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The Borrowers
Mary Norton
Harcourt, Brace & Co. -- Odyssey Classics

Volume 1 The Borrowers
Volume 2 The Borrowers Afield
Volume 3 The Borrowers Afloat

The Borrowers
The Borrowers Afield
The Borrowers Afloat
Mary Norton
Daughter of a physician, Mary Norton (née Spenser) was born December 10, 1903 in London, England. Raised in a Georgian manor house in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, she later attended St. Margaret's Convent school in East Grimstead, Sussex. Throughout her life, she enjoyed swimming and riding. A member of the Old Vic Theatre Company from 1925 to 1926, she married Robert Charles Norton, a shipping magnate, in 1927, and had two girls and two boys with him. They lived in Portugal from 1926 through 1939. Upon returning to England in 1940 she worked for the BBC and for the War Office. The family moved temporarily to the United States in the early 1940s, and there she began writing books to supplement the family income. Mary Norton died of a stroke, August 29, 1992 in Hartland, Devonshire, England.

Her first book The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943) and the sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) were later reworked into Bed-Knob and Broomstick (1957), the basis for the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, starring Angela Lansbury. In 1952 the first of the books in the Borrowers series, The Borrowers was published to great critical acclaim. It won the Carnegie Medal, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award Book, and was named an ALA Distinguished Book. This was followed by The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), Poor Stainless: A New Story About the Borrowers (1971), and The Borrowers Avenged (1982), which includes Poor Stainless. The last title sees the borrowers safe and sound in a new home, the Old Rectory, coincidentally one of Mary Norton's last postal addresses. The Borrowers has appeared as a series on British television, and has been recently made into a Hollywood movie. Another, non-series title, Are All the Giants Dead? (1975) is a story of what happens to retired fairy tale characters.

ISFDB Bibliography
Movie: The Borrowers
SF Site Review: The Borrowers 4 and 5 & Movie Novelization

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Borrowers -- the Clock family: father, Pod; mother, Homily; and daughter, Arrietty -- are first introduced to us through the eyes and ears of a young boy sent to convalesce at his great-aunt Sophy's manor in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire (site of Mary Norton's childhood home). The borrowers, human-like, but only a few inches tall, live under the floorboards and survive by borrowing items and leftovers from "human beans."

Pod, the bread-winner, is very conservative in his views and somewhat limited by his lack of formal learning. However, he is courageous, resourceful and devoted to his family. Homily, his wife, has an air of gentility, but is easily flustered, quickly losing her nerve. Arrietty, about 14 years old when the story begins, while fairly obedient, has a "questing spirit" that longs for the wide open spaces. She is kept from wandering by the cautionary tales of her cousin Eggletina's disappearance when she went exploring, and of the forced emigration of Uncle Hendreary and his family to a badger set (burrow) -- far away, outdoors -- after he was seen by a human.

When Pod is seen by the boy, and later Arrietty actually speaks with him, things begin to go wrong. Eventually the nasty housekeeper Mrs. Driver calls in the police and ratcatcher to dispose of them. The Clocks escape into the fields with little but the clothes on their backs.

In The Borrowers Afield, they settle into a lost boot embedded in the bank of a stream. There they meet Spiller, a wild free-living borrower who travels and trades up and down the stream using a wooden utensil tray as a barge. Disaster strikes when Mild Eye, the gypsy who once owned the boot, finds it again and the Clocks are caught inside his trailer-home. Saved by a young boy, they are taken to a thatched cottage, where they are reunited with Uncle Hendreary, Aunt Lupy, and their many children. However, they must live an existence wholly dependant on their relatives, which begins to irk Homily.

In The Borrowers Afloat, when the inhabitants of the cottage move out, Pod decides it's time to move on. With the help of Spiller, they escape the locked house through a drain, and reach Spiller's stream-side tea-kettle home. Intending to go to live in a miniature model city situated downstream, they wait for Spiller to return from a trading expedition. A flood washes them downstream, into the clutches of the evil gypsy Mild Eye. Spiller manages to save them, and they drift downstream towards new adventures.

I won't be the first to say that The Borrowers is a wonderful series of children's books, enchanting for children yet retaining an interest for adults. While they read as novels of adventure and wonder to children, they can be seen as a parable of the disenfranchised and homeless of these latter days. It is this duality in appeal that makes this series comparable to Lewis Carroll's (1832-1898) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Kenneth Grahame's (1859-1932) The Wind in the Willows. While slanted perhaps slightly towards a female readership, with the vivacious Arrietty a prominent member of the Clock family, it is a neat counterpoint to the all-boys club of The Wind in the Willows.

The setting and personae of The Borrowers are distinctly British. While one might compare the books, in terms of their stature as children's classics, to L. Frank Baum's (1856-1919) Wizard of Oz series (1900-1920), it is this sort of difference which makes the recent Hollywood adaptation of The Borrowers so unlike the books in spirit.

Interestingly, the novels do not centre on any one member of the family to the exclusion of the others, giving the books a sense of the strength of family and community in times of crisis, without the sickly-sweetness of the Little House on the Prairie television adaptation of recent years. The best comparison of this strong family-community interaction in American children's literature is that of Mr. Bean's farm animals in Walter R. Brooks' (1886-1958) Freddy the Pig series (1927-1958).

The close-knit community of borrowers also reflects much better the life and aspirations of the average man, making the story much more believable, and not fanciful dreams of incredibly beautiful princesses and impossibly heroic warrior-princes. Better still, The Borrowers books do not talk down to children as do many older children's novels like Thornton W. Burgess' 1910-1920s animal books (e.g. The Adventures of Reddy Fox, etc.), and don't have the nauseating saccharine prose and goody-two-shoes plotting of 19th, and even some 20th century works, like Mrs. Molesworth's (1839-1921) "Carrots", Just a Little Boy (1876).

Being of an outdoorsy bent, I preferred the The Borrowers Afield and The Borrowers Afloat adventures in the series. Mary Norton's obvious sense of the wonder and complexity of Nature in her depiction of the English countryside harkens back to British authors like Richard Jefferies (1848-1887; Wood Magic; The Open Air) and W.H. Hudson (1841-1922; Green Mansions; A Shepherd's Life) or is reminiscent of the works of America's Gene Stratton Porter (The Girl of the Limberlost). Mary Norton herself once explained the genesis of The Borrowers:

"When others saw far hills, the distant woods, the soaring pheasant, I as a child, would turn sideways to the close bank, the tree roots and the tangled grasses... Moss, fern-stalks, sorrel stems, created the mise en scene for a jungle drama, lacking in those days its dramatis personae. But one invented the characters -- small fearful people picking their way through miniature undergrowth; one saw smooth places where they might sit and rest; branched stems which might invite them to climb; sandy holes into which they might creep for shelter."
Her descriptions of borrower indoor living-quarters draw very much from the stage where she performed at different times in her life. Arrietty's bedroom, in a discarded cigar box, and the other rooms in the Clock household seem in many ways like theatre sets, modular, and quickly assembled or taken apart. That much of the milieu of the stories is taken from her pleasant nostalgic memories of her childhood home in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire is obvious as is evidenced by the words she puts in the mouth of the narrator in Chapter 1 of The Borrowers Afield:
"Leighton Buzzard? Years afterwards, when Kate described this scene to her children, she would tell them how, at these words, her heart began to thump long before her mind took in their meaning."
Even for today's violence-jaded kids, there are plenty of narrow escapes and nefarious humans to make the books interesting. For parents, these are books which won't have you gritting your teeth when your kids ask you to read to them, or have you worried about what they are reading themselves.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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