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Memoirs of a Midget

Walter de la Mare

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Walter de la Mare was most famous for his uncanny fiction, and Memoirs of a Midget fits the description perfectly. The protagonist, who we know simply as “M.” or “Midgetina,” is a young woman just a few inches in height—though at times it seems that her height varies. Sometimes she’s small enough to be accosted by birds and carried on trays, and at other times it seems she’s large enough to ride horseback and even pass as a ten-year-old. She trips over hairbrushes, reads books that are larger than her, and must be especially careful around dogs and cats. The people around her seem to take this bizarre state of affairs in stride, and indeed, it’s the only truly uncanny quirk in an otherwise ornate, almost Jamesian narrative.

The narrative follows Midgetina as she struggles to make her way in life after the tragic death of her parents. Even though she’s minuscule in size, she’s extremely sharp intellectually, taking an interest in literature, astronomy, natural science, and more. Her personality is so distinct that her minuscule stature becomes more of a symbol of her isolation, than the actual cause of it.

In time she moves in to rooms managed by a Dickensian landlady, whose peripatetic daughter, Fanny, becomes a friend to Midgetina, a possible love interest, and even a sometimes-antagonist. Fanny, a master of manipulation, seems to float through life gleefully and selfishly using those around her. Midgetina, desperate for human connection, clings to Fanny with an interest that at times has an almost erotic edge. Fanny’s subtle manipulations, careless cruelty, and effortless charm make her a character just as memorable as Midgetina, and a powerful antidote to Midgetina’s naive, yearning hopefulness.

Though largely forgotten today, Memoirs of a Midget was met with high praise from contemporary critics and went on to win the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Modern critic Edward Wagenknecht regards it as “the greatest English novel of its time.”

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