Sunday 6 December 2020

Borrowing by Paul May

The Borrowers is a remarkable book. Marcus Crouch called it 'flawless', and I agree with him. He also said that 'by its idea alone, one of the few really original ideas in children's literature, it would have been a landmark.' It is a dark and frightening book which is made bearable only by the brilliance of the characterisation and the precise realisation of the Borrowers' lives. It has atmospheric line illustrations by Diana Stanley and wonderful dialogue, but it would be inaccurate to describe it as 'fun' or 'twee'—words I've seen used to describe film adaptations. If you only know the Borrowers through their screen incarnations I recommend you read the book as soon as possible. The Sunday Times review on the back of my copy sums it up brilliantly: 'Beautifully written, poetic and almost always alarming, The Borrowers books have something very mysterious, sad and exciting about them.'

The book is a landmark and also, I think, a culmination. When I was reading it I found myself thinking of several of the other Carnegie winners I'd read recently. It seems to me that The Borrowers represents a synthesis of the most successful elements of those earlier books. The Clock family, Homily, Pod and Arrietty, reminded me of the Ruggles family in The Family from One End Street, and of the evacuated working-class families in Visitors from London. The Clocks, despite being only five inches tall are ordinary, recognisable people who live in a terrifyingly hostile world. Pod and Homily know about the dangers, but Arrietty is young and foolhardy and brave, and has to learn the hard way.

The Clocks are real people. There is nothing magical about them, but they do keep out of the way of 'human beans' and 'being seen' is the worst thing that can happen to them—well, almost the worst. They are, in fact, rather like BB's Little Grey Men, although in The Little Grey Men the characters are nowhere near as vivid and lively as those in The Borrowers and there is hardly a female in sight. Still, the close observation of the natural world from the point of view of a very small person finds echoes in The Borrowers as Arrietty goes outside for the first time:

'Cautiously she moved towards the bank and climbed a little nervously in amongst the green blades. As she parted them gently with her bare hands, drops of water plopped on her skirt and she felt the red shoes become damp. But on she went, pulling herself up now and again by rooty stems into this jungle of moss and wood-violet and creeping leaves of clover.'

Mary Norton

In The Little Grey Men we have this kind of thing: 'Being a damp sort of a place, weeds of all kinds flourished: all those plants which love water crowded round; giant dock, appearing not unlike the riverside plants of a tropical stream, with huge hairy columns for stalks as thick round as trees . . .'

There is a slight whiff of the schoolroom in BB's nature descriptions which is entirely absent from The Borrowers. Arrietty's journey (the first time she has ever been outside) is vividly realised, but also terrifying. Note the 'nervously' and even the 'blades' in the extract above. As we read about her bare hands and the drops of water and the red shoes we can't help thinking of blood. Well, I can't anyway. Further down the page we have this: ' . . . she knew about woodlice. There were plenty of them at home under the floor. Homily always scolded her if she played with them because, she said, they smelled of old knives.' A few lines later the chapter concludes like this: 'Startled, she caught her breath. Something had moved above her on the bank. Something had glittered. Arrietty stared.'

Illustration by Diana Stanley

Passages of description in The Borrowers always exist to create tension or to move the plot forward. Walter de la Mare also used detailed and poetic descriptions of the natural world from a small person's perspective, most notably in Memoirs of a Midget, but where de la Mare liked to cause unease by hinting at things unseen, Mary Norton made her Borrowers most emphatically real. And look at the Boy's reaction when he first sees Arrietty and she asks why he wants to kill her:

'In case,' came the surprised whisper at last, 'you ran towards me, quickly, through the grass . . . in case,' it went on, trembling a little, 'you scrabbled at me with your nasty little hands.' 

Mary Norton is evoking the human fear of the rat, I think, and it is as rats that the Borrowers will be exterminated if Mrs Driver has her way at the end of the book. It is a more visceral fear than those de la Mare conjures up in many pages of a barely glimpsed supernatural presence in his story, The Scarecrow, and the Boy's terrified reaction at this point gives us a warning of the way adults are likely to react if they find the Borrowers.

Whether or not Mary Norton was aware of these earlier writers we can't know for sure. I like to think she may have borrowed from them and she may also have borrowed from de la Mare the distancing or framing device that she uses to tell the story, though she certainly makes it her own and de la Mare is not the only one to use this kind of approach. The reader knows from the first paragraph that they are in the hands of a wonderfully skilful and assured writer:

'It was Mrs May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me - a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth?'

So, the author, Mary Norton, pretends to be a little girl who is hearing this story from Mrs May, and then says that it can't have been her, perhaps because she no longer recognises the little girl she once was. And then it turns out that Mrs May is only relaying a story told her by her brother, who was given to 'strange imaginings'. 'There was something about him,' says Mrs May, 'perhaps because we were brought up in India among mystery and magic and legends - something that made us think he saw things that other people could not see; sometimes we'd know he was teasing, but at other times - well, we were not so sure . . . '

This is a wartime book, just as much as were We Couldn't Leave Dinah and Visitors from London, even though it is set in the time of Queen Victoria. Mary Norton wrote about the origin of the book. She describes (in the introduction to the Puffin Complete Borrowers) how undiagnosed short-sightedness in childhood led her to focus on tiny things seen up close. 'What would it be like, this child would wonder, lying prone upon the moss, to live among such creatures—human oneself to all intents and purposes, but as small and vulnerable as they.'

These childhood imaginings were forgotten until 'just before the 1940 war, when a change was creeping over the world as we had known it . . . There were human men and women who were being forced to live (by stark and tragic necessity) the kind of life a child had once envisaged for a race of mythical creatures. One could not help but realise (without any thought of conscious symbolism) that the world at any time could produce its Mrs Drivers who would in turn summon their Rich Williams. And there would be.' (Rich Williams is the rat-catcher.)

A N Wilson saw something slightly different in the book. Having noted that 'the ingenious way in which Pod and Homily 'make do' with cast-offs . . . does reflect the resourcefulness of British families during the austerity years', and having also suggested that the terrible destruction of the Borrowers' home, with the roof ripped off, 'owes much to the British experience of losing houses and possessions through aerial bombardment', he goes on to say:

'Many readers in 1952, however, the year of the book's publication and of George VI's death, must have seen a faint parallel between Arrietty, last of her strange race and guardian of the Borrowers' future, and the figure of Princess Elizabeth.' Wilson also apparently described the book as, in part, an allegory of post-war Britain 'with its picture of a diminished people living in an old, half-empty house.'

The fact that Mary Norton denied 'any thought of conscious symbolism' doesn't mean there's no symbolism in the book, but I value the book's truthfulness more than its symbolism. We live in an uncertain world with unpredictable dangers ahead. Homily's biggest fear is that one of the Borrowers will be 'seen' and they will have to emigrate. To hear some people talk about 'immigrants' these days you would think it was an easy thing to leave everything you have and flee to another country. It's not so easy for Homily: 

'It's no good, Pod, I won't emigrate!'

'No one's asked you to,' said Pod.

'To go and live like Hendreary and Lupy in a badger's set! The other side of the world, that's where they say it is - all among the earthworms.'

'It's two fields away, above the spinney,' said Pod.

The book is all about weighing up risks and making choices. The Borrowers live with fear and anxiety all the time, and the book ends on a horrifying note as the rat-catcher prepares to smoke out the Borrowers so that his terriers can kill them. Mary Norton carefully leaves her readers with no certainty that the Borrowers have escaped this fate, or even that the story Mrs May's brother told was true. There were no plans at first for a sequel, but in the end there were four more books and a short story prequel, though even after this Mary Norton was not prepared to deliver a straightforward happy ending. She had lived through two world wars and her books mirror the real, unpredictable and dangerous world that she knew; the same world we live in now.

The final words from Peagreen at the end of the final book in the series resonate powerfully today, when 'Stay safe' has replaced 'Have a nice day,' as a farewell greeting at the supermarket checkout. Arrietty says: 

'I only wanted her to know we were safe . . .'

Peagreen looked back at her. He was smiling his quizzical, one-sided smile.

'Are we?' he asked gently. 'Are we? Ever?'

For those eagle-eyed readers who have noticed I haven't mentioned the 1951 Carnegie winner, The Wool-pack, by Cynthia Harnett, I will just say that there is a decent historical novel here struggling to get out from beneath the weight of a wealth of carefully researched detail about life in Tudor times and about the Cotswold wool trade in particular. The Borrowers is by some distance the best book to have won the Carnegie up to this point. The Wool-pack is interesting because it is a signpost towards Rosemary Sutcliff who would, in a few years time, achieve a perfect blend of plot, character and setting in books similar in quality to The Borrowers.  But The Wool-pack is not itself the finished article.

Cynthia Harnett 
Marcus Crouch said of her work: 'The stories are not exciting . . .'
A strange recommendation, but true.

A N Wilson's piece, Royal life as seen under the floorboards in in The Telegraph 4/10/2004 (paywall)

Also worth a look is The Borrowers Anew by Judith Elkin in Books for Keeps

Paul May's website


Susan Price said...

I don't get Crouch's comment that 'The Borrowers' has 'one of the few truly original ideas' in children's literature. A race of tiny people who live alongside humans but are rarely noticed? -- Had Crouch never heard of elves, fairies, Nisse, brownies?

Having said that, the Borrower books truly are wonderful and you've made me want to read them again. As you say, it's Norton's imagining that makes the books so vivid and original -- I think originality often lies in the handling of the subject rather than the idea. After all, aren't there only seven plots?

Paul May said...

I think perhaps it was the borrowing itself that Marcus Crouch was thinking of as original, though he does say some odd things at times. As you say, there are plenty of stories about little people living alongside humans but they are generally magical in some way and not usually scared of the humans. I can't think of any others that are parasitic in quite the same way, though both hobbits and the little grey men are unmagical and down-to-earth. I do think that the borrowers are very like rats and mice, who can come to depend on humans while being very keen to keep out of their sight. I speak as one who has just conducted a long battle of wits with a rat that decided to share lockdown with us, taking up residence under the floorboards and emerging occasionally to borrow avocados or slices of bread!

Susan Price said...

The rats come for your avocados? -- Them's posh rats!

I see what you mean about the borrowers depending on humans, though there are stories of elves who are parasitical - and constantly borrowing, in fact, from humans.

But it's a quibble about what Marcus Crouch said. Your main point is that the Borrower books are wonderful and on that we can wholeheartedly agree.

(In fact, I've been searching my book-shelves for my copies. I think they may have been borrowed...

Stroppy Author said...

What a wonderful post, Paul. Have just read it as I was prepariny my own post on the Borrowers (9 Dec)! Mine was never going to be as erudite and sensitive as yours. It will be a low-brow companion piece. One day, we must meet for a natter about Borrowers