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