This novel describes the difficulties and adventures of ten-year-old Maria, an orphan who is harassed and circumscribed by a pair of villainous guardians: the vicar, Mr. Hater, and her governess, Miss Brown. Her parents have died in an accident, and she seems to have no friends her own age. Although her extensive ancestral estate had been visited in former times by many famous political and literary figures, such as Queen Victoria, James Boswell, and Jonathan Swift, it is no longer being maintained because of a supposed lack of funds. The grandiose house and romantic monuments are either in ruins or overgrown, and the surrounding grounds are leased to a local farmer.
Maria’s two friends are the cook, who is the sole retainer at Malplaquet, and an elderly, absent-minded professor who lives in a small cottage on the grounds. While exploring the Quincunx, one of several lakes not far from the palace, Maria visits its small island, on which is an ornamental temple nicknamed Mistress Masham’s Repose. There she discovers a colony of miniature people, who initially are terrified of her. After gaining their friendship, she learns that they and their farm animals had been kidnapped from Lilliput in the early eighteenth century, following their discovery and a later account of their civilization written by Lemuel Gulliver. Carried about, put on display, and forced to perform by their captor, Captain Biddle, the ancestors of the present Lilliputians had managed to escape their jailer while at Malplaquet and then made their way to the island, where they took refuge.
Maria’s efforts to befriend them attract the attentions of her cruel guardians, who plot to exploit the Lilliputians for their own ends by capturing and selling them. Although they are able to imprison Maria, and Miss Brown appears to be plotting murder, the story ends happily through the combined efforts of the cook and her dog, the professor, the Lilliputians, and the local lord lieutenant and his assistant, all aided by the cleverness of Maria herself. A brief summary in the final pages details the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Mr. Hater and Miss Brown, the recovery of the money they had embezzled from the estate, and the restoration of Malplaquet to its former magnificence.