The Borrowers

If 1951’s winner didn’t speak to me, 1952’s is one of the books of my heart. It has an

The Borrowers - first edition jacket image
First edition jacket for The Borrowers, illustrated by Diana Stanley

advantage, of course: I read The Borrowers as a child and still carry some of that childhood reading experience with me on rereads. But there’s no question that this is a rich and wonderful novel, whenever you are coming to it. Mary Norton’s tale of tiny people who live hidden in human houses, ‘borrowing’ what they need to live on, has had one of the longest and most robust afterlives of any Carnegie winner: continuously in print, it’s been adapted multiple times, in various different media.

From the very opening lines the book asks readers to think and to wonder:

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? Kate, she should have been called. Yes, that was it— Kate. Not that the name matters much either way: she barely comes into the story.

What are we to make of this narrator who immediately disclaims herself? A narrator who immediately sets parameters for the kind of little girl who ‘should’ have heard the story, while simultaneously making it clear what kind of little girl actually did. The self-willed little girl sets us up for the heroine of the story itself, the Borrower Arrietty who yearns for a life beyond the cramped spaces below the floorboards. Yet she is also tamed by her exposure to the past, in the shape of Mrs May who tells her the story of the Borrowers:

Kate was never ‘wild’ with Mrs. May, nor untidy, nor self-willed; and Mrs. May taught her many things besides crochet: how to wind wool into an egg-shaped ball; how to run-and-fell and plan a darn; how to tidy a drawer and to lay, like a blessing, above the contents, a sheet of rustling tissue against the dust.

This sets up a tension which runs throughout the book, between a nostalgia for the past and the ways of the past, and the vitality of youth which drives towards the new and recognises the stifling presence of the old.

Much of this tension is embodied in the country house, which was a focus for much of Britain’s complicated feelings about its past and future in the early twentieth century. Like many country estates by 1952, the house in which the main narrative of the Borrowers takes place is in decline. Once a vibrant household with a full complement of servants, a lively family, and a host of visitors, it has dwindled to a single old lady – Aunt Sophy – two servants (a cook-housekeeper, Mrs Driver, and the gardener Crampfurl), and, for the duration of the action of the book, the Boy, sent to convalesce. And, of course – though most of the human inhabitants are unaware of them – the three Borrowers: Pod, Homily and Arrietty. The presence of the Borrowers in itself imbues the space of the house with a kind of magic, and Homily remembers the days when the house was inhabited with both many people and many Borrowers with nostalgia. But for Arrietty, the house is a prison:

It was only Pod who knew the way through the intersecting passages to the hole under the clock. And only Pod could open the gates. There were complicated clasps made of hair-slides and safety-pins of which Pod alone knew the secret.

If the gates serve to keep Homily and Arrietty safe from mice and other intruders from the outside, they also serve to keep them in – as Pod himself points out to Arrietty. The Boy also experiences his time in the house primarily as a period of confinement and loneliness. When Arrietty encounters the Boy, it is transformative for both of them, but these encounters ultimately lead to the discovery of the Borrowes, their flight from the house, and the Boy’s imprisonment in his room. The very story which serves to inspire in both ‘Kate’ and the reader of the book a desire to inhabit such a country house in fact turns on its oppression, decay, and ultimate dissolution.

These tensions are what make this book so narratively and conceptually rich. It’s possible to read the small, vulnerable Borrowers as children (believing unquestioningly that bigger people are for them, ‘like bread is for butter’), or as persecuted peoples (concealed fearfully in attics and under floorboards like the Franks in the Secret Annex). In their symbiotic relationship with the country house itself, they also mirror servants, deriving their social standing from the part of the house with which they are associated (the Overmantels, who lived in the morning room in times past, are – according to Homily – ‘stuck up’). This similarity is underscored by the fact that Mrs Driver, too, considers herself entitled to ‘borrow’: ‘A drop of Madeira here, a pair of old stockings there, a handkerchief or so, an odd vest, or an occasional pair of gloves— these, Mrs. Driver felt, […] were within her rights’. So the tension around the decline of the country house is in part the tension around the loss of community and livelihood for those people who worked in them – a loss which came about partly because the pay and conditions were so bad that young people  gladly abandoned service when other jobs were readily available after WW1. As the inestimable Aishwarya Subramanian pointed out in her doctoral work, there’s also a strong colonial dimension, although a complex one since the Borrowers unquestioningly exploit the ‘natural resources’ of human beings in a way which is reminiscent of the imperial British, but also occupy a vulnerable subject position. The country house itself is of course saturated with Empire, a link most clearly apparent through the presence of the Boy who has grown up in India. (In an mirroring of the Borrowers’ exploitative/vulnerable postion he will in fact ultimately die there, on the North West Frontier.) Rereading the book this time, I was particularly struck by the degree of violence: discovering the existence of the Borrowers, Mr Driver fantasises about how she will display them to her employer once they have been gassed, ‘laid out in sizes, on a piece of newspaper’.

All these complexity means this book is as satisfying on a 50th read as a first one. As a child, I was primarily captured by the idea of the tiny people living secret and intricate lives just out of sight (I can’t have been the only child to have left assorted small treasures under the floorboards just in case there might be someone there to enjoy them). Reading as an adult, I’m able to enjoy that aspect but am also still finding new things to think about on each read through.

Apparently Eileen Colwell (the first children’s librarian to serve as a Carnegie judge, and a major force in the history of the Medal) was dissatisfied with this choice in 1950. If this is true it’s now hard to imagine why, because almost 70 years later it still more than holds up.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 10/10  – I can’t actually imagine how a book could be better than this

Plot: 10/10 – This is possibly the most action-packed book of the Carnegie winners so far, driven by first the perilous discovery of the Borrowers by the Boy, their near-extinction, and finally their flight. And the frame narrative adds further complexity.

Characterisation: 10/10 – Every character in this book is distinctly drawn – you get a real sense not only of Arrietty, Pod and Homily but of all the minor characters (I particularly love Aunt Sophy, who regularly talks to Pod under the belief that he is a hallucination brought on by Fine Old Madeira)

Themes: Growth, escape, heritage, decay, magic, class, imperialism

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Diana Stanley. Her detailed images of the Borrowers’ lives and the assorted small items they have repurposed as furniture are very satisfying

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership: Children’s, although Arrietty is actually 14 and the story of her desire to break away from the safety of family and grow out into the bigger world has some YA dimensions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War stops play: a year with no award

Some musings on a year with no award

Mary Poppins Opens the Door: book jacket image
Mary Poppins Opens the Door: first edition jacket

No review this week, as we have reached 1943: the first of three years in which no Carnegie Medal was awarded. It’s pretty easy to guess why the committee struggled to make an award: World War Two was by this point well underway, and the depredations of the Blitz had had a significant effect on British publishing. Paper warehouses and printers were badly affected by the bombing, and the general paper shortage meant that publishers were severely restricted in how many books they could publish. Publishing firms were also hit by the loss of many staff to the armed forces – although children’s publishing was arguably better placed to cope with this since so many of the editors were women. War must also have affected the Library Association and its members, perhaps making the task of finding eligible titles more challenging: a problem compounded by the fact that the Carnegie Committee was not at this point made up of specialist youth librarians (who were mostly women) .

There were, however, books published in 1943, and despite the fact that the Committee recorded the ‘no book was considered suitable’ there are arguably some which might have fitted the bill had there been sufficient interest either in identifying possible titles or in bending the rules about eligibility. Before I proceed on to 1944’s award, then, I thought I’d briefly reflect on what might have been.

The most obvious contender for the prize, in terms of ensuring recognition, is Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs. I suspect this probably would have won by default had it not been for the fact that Ransome had already won the Medal in 1936. While there was no explicit rule against repeat winners, it wasn’t (according to Keith Barker) until 1968 that the rules were rewritten to make it clear that the same author could be honoured twice, and it took until 1980 for this to actually happen. So it’s fair to assume that there was at the very least a reluctance to honour Ransome twice. if so, that reluctance was perhaps solidified by the appeal of The Picts and the Martyrs relative to Pigeon Post. It’s a good book (in my opinion most of the Ransome books – with the exception of Missee Lee and Peter Duck – wouldn’t look out of place as winners).  It returns to some similar ground, though (in all senses) and it’s in some ways a quieter, less dramatic book. It has different qualities to Pigeon Post, but I don’t think it would be easy to make the case that it was so much better than that book that it merited a double award for Ransome so soon after he was honoured.

Another possible contender for the 1943 award was Enid Blyton, who published two books this year: The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and The Magic Faraway Tree. From a contemporary perspective, Blyton might seem like an unlikely contender for the Carnegie, since she has been anathema to much of the children’s book establishment for a large portion of her career. In the 1940s, however, she had yet to attract the amount of opprobrium which was to be attached to her in later days: reviews from around this time are generally positive if not effusive. A 1941 review of The Babar Story Book in the Observer, for example,  praises  her condensed version of the stories, saying ‘ She has, by doing her work with  taste and skill, rendered a real service to M. de Bunhoff’s historic elephant’ (Lucas, A. (1941, Nov 30). FOR THE CHILDREN. The Observer (1901- 2003) ). The stylistic qualities of Blyton’s writing are out of line with what I’ve seen of the Carnegie list to this point, which has tended towards the fairly high literary; on the other hand we can certainly say her books have stood the test of time, since very many of them are still in print and selling well.

I’ve never read The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and didn’t get around to reading it for this blog post. I did read The Magic Faraway Tree as a child and did NOT enjoy it, though I can’t remember why. I reread it this week and it created some of the same uneasy feelings that I associate with my childhood reading. I think this is to do with the fact Blyton’s fantasy world is so capricious and unpleasant: the book features a set of children who have discovered a magical tree which is populated by all kinds of strange people and which has access to magical lands, which periodically arrive at the top of the tree, stay for a short while, and then move on. They are often wish fulfilment type lands where you can take whatever you want or do whatever you want, although they are equally likely to be unpleasant lands, such as a land where everyone is angry all the time. As a child, I enjoyed the moral order of Blyton’s work a lot – I LOVED her school stories, in which there is a clear ‘right’ way to behave and any misunderstandings are always straightened out by the end of the book. In The Magic Faraway Tree, there are hints of moral didacticism – for example, there’s a world in which you can get whatever presents you want, as long as you want to give them to other people – but there’s also a lot of punishment which is either randomly delivered or wholly disproportionate. When the Saucepan Man goes into the Land of Toys, for example, believing it to be the Land of Take What You Want, he helps himself to toffees from a shop and is immediately apprehended and thrown in jail. In Blyton’s school stories, this kind of situation would be resolved by some kind of demonstration of his good intentions and his contrition; in this book it is resolved by the children breaking him out of prison and tricking all the pursuing toys into an exhausting and futile chase. I can see how this might be appealing to some readers – I think one thing the Famous Five books do well is convey the capriciousness of adult power and the pleasures of outwitting  those who wield it  – but I find it rather mean spirited and unsettling. It also seems to run counter to the Carnegie criteria, which did stipulate that books should offer children ‘a proper expectation of life’, which seems to have meant good moral values rather than realistic expectations (on which count Blytin might have won). All in all, I don’t think Blyton’s failure to win was a mere oversight, nor am I particularly sorry about this in retrospect.

The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket
The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket

The final two books which could have been contenders this year were Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (the first of the two books which were eventually adapted to become Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and P.L. Travers ‘ Mary Poppins Opens the Door. I have read both these books, but in both cases it was a long time agao, and I  didn’t manage to pick up either for a reread. I remember The Magic Bed-Knob as a humorous book with an enjoyable strand of realism – the kind of book which could conceivably have deserved an award – and it’s still in print, so it has stood the test of time. However, had it won the Carnegie committee might have felt that they couldn’t award the Medal to The Borrowers, which (spoiler alert) is to my mind one of the great fantasies of all time. Mary Poppins is another book which has achieved modern classic statement, albeit arguably mostly because of the film. I get confused about which Mary Poppins book is which, but I think Mary Poppins Opens the Door is where things start to get weird(er). Still, reading I Go By Sea, I Go By Land reminded me that P.L. Travers is really a fantastic writer, and with Mary Norton and P.L Travers in the mix I think the Carnegie Committee could probably have awarded the Medal if they’d been inclined to really try. So this does seem a case of ‘war stops play’ rather than a true case of there being no suitable titles at all.

I’ve yet to delve into the Library Association’s records to find out what was actually going on that year. I am curious to see what I’ll find when I do so.

Next time… a book which arguably demonstrates that the charge of weirdness need not have been a barrier to winning the award: The Wind on the Moon.