English author of juvenile novels.
The following entry presents commentary on Norton's "Borrowers" series of juvenile novels (1952-1982) through 2003. For further information on the "Borrowers" series, see CLR, Volume 6.
Among the most cherished works of British children's fiction, Mary Norton's "Borrowers" series uses aspects of scale and narrative form to depict a fully three-dimensional family of diminutive beings that rely upon the human world for sustenance. In England, where Norton's books are regular fixtures of juvenile literature, she remains one of the most critically praised children's authors despite her limited canon. In addition to winning the 1952 Carnegie Medal for children's fiction, the first book of the series, The Borrowers (1952), was picked from among past Carnegie winners as one of the ten most important British children's novels of the past seventy years by the CILIP Carnegie Award panel. Consisting of five books—The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), and The Borrowers Avenged (1982)—as well as one additional short story composed over a thirty year period, "The Borrowers" relate the story of the Clock family: father Pod, mother Homily, and their daughter Arrietty, the primary protagonist of the stories. The series traces their search for security, home, and family amidst the dangers of the human world, which offer constant threats for such small and fragile—albeit determined—beings. Intuitively told and conveyed with great respect for the child's point of view, "The Borrowers" remains a classic series of children's fiction, reverberating with a fondness for a bygone era.
Norton was born on December 10, 1903, in London, England, the daughter of Reginald Spenser Pearson and Mary Savile Hughes Pearson. Her father was a prominent surgeon who claimed distant ancestry to the famed author Edmund Spenser, creator of the epic poem, The Faerie Queene. At the age of two, Norton moved with her family to a new home in Leighton Buzzard, a house that would help inspire her later books. The only girl of her parents' five children, Norton was plagued by severe near-sightedness as a child. To adjust for the differences in her world as opposed to that of her more active brothers, she imagined a play world where things were on a smaller scale. Populating this imaginary land were the forerunners to the Borrowers, a race of tiny beings physically inspired by her childhood dolls. This fertile universe was ultimately interrupted by Norton's requisite schooling, which led her to two different convent schools that Norton found equally unsuitable to her temperament. Leaving the convent system and struggling to find her place, she attended the St. James's Secretarial College, finding work as a secretary shortly thereafter. Similarly unsuitable for the young Norton, she was quickly fired. Wanting to be an actress instead, she was encouraged in her ambitions by playwright Arthur Rose, a patient of her father's who helped her gain an audition with Lilian Baylies, the manager of the Old Vic theatre. After the on-the-spot trial audition with Baylies failed to impress, she was instead given admission to the Old Vic's school for actors after appealing to Baylies. Two years at theatre school followed and she began to audition throughout London, eventually gaining work in various productions. In 1926 she married shipping heir Robert Charles Norton, the wealthy scion of a family of prominent English expatriates in Portugal. While the marriage required her to live in Portugal—which meant leaving the theatre—his family held large estates there, which afforded them a lavish lifestyle. Together, the couple would eventually have four children: Ann, Robert, Guy, and Caroline. This comfortable existence continued until the New York stock market crash of 1929 led to a worldwide depression. Hitting the shipping industry particularly hard, the Great Depression slowly forced the couple to sell off their estate. Nevertheless, they remained in Portugal until the start of World War II, at which time, Robert joined the British Navy while his wife returned to England. There, she managed to acquire work with the British War Office, which in turn eventually led to a war-time position with the British Purchasing Commission's New York branch. While Norton was able to bring home a steady salary from this job, she still found herself struggling financially and began to write as a means of earning additional income. After successfully getting one of her short stories published, she proceeded to pen The Magic Bed-Knob: or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943), which was released to good reviews and prompted a sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947). Together the two books were combined in 1957 as Bed-Knob and Broomstick, which was the basis for a successful 1971 Disney movie starring Angela Lansbury. Buoyed by their mutual successes, Norton decided to revisit her imaginary childhood friends—whom she christened the Borrowers—turning their lives into a full length novel. Critically hailed, The Borrowers continued Norton's literary success and prompted the release of three more "Borrowers" novels over a nine year period. In 1970, after the dissolution of her first marriage, she married fellow writer Lionel Bonsey and composed an additional short story, "Poor Stainless: A New Story about the Borrowers," as a birthday present for children's author Eleanor Farjeon. Despite her high critical regard, Norton would only go on to write three more children's books over the course of her career, including one final "Borrowers" novel, The Borrowers Avenged, which was released over twenty years after the previous book in the series. Norton's stellar career ended after she suffered a stroke in Devonshire, England, and passed away on August 29, 1992.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
Norton's series relates the story of a family of "Borrowers," a unique fairy-like race of six-inch-tall humanoids who depend upon their skills at using the cast-off and unnecessary items from their human neighbors for survival. Constantly forced to hide from the creatures they know as "human beans," a verbal mishmash of "human beings" which keeps with their talent for contorting words, the Borrowers are adept at recycling borrowed materials—items too small to be noticed as missing, such as pins, brush hairs, and paper—for their own creative purposes. The first book frames the story of the Borrowers in a conversation between a young girl named Kate and her aunt, Mrs. May. While quilting together, Kate realizes her crocheting needle has disappeared, which her aunt suggests may have been "borrowed" rather than lost, and prompts her to relate a tale told to her by her brother about the summer he met a family of Borrowers living under the kitchen floor of Firbank Hall.
The three members of the Clock family, Pod, Homily, and daughter Arrietty, are the last of the Borrowers living in that once grand mansion known as Firbank Hall, which had formerly been home to several clans of their people. Life is a struggle for the Clocks, who worry constantly about being discovered; their worst fears seem realized when Pod returns from one of his borrowing jaunts with the frightening news that he had been seen by a child. This child is, as it turns out, Mrs. May's brother, who had been sent from India to live with his Great-Aunt Sophy, the mistress of Firbank, as he convalesced from rheumatic fever. While Pod and Homily are terrified that this discovery may force them to leave Firbank as the other Borrowers had done, ultimately, Pod instead decides to teach his daughter the art of borrowing. On her very first venture outside their cubbyhole with her father, she is seen by the child—called only "the Boy" throughout the novel—and proceeds to engage him in conversation. This discussion dramatically changes Arrietty's life. Realizing for the first time that her family may be the last Borrowers, she convinces him to carry a letter to a badger hole where others of her kind are rumored to be living. In addition, while her parents initially oppose their friendship, the Boy begins to give them a series of toy-sized objects from around the mansion, leading to a golden-age of sorts for the Clocks. In return, the self-taught Arrietty begins to read to him with her parents' reluctant permission. Ultimately, however, the disappearance of so many items does not go unnoticed, and Sophy's hostile maid, Mrs. Driver, discovers their existence. Disbelieving what she has seen, she decides that the house has instead become infested with mice and calls a rat-catcher to flush them out. She locks the Boy in the nursery, though she cruelly drags him out to see the rat-catcher gassing the kitchen floorboards where the Clocks had lived. The Boy manages to escape long enough to hack through a cellar grating that may allow their escape. While he never sees them again, and indeed he even remains uncertain of their survival, he leaves gifts by the badger hole, which are gone when he goes back to check on them. Further, Mrs. May indicates she later found what she believed to be Arrietty's diary, though the handwriting was suspiciously like that of her brother. The four other books in the series relate Arrietty's life after Firbank Hall, though the narrative duties shift for each book. The second novel has a grown Kate return to Firbank, where she relates her own discoveries there for her four children. The three later books dispense with these narrative tricks, instead using a direct third-person account of Arrietty's life. Over the course of the series, the Clocks are reunited with some of the other Firbank Borrowers, Arrietty meets and begins a relationship with a rough Borrower orphan named Spiller, and they find a seemingly ideal sanctuary in a model village called Little Fordham. The series ends inconclusively; while Arrietty seems to settle down with Spiller in the fourth book, another Borrower named Peagreen (Peregrine) Overmantel becomes a romantic possibility by book five. Similarly, while The Borrowers Aloft ends with the family seemingly safely ensconced within Little Fordham, in The Borrowers Avenged, they find life in the model village too easy and decide to move once again, with their futures ultimately left a mystery.
While Norton creates a play world seemingly comparable to that of her literary peers, the "Borrowers" books maintain a frightening and serious undercurrent unusual to children's fiction. The existence of the Borrowers—and the Clocks, in particular—is eternally tenuous. Indeed, as the last book indicates, such desperate lives may even be their preference, as they reject the idyllic life in Little Fordham as unfulfilling. Nevertheless, the life of a Borrower is fraught with danger due to their tiny statures and the inherent threat from their human neighbors. This threat is highlighted by the story of Eggletina, Arrietty's brash cousin, whom Arrietty had hopes of emulating until her parents finally tell her that the reckless child was presumed eaten by a cat (though, in a later book, Eggletina reappears, alive, but apparently damaged). Norton seemingly suggests that such constant struggles, while difficult, nevertheless create a full life as typified by the Clocks' eschewal of the easy life in favor of a more nomadic and uncertain existence. Similarly, while the Boy's gifts are eagerly accepted by the Clocks, these tokens ultimately prove to be tainted as they lead to the Borrowers' discovery and forced abandonment of their longtime home. Critics have proposed that such incidents may be have been indicative of Norton's own sociopolitical conservatism, with the series created as a warning against what she believed was a developing British welfare state in the first half of the century. Certainly, the Clocks' speech patterns and lifestyle are indicative of a traditional lower-to-middle-class English family, probably of rural origins. However, Norton also fills the books with Horatio Alger-type implications: Arrietty, for instance, represents an evolution from that of her staid traditionalist parents. Brave and forward-thinking, she signals a positive future for her people. Indeed, Norton indicated that, for her part, she viewed "The Borrowers" as "something of the whole human dilemma—a microcosm of our world and the powers which rule us. In each generation, only youth is restless and brave enough to try to get out from ‘under the floorboards.’" The potent desperation of the Clocks may instead have been inspired by the plight of World War II refugees, as Arrietty initially comes to worry about the possible extinction of her people after the departure of all the other Borrower families from Firbank Hall. Worries of forced emigration from their established home haunt the family throughout the first book as well, even as Arrietty begins to realize that, as the only Borrower child known to her, the future of her race may be lost. A poignant sensation, it is indicative of Norton's talent for reflecting the child's perspective, with the tiny statures of the Borrowers themselves symbolically representative of the child's point of view. By reducing the perspective to that of a miniature, Norton establishes a world that corresponds to that of a child in many ways. The sense of dependence upon the full-grown world, the fears of the universe at large, and even the physically reduced perspective itself may all have been intentionally earmarked for the child reader.
Norton's sympathetic "Borrowers" books have been regularly included among critical appraisals of the best children's works of the twentieth century. Called "powerful mythology" by Gillian Avery, the novels were best-sellers upon their initial publications and have been the basis for at least three different film productions. Norton's "Borrowers" series has remained continually in print since the first volume was released over fifty years ago and has endured as a fixture in the public and critical consciousness, particularly in England. Esteemed children's literature critic Cornelia Meigs has hailed The Borrowers "as nearly perfect [a literary creation] as [has been] produced for children in the English language within the past fifteen years." Such high praise has been typical for Norton's iconic books; Marcus Crouch has similarly lionized the books, suggesting that "of all the winners of the Carnegie Medal, The Borrowers is the one book of unquestioned, timeless genius." Their emotional power may be derived as much from their equation with the child's universe as their poignant expression of the Borrowers' fragile existences. "Even while we are fascinated by the details of this miniature life and by the Borrowers' ingenuity," Ellen Lewis Buell has asserted, "we are amused by their frailties and deeply moved by their courage." Ultimately, Nigel Hand has argued, Norton's series "challenges comparison with the most successful work in the field."
"The Borrowers" Series
The Borrowers [illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush] (juvenile novel) 1952
The Borrowers Afield [illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush] (juvenile novel) 1955
The Borrowers Afloat [illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush] (juvenile novel) 1959
The Borrowers Aloft [illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush] (juvenile novel) 1961
The Borrowers Omnibus (juvenile novels) 1966; republished as The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers, 1967
Poor Stainless: A New Story About the Borrowers (juvenile fiction) 1971
The Borrowers Avenged [illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush] (juvenile novel) 1982
Other Juvenile Works
The Magic Bed-Knob: or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons [illustrations by Waldo Pierce] (juvenile novel) 1943; republished as The Magic Bed-Knob, illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, 1945
Bonfires and Broomsticks [illustrations by Mary Ahshead] (juvenile novel) 1947
*Bed-Knob and Broomstick [illustrations by Erik Blegvad] (juvenile novel) 1957
Are All the Giants Dead? [illustrations by Brian Froud] (juvenile novel) 1975
*This is a revised and combined version of The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks.
Jon C. Stott (essay date May 1976)
SOURCE: Stott, Jon C. "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: The Borrowers." Language Arts 53, no. 5 (May 1976): 538-44.
[In the following essay, Stott attempts to define the literary strengths of Norton's The Borrowers, suggesting that the underlying motifs of sight, being seen, and insight thematically unite the story together and add to its import as a children's story.]
Mary Norton's The Borrowers, which in 1952 won the Carnegie Medal as the outstanding British children's book of the year, has been called "of all the winners of the Carnegie Medal … the one book of unquestioned, timeless genius" and "as nearly perfect [a literary creation] as [has been] produced for children in the English language within the past fifteen years."1 Commentators have generally praised style, detail, and characterization, while a few have been impressed by point of view, theme, and the use of folklore elements. Clearly, while all of these aspects are major contributors to the book's greatness, taken singly they are in themselves insufficient to explain the achievement of the novel. If we are to discover the key to the success of The Borrowers, we must find one major element of unity, one which informs such aspects as style, plot, character, point of view, setting, and theme. In this essay, I propose to find such a unifying principle in the concept of "seeing" and such related ideas as "insight’ and "appearance," to show how they dictate the direction and significance of the individual aspects noted above, and to explain how they give the novel its central meaning.
The first evidence of the importance of "seeing" is to be found in the language and style of the book. There are over 350 uses of words relating to sight, words such as saw, looked, seen, and eye. While many of these are used in a way one would expect in a novel, in which characters are in possession of their visual faculties, the majority relate to character, plot, tone, and theme. For example, the story begins with Kate looking on the floor; doubt as to the story's veracity is created by the fact that the principal narrator, Mrs. May, has never seen a Borrower; and Homily, on welcoming Pod back from an expedition, notices that he looks queer. All the references are not as significant as those mentioned, but the total number of references, averaging nearly 20 to a chapter, helps to create a linguistic climate in which the significance of the visual motif is subtly impressed on the reader. (Numbers refer to pages where examples are found.)
The Borrowers' colloquialisms reflect the importance of seeing and being seen in their lives. "I don't see anything bad in that, (24)2 the somewhat rebellious Arrietty remarks to her mother at one point, while another time, speaking of fine china, Homily muses, "But it's once you've had a tea cup, if you see what I mean…. " (24) Describing this difficulty in borrowing a new cup, irritated Pod tells his wife, "But with a cup [it's difficult]—you see what I mean." (31) Worried about the possibility of their emigrating, Pod tells Arrietty, "Arrietty, you're all we've got, see." (46) Examples such as these can be found throughout the novel, and subtly reenforce the seeing motif. In these instances, as in many others, the words relating to sight reflect the attempts of one character to make another understand his attitude. Thus the colloquialisms are about insight as well as "outsight."
It might be objected that there are many important references to hearing, and there are. But these, significantly, are related to sight. The clock is the most important; its noises and chimings relate to the routine by which members of the family live and a knowledge of which helps them avoid being seen. After they are seen by Mrs. Driver, the clock is silent for the first time in 80 years. The noises of the adults in the kitchen are an assurance, for when they are heard, the Borrowers are not seen. When Pod relates his first meeting with the Boy, the first time he was seen, "Homily stared at him in silence." (30—italics mine) And as Arrietty lies quietly in her darkened room, she hears her parents talk about the consequences of being seen.
The book is primarily visual in style. Of course, writing fantasy as she is, the author must convince her readers primarily through description. But more important, the way settings are described relates to tone and meaning. The opening and closing pages of envelope narration are set in a twilight breakfast room, pervaded by a "strange silvery light" (3) which creates an appropriate setting for the sympathetic, imaginative reaction of the past. The principal setting, the Clocks' floorboard home, is always dimly lit, for safety requires its location deep within the house where the family cannot be seen. Yet it reflects not only the logistics of family life but also character, for living by routine, tradition, and fear, the elder Clocks are, in a sense, benighted. The light, in this case the great outdoors frightens them, for it not only increases the danger of being seen, but it also represents a violent disruption of the dim, womb-like security of their accustomed way of life. But for Arrietty, who has gazed longingly at the outdoors through her grating, the dimness of the apartment parallels the weight pressing on her yearning, restless, and youthful soul. Appropriately, the most visually vivid sections of the book are those which describe Arrietty's first venture out from under the clock into the sunlit hall and out to the springtime outdoors.
Thus the style by which Mary Norton creates the vivid details of setting is significantly related to tone and meaning for the visual impressions, particularly of light and darkness, reflect the characters themselves: Pod and Homily, ophthalmic in their view of the world; Arrietty, yearning to escape the darkness to find realities to parallel her youthful visions.
The plot and characterization in The Borrowers are developed around the action of the Clocks' being seen and the ways in which they react to seeing and being seen. Obviously, the Borrowers live by borrowing; in a sense, they live by seeing what has been left lying around and by gathering it without being seen, which requires emigration to avoid capture.
For purposes of analysis, the plot may be divided into three sections, each of which centers on a central character being seen and contains a conflict as to whether or not the family should emigrate. In Chapters Three through Eight, Pod's being seen by the Boy threatens but does not totally disrupt the Clocks' lives; in Chapters Nine through Fourteen, Arrietty sees the Boy and is later seen by her father while she talks to this new friend; and, in Chapters Fifteen through Eighteen, the Boy meets the entire family and fails in his attempt to carry them from the house after they have been seen by Mrs. Driver. While the final two chapters describe the Boy's final actions and probable emigration of the family, they are not part of the direct narrative of the novel, being based on the memories and suppositions of Mrs. May.
Appropriately, the direct narration begins with Arrietty and Homily waiting, deep within the dim and safe apartments, for the return of Pod from a borrowing expedition in search of a cup to replace a broken one Homily had particularly liked. Arrietty is confident in her father's ability and safe return and reveals her own adventurous spirit by announcing, "I could climb a curtain." (25) Homily is filled with self-recrimination and is horrified by her daughter's remark. However, her statement about why she sent Pod after a cup—"But it's once you've had a tea cup. If you see what I mean…. " (24)—is revealing. She is concerned as much with appearances as she is with being discovered and this concern will help to lead to the family's final undoing.
When Pod announces that he has been seen, the reactions of his family are predictable and opposite. Homily's immediate conclusion is that they must emigrate, for such has been the way in the past, and she is upset by the thought. But her responses are related to her concern with appearances, for moving would mean living with Hendreary's family which she feels is beneath her. Only secondarily are her thoughts of her daughter and even then they are suspect: "The children growing up wild. Think of Arrietty! … Think of the way she's been brought up." (30) Finally, she thinks they need not leave if, unlike the Hendrearys who were delinquent in this duty with their daughter, they tell Arrietty about the principal fact of life: being seen and its consequences. But before telling Arrietty of Pod's adventure, she launches into a long discussion about the family's better days and the supposed snobbism of the Hendrearys and Overmantels. Her fear of being seen is overridden by her remembrance of the family's former good appearance. Only then does she get back to the topic at hand. It is ironic that Homily, in blaming Uncle Hendreary for having been discovered, does not know that he had gone to get much needed liver pills for his wife. She does not see the parallel: that Pod, too, has been seen while helping his own wife.
Arrietty, who had been gazing at but not seeing the painted ceiling of her room when her parents called for her, does not react as Pod and Homily feel she should. "Couldn't we emigrate," (48) she asks, sympathizing with her cousin Eggletina, who she imagines resented the confinement as much as she does. She suggests that at least she be allowed to borrow with her father. Homily, in what seems to be an about face, agrees to the idea, but the motives turn out to be selfish: there is little chance of the girl being seen. "It'll give her a bit of interest like and stop her hankering…. For blue sky and grass and suchlike…. It's no good Arrietty, I'm not going to emigrate—not for you nor anyone else." (52) The joy Arrietty feels is described upon her return to bed; now she does look at the painted ceiling, finding in the picture a parallel to her own feelings:
Arrietty, half dozing, gazed up at her painted ceiling. "Florde Havana," proclaimed the banners proudly. "Garantizados … Superiores … Non Plus Ultra … Esquisitos … " and the lovely gauzy ladies blew their trumpets, silently, triumphantly, on soundless notes of glee….
This first section of the narrative concludes with Arrietty joining Pod, who agrees to Homily's importunings, on a borrowing expedition. Her father is apprehensive, warning her: "Keep your eyes on me." (61) It is her journey from dark to light, both literal and symbolic, and it is the first day of Spring and the birth of a new life for her: "Here she was on the other side of the grating—here she was at last, on the outside—looking in." (66) She rejoices: "Oh, glory! Oh, joy! Oh, freedom." (67)
At the end of the first section of the narrative, the Clocks fail to obey a primary law of Borrower life: emigration on being seen. The primary reasons are clear: Homily's shortsighted selfishness and snobbishness and the conservative Pod's weak acquiescence to her desires. But by remaining in the house, they have prepared for the next major event of their lives: Arrietty's meeting the Boy.
The second section begins with this meeting and concludes with Pod discovering the two together. Because she wants to see, she is also seen. Chapter Nine opens abruptly:
It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the color of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye.
After her initial fear, Arrietty reacts bravely, boasting about her father and telling the Boy about Borrower superiority to "Human Beans." But in talking with him, her ethnocentrism begins to dissipate, as the Boy tells her of the vastness of the human world and informs her: "I'll bet they're dead [other Borrowers]…. And what's more … no one will ever believe I've seen you…. One day … you'll be the only Borrower left in the world." (86-7) Having been seen, she now sees her own life differently: racial survival rather than personal freedom is her main goal, and, with the aid of the Boy, she determines to establish contact with the Hendrearys. A sense of doom pervades her thinking as, on a later borrowing expedition with her father, she wonders about the now departed Overmantels:
So that's where they had lived [mantel] … those pleasure-loving creatures, remote and gay and self-sufficient…. Where were they now? Arrietty wondered. Where could such creatures go?
But if her attitudes have altered, those of her family have not. Homily, as would be expected, is terrified and refuses to emigrate, while Pod falls into the conservative cliches that are his mainstay. He scolds his daughter: "It's people like you, my girl, who do things sudden like with no respect for tradition, who'll finish us Borrowers once for all. Don't you see what you've done." (116) He refuses to face the new crisis, turning instead to routine. "Well … there's nothing we can do tonight. That's certain. But have a bit of supper and a good night's rest." (119)
The second section of the narrative closes as the first one had, with the two parents talking, not wanting to comprehend their situation, and doing nothing by staying put. This, of course, leads them inevitably to the major catastrophe; their discovery by Mrs. Driver.
The final section of the direct narrative begins with the entire family being seen by the Boy and concludes with him seeing them for the last time after Mrs. Driver's "sighting." With each of the separate "sightings" there has been a progression: first Pod, then Arrietty, and finally the entire family. As long as they have been seen by the Boy, who grows in such sympathy that he finally tells Mrs. Driver that he, like them, is a Borrower, they are generally safe. However, when Mrs. Driver, who is hostile, vindictive, and suspicious, makes the discovery, catastrophe is imminent. At first, events appear to go well. Homily, initially worried at the appearance she presents in her old nightgown and with the dishes unwashed, is delighted with the appearance their new furnishings would present to the world, if only there were other Borrowers to see:
Their only sadness was that there was no one there to see: no visitors, no casual droppers-in, no admiring cries and envious glances! What would Homily not have given for an Overmantel or a Harpischord? Even a Rain-barrel would have been better than no one at all.
Arrietty overcomes her ethnocentrism as she reads to the Boy:
She learned a lot and some of the things she learned were hard to accept. She was made to realize once and for all that this earth on which they loved turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people.
But the Golden Age of Borrowing does not last, for Homily, greedy to improve the appearance of their home, wishes them to borrow from the drawing room where Mrs. Driver notices things missing. As a result, they are discovered and finally forced to accept the necessity of emigration, a fact which terrorizes Homily and delights Arrietty.
It is appropriate that the direct narrative ends here for it represents the last time the Boy sees the Borrowers and thus the last direct account we have of them. Narrative and point of view are here linked as his entrance into and departure from the lives of Pod, Homily, and Arrietty have precipitated the action of this momentous period of their lives. Although they have behaved in accordance with their basic characters, he has been the catalyst acting upon them, forcing them to emigrate, an action which may well have been finally inevitable. Not only did the action occur because he saw them, but also because of his relationship to them the story has been related. However, although the direct narrative of the Borrowers' lives concludes with Chapter Eighteen, the story is not over, for the Boy continues to be an active force in their lives, courageously providing for what he believes to be their final escape, an event which is never substantiated.
We have delayed discussion of the Boy and other "human beans" in the story until this point because consideration of them leads us to analysis of a major aspect of the technique of the novel: point of view. Who sees the Borrowers and how they react to them determines much of the meaning of the story. There are ten human beings, three of whom—the rat-catcher, the policeman, and the village boy—are of little importance except for the fact that they are brought in to assist in catching the Borrowers and that all are skeptical of Mrs. Driver's sighting.
Most significant within the narrative are the four occupants of the old house: Aunt Sophy, Mrs. Driver, Mr. Campfurl, and the Boy. Each can be measured according to the extent of his belief in the Borrowers. Campfurl does not believe, attributing all to this mischievousness of the boy, and views Mrs. Driver's attitude with disdain. Aunt Sophy, injured, lonely, and a mild alcoholic, spending her time reliving past grandeur, real and imagined, thinks that Pod is a product of her sherry drinking. While she does not literally believe, she has an imaginative, albeit alcoholic, belief which renders her a more sympathetic character. She is close to Pod because, like him, she is a product of better days gone by. Mrs. Driver believes in what she sees, but her response is vindictive and exaggerated. A tippler who steals rather than borrows Aunt Sophy's sherry, she is self-defensively suspicious of everyone else and she resents intrusions on her imagined authority. Thus when she discovers Pod, Homily, and Arrietty, she sees them as threats to her security and sets out to exterminate them. She makes no attempt to understand them and goes as far as to exaggerate her sighting, telling Campfurl she has discovered hundreds of little people. It is appropriate that no one except the Boy should believe her, for hateful, vindictive liar that she is, she possesses neither sympathy nor understanding of the Borrowers.
The Boy grows to develop these qualities of sympathy and understanding. As Mrs. May tells Kate, he was a sensitive, weak, insecure child:
He was our little brother. I think that was why … he told us such impossible stories, such strange imaginings. He was jealous, I think, because we were older—and because we could read better. He wanted to impress us; he wanted, perhaps, to shock us. And yet … there was something about him—perhaps because we were brought up in India among mystery and magic and legend—something that made us think that he saw things that other people could not see.
He has the essentials necessary to see, understand, and sympathize, although when he first meets Arrietty he is somewhat skeptical, brash, and superior. As the story develops, he participates in activities no other human being has, for not only does he meet and talk to Borrowers, he actually sees their home. This occurs because, as his sympathy and understanding increase, he earns the right to know them. For example, it is the Boy who analyzes the group psychology of the Borrowers: "My Brother said that, underneath, he thought they were frightened. It was because they were frightened, he thought, that they had grown so small." (8) His final act of saving them is an act of courage that would have been impossible for him at the beginning of the story; he has come to realize the importance of other people and, in so doing, has grown as a person. We need not be surprised to learn that in his later life he became a colonel and died a hero's death. His summer with the Borrowers was a turning point in his life.
The Boy is also one of the three people who tell the story and, as such, is part of the link in which point of view moves steadily away from actual seeing of the Borrowers to imaginative insight. He is the appropriate link between the Clock family and his sisters and brothers and through them Kate, for he not only views, he also understands. Mrs. May and Kate never see the Borrowers but do achieve strong imaginative insight. The old lady is a kind of Borrower herself, living on other people and taking from Arrietty's diary and her brother's accounts the details of a story which she weaves into a narrative which has imaginative realty for her. In fact, as a girl, she had, in an act of faith in their existence, borrowed materials to take to the Clocks in the field. But what most indicates her belief in the Borrowers is her statement to Kate: "Stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It's just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them." (158) This can be interpreted to mean that she is not just telling a unified tale with an Aristotelean beginning, middle, and end (although in a way she is), but that she is relating incidents of the ongoing lives of people and that she must finally stop when she has reached the end of her knowledge.
Perhaps Mrs. May's greatest achievement is her transmission of her imaginative sympathy and insight to Kate. She says to the girl: "Oddly enough, I remember it better than many real things which have happened. Perhaps it was a real thing. I just don't know." (7-8) Her remembrance of details, particularly of the Borrowers involved, is so vivid that one realizes that she is drawing from deep belief. As she begins her narration, "Her eyes slid away into the distance," (6) and, in the twilight of the breakfast room, she brings a world long past to life for Kate. Yet she never forces Kate to accept what she says, giving detail tentatively and, even at the end, casting some uncertainty over the story. It is as if she feels that the girl must come to her own belief and faith.
In Kate, she finds a receptive audience, the young girl liking the twilight sadness of the breakfast room and almost intuitively understanding from the beginning the details of the Borrowers' lives. She begs Mrs. May to leave the lamp off so as to better listen to the story, and urges the old lady to tell her brother's story. When the direct narrative is completed at the end of Chapter Eighteen, she tearfully exhorts Mrs. May to complete the story. Here, a significant event occurs: Mrs. May and Kate, who have been sorting squares for quilting, work together putting the pieces together to complete the quilt. The act is symbolic, for they are as well completing the fabric of the story, piecing together the bits of information, using as stitching imaginative understanding, sympathy, and belief—their insight into the Borrowers. It is significant that Kate, as she hypothesizes about the later life of the Clocks, using as her basis her understanding of their characters, is aided by Mrs. May, who with age has acquired a fuller understanding of human and Borrower nature. As Mrs. May has taught Kate to quilt, she now instructs her to better understand or "see" the Borrowers. Thus, by the end of the novel, Kate, who has never literally sighted a Borrower, has, perhaps, as complete a comprehension of Pod, Homily, and Arrietty as anyone in the book.
Thus we see that the human beings are more than plot devices and that the relationships between people and Borrowers and the point of view are central as- pects of the novel's meaning. In essence, the novel is about understanding and sympathy, about knowledge of self and about insight into other people and beings. By seeing the story through the eyes of the Boy and then Mrs. May and Kate, the reader is able not only to understand the central characters, but also to trace and evaluate the narrators' growing insight. As mentioned, a major question is who earns the right to see the Borrowers. Campfurl and Mrs. Driver do not, and it is just that no one believes the latter when she does. Aunt Sophy has a partial right and even she only partly believes her own eyes. The Boy obviously has the right, and it is a tribute to him that Kate and Mrs. May later decide to relive his story and finish it for him. Their imaginative insight is stronger than Mrs. Driver's eyesight.
Through this analysis we may hopefully better understand the greatness of Mary Norton's masterpiece, The Borrowers. In addition to those elements generally mentioned by critics, the concepts related to "seeing" are central in unifying the work successfully and giving it its depth of meaning. How one responds to and reports what he sees is as important as seeing itself. Actual seeing is not always believing, while believing does not always require actual sight. In fact, in the book only one person, the Boy, both sees and believes. For Pod, Homily, Mrs. Driver, and Campfurl, limited in both sight and insight, the future hopes are limited, while for Arrietty and the Boy, who see, learn, and sympathize, there is much hope. For Kate, who will perpetuate their memories and who has grown to love and understand those whom she has never seen, there is also great hope.
1. See respectively, Marcus Crouch, "Salute to Children's Literature and Its Creators," in Evelyn R. Robinson, ed., Readings about Children's Literature (David McKay, 1966), p. 185, and Cornelia Meigs, "Worlds without Boundaries," in Cornelia Meigs, et al., A Critical History of Children's Literature, revised edition (Macmillan, 1969), p. 460.
2. All quotations from The Borrowers are documented internally and are taken from The Borrowers (Harcourt, 1953).
Lois R. Kuznets (essay date fall 1985)
SOURCE: Kuznets, Lois R. "Permutations of Frame in Mary Norton's ‘Borrowers’ Series." Studies in the Literary Imagination 18, no. 2 (fall 1985): 65-78.
[In the following essay, Kuznets studies the narrative evolution of Norton's "Borrowers" series from its initial usage of a narrator-within-a-narrator framework to its eventual reliance upon an omniscient narrative voice.]
Over a thirty-year period, from 1952 to 1982, British writer, Mary Norton, published five fantasy novels for children about the Clock family, who belong to a miniature race of people-like creatures, the Borrowers.1 Superficially, all five books assume the same rhetorical stance—that of a generally omniscient and distant nonparticipating narrator. However, the first three novels—The Borrowers (1952), The Borrowers Afield (1955), and The Borrowers Afloat (1959)—take some pains to erect a narrator-within-a-narrator frame around the chronicle of the Borrowers, each frame somewhat different from the others; The Borrowers Aloft (1961) and The Borrowers Avenged (1982) abandon that mode, relying straightforwardly on the omniscient, distant narrator, except for a direct address to the readers at the end of The Borrowers Afloat, and an epilogue at the end of The Borrowers Avenged. 2
Avid child readers who attempt to follow the chronicle of the Borrowers closely may indeed notice some discrepancies in supposed "facts" from book to book, discrepancies indirectly attributable to these complex changes in rhetorical stance. …