has set foot in his house for twenty years, Sir Benjamin proves a kindly host. Maria is enchanted by Moonacre valley and the new friends she makes there, such as Marmaduke Scarlet, the hunchbacked cook, the fiddle-playing Old Parson and a hare called Serena. She can also see things that other people can’t, like the little white horse in the woods that just might be a unicorn.

Maria soon has many questions. Who is the mysterious hooded Gatekeeper? How can Robin, the boy she thought was her imaginary friend, be here in the valley? Is the great dog Wrolf something more than he seems and who are the fierce black-clad men who live in the pinewoods? Then she is is told the legend of the `Moon Princess’ . Centuries before, the founder of the Merryweather family married the daughter of Black John, the head of the Coq de Noir family, whose silvery fairness gained her the nickname of the Moon Princess. After a terrible quarrel with her husband, the Moon Princess disappeared, along with the pearls that were her dowry. Since then there has been a bitter feud between the two families but in every generation a new Moon Princess is born.  For `a short while there is great joy…but then, as if in punishment for the original sin, there is a quarrel, and the Moon Princess once more goes away.’  Only a Moon Princess who is courageous and yet humble enough to love a poor man can drive evil out of Moonacre and bring peace to the divided valley. Will arrogant Maria be the one, or is she destined to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Far from flawless Maria is an engaging heroine. She has all the family pride and fiery temper of her ancestors but she’s lucky enough to have been firmly brought up by unselfish Miss Heliotrope, who didn’t care `whether Maria liked her or not , if only she could make of the child a fine and noble woman’.  Goudge had a great talent for making goodness seem attractive and Miss Heliotrope, whose stern and ugly appearance hides a sensitive and romantic soul, is one of her most loveable characters.  (Don’t get me started on the coarse way this character was portrayed  in the film).  It may sound as if `The Little White Horse’   has a straightforward good versus evil plot but that isn’t the case. The story is more about the dangers of pride and the need for humility and love. The `Black Men’  who enter the valley to rob and plunder at first seem like pure villains but their ancestors were wronged by the Merryweathers and they do have genuine grievances. Their leader, Monsieur Coq de Noir, is not the only one blinded by pride and a refusal to see the other person’s point of view. Even good Sir Benjamin and the beautiful Moon Princess of his generation have ruined their lives because they were too proud to apologize to each other. Twenty years of unhappiness stem from a stupid quarrel over a pot of pink geraniums. Thinking about this incident has often saved me from trouble in my own marriage.

Some people hate books that have masses of detailed description of people, places and things. Not me. I love the intricately imagined settings of this novel. When I first read `The Little White Horse’ when I was child, oh how I envied Maria her turret bedroom with its four-poster bed `hung with pale-blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars…and spread with a patchwork quilt made of exquisite squares of velvet and silk, of all colours of the rainbow’ and the bunch of freash flowers and the beautiful clothes laid out for her every morning. The food in the novel is even more delicious – biscuits with pink sugar roses on top, a syllabub made with twelve eggs, a pint of cream and cinnamon for flavouring , saffron cake, gingerbread, Devonshire splits, lemon-curd sandwiches… If, like a character in a Jasper Fforde novel, I could live inside any book, I would probably choose to move into Moonacre Manor.  Try `The Little White Horse’ and you might want to as well, but there’s plenty of room. Until next week.