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. Yet children are unlikely to recognize the reason for these inconsistencies. Nor have many adult critics given any of these books close readings. Although most of the latter are united in dubbing the Borrowers books "classic," they have so far dealt with these changes from book to book only impressionistically, failing to analyze them. Swinfen says in passing, "The enclosed narrative as a structural device is taken up and then dropped for no apparent reason."3 Davenport, whose article "The Narrative Framework of The Borrowers : Mary Norton and Emily Bronte," is the only one that attempts rhetorical analysis, makes some provocative comparisons between Mrs. May, the internal narrator in the first book and Nellie Dean of Wuthering Heights; Davenport does not, however, recognize some of the changes in the later books, including the virtual abandonment of the internal narrator in The Borrowers Aloft. She remarks only that "The structure of the sequels is sometimes clumsy."4
Deeper consideration of the changes among these books forces the critical adult reader to confront problems of interpretation in two areas where narrative theory is not particularly strong or well articulated, at least among English speaking theorists: the frame and the series. In old standbys like Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction and Scholes' and Kellogg's The Nature of Narrative, theories about narrative frames remain undeveloped in general considerations of "point of view." They have been somewhat haphazardly and practically evolved elsewhere in order to consider particular writers and particular works: Chaucer's dream visions and The Canterbury Tales, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and Conrad's Marlowe stories, for example.5 Recently, Manfred Draudt found in Franz K. Stanzel's Theorie des Erzählen theoretical backing for his own comments upon Kipling's use of the "peripheral I-narrator" as a frame in The Man Who Would Be King.6 Fantasy theorists, notably J. R. R. Tolkien and W. R. Irwin have both considered framing devices and have, respectively, adopted condemnatory or cautious attitudes towards their use in fantasy, in keeping with their differing definitions of fantasy itself.7
If the theory of frames is sparse and scattered though accessible, the theory of books in series (which might, for instance, deal with questions of consistency among these books, as well as within them) is, to my knowledge, virtually non-existent.8 Without, therefore, a single, coherent theoretical framework against which to measure these works, my study will nevertheless attempt to delineate the nature of the rhetorical situation within each of Norton's Borrower books separately, using eclectically such framing and other critical theories as come to hand. In addition, this study will consider the direction in which these changes in form are moving over the entire series; rather than finding an organic unity in the series, it will speculate that these rhetorical changes are connected with a deepening commitment on Mary Norton's part to the notion of making her Borrower characters independent of all human beings—even those sympathetic to them—while at the same time she increasingly develops and emphasizes the allegorical significance of the Borrowers' story as an embodiment of the human condition in danger and prosperity.
Throughout the series, whatever other changes may take place, the Borrower books belong clearly to that species of fantasy with which Irwin is principally concerned: fantasies that ask the readers to make only one major adjustment in their view of what is possible in the world as we know it and, thereafter, adhere rigidly to commonly accepted laws of reality in developing a fictional world based on this one impossible premise. The impossible premise in the Borrowers series is that, at least up until the early years of the twentieth century, a race of tiny people (scaled about an inch or so to a foot) existed, and that they did so by living, at that time, in the walls and other hidden cranies of structures where human beings led regulated, but careless enough lives to afford the Borrowers objects and food for scavenging (i. e. borrowing) and recycling in ingenious ways, in order to approximate, for the most part, the lifestyles of the humans who unknowingly harbored them. These Borrowers are also rather tentatively given a common provenance in the "little people" of folklore, grown even smaller through centuries of persecution and fear. This provenance no doubt contributes to the creation on Norton's part of what Gillian Avery calls a "powerful mythology."9
As Irwin points out, such fantasies as this rely on "realism of presentation" (a phrase he borrows from C. S. Lewis) and circumstantiality of detail in order to involve their readers in playing "the game of the impossible."10 Norton has frequently been praised for just these qualities. The precision and circumstantiality with which she, in The Borrowers, describes the Clocks' home under the kitchen floorboards of Firbank Hall is an early example of her continuing abilities to envision and convey the studs and plaster, drain and gas pipes of the internal structure of human dwellings. Here, as she usually does, she combines these solid manifestations of reality (indicating a grasp of technology) with a vision of the ways in which this rather lower-to-middle or middle-class Borrower family has ingeniously contrived a sitting room "papered with scraps of old letters out of waste paper baskets," (which Mrs. Clock, houseproud woman that she is, arranged so that the handwriting, turned sideways, formed "vertical stripes",) and have furnished it with the spoils of Mr. Clock's borrowing forays above the floorboards, among them "a lacquer trinket box, padded inside and with the lid open, which they used as a settle, and that useful standby—a chest of drawers made of match boxes." p. 15) Norton remains possessed of this quality of circumstantiality and imaginative ingenuity throughout the series.
If we are to go along with Irwin, we must recognize such realism as an essential part of the "rhetoric of fantasy," constituting the prime means of persuading readers to make an even greater temporary "willing suspension of disbelief" than is usually required of them by realistic fiction. Irwin further insists that the writer of fantasy must stick to certain other rules in order to carry out a tour de force of persuasion; one of these is to project a level of "human involvement."11 In Norton's work this involvement is achieved through the development of both human and Borrower characters. The chronicle of the Borrower Clock family as it unfolds is the adventurous story of familial survival after an initial holocaustic catastrophe and through a subsequent period of displacement and wanderings, not unsimilar to the disaporas that have afflicted groups of human beings from time immemorial, threatening and often annihilating their existence as groups. Moreover, the series is also a bildungsroman, in which Arrietty, the single child of Pod and Homily Clock, grows and develops from an overprotected and somewhat spoiled thirteen-year old to a seventeen-year old of experience and competence that in many ways surpass her parents'.
With the series spread out before us, we can certainly say that the persuasiveness of the Borrowers series as a fantasy, as well as its general excellence, lies in these rhetorical constants of circumstantial realism and of plot and character reflecting human concerns. One might further argue that the use of narrative frames in the first three books was still another persuasive effort on Norton's part to get her readers to play "the game of the impossible." With the benefit of hindsight, one might also claim that these frames were unnecessarily elaborate for this purpose (Irwin would surely do so) and that Norton, therefore, abandoned them as a mistake. Yet frames involving internal narrators have certainly their own tradition of providing rhetorical authenticity for the stories they enclose, especially when the internal narrators are of the variety to which Conrad's Marlow belongs. An internal narrator such as he can become the yard stick of sanity combined with sensitivity by which to measure the meaning of the story.12 Again, it seems wise to consider these frames individually in order to see what rhetorical effect they actually do achieve.
Mrs. May, the internal narrator of The Borrowers , is, like Marlowe, in The Heart of Darkness, first seen through the eyes of an omniscient narrator and in the act of storytelling with the audience also clearly in view. This is a different case from first person narrators like the dreamers in Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowls, or Lockwood, in Wuthering Heights. Where the frame is entirely in the first person, questions of reliability are frequently raised and are usually more subtle and less straightforwardly resolved than when the internal narrator is introduced by the omniscient narrator. In this first book the omniscient narrator gives us few reasons to doubt Mrs. May's reliability. She herself does not participate in or act as witness of the central story, as Marlowe does in most of his; nevertheless, her absolute honesty seems a given in her retelling the story which her nine-year old brother told her of his convalescence from a childhood sickness with their Aunt Sophy at Firbank Hall (where he meets Arrietty and contributes to the discovery and expulsion of the Clocks). This impression is reinforced by the faith which her listener, young Kate, here exhibits in Mrs. May as mentor.
An elderly relative living in Kate's parents' house, Mrs. May tells her brother's story to Kate while the two are crocheting "a bedquilt—in woolen squares" (p. 4). As Davenport points out, both the homeliness of the scene with its mundane female handiwork and the initial description of Mrs. May (as "not strict exactly, but she had that inner certainty which does instead," (p. 3) contribute to our impression of Mrs. May as representative of that ordered normality which Nellie Dean with her needlework represented in Wuthering Heights. But, at least in The Borrowers, Mrs. May's view of reality is not seriously questioned, as is Nellie Dean's, whose blindness to the strong forces that rule Cathy and Heathcliff seems finally an Horatio-like reluctance to "acknowledge more things in heaven and earth / than are dreamt of in [her] philosophy."
Mrs. May is wavering in belief in her brother's story; their mutual upbringing in mysterious India makes her sometimes think that "he saw things other people couldn't see" (p. 7); her scepticism is based on both her younger brother's need for attention combined with his wild imagination and the resemblance of his handwriting to that in a memoranda book which he claimed belonged to Arrietty and which Mrs. May later found at Firbank Hall. The middle ground on which she stands seems finally to belong to that of a good storyteller, one versed in the art of the open question. Unlike Nellie Dean's, her attitude here is made to seem not just reasonable, but imaginative.
While Nellie Dean's handiwork may contribute to the general atmosphere of normal domesticity, the crocheting of the bedquilt and the eventual putting it together play more than a casual part in this narrative. The making of the quilt calls attention to the story as artifact. In the first chapter, Kate's loss of her crocheting needle elicits the first mention of the Borrowers, as possible culprits, and Kate's eager response draws out the story from Mrs. May. In the penultimate chapter, we learn that the quilt has been growing as Mrs. May tells the story. She comes to the last square at a critical moment—a virtual cliff- hanger—with the ratcatcher, who has been called by Mrs. Driver, the vicious housekeeper, about to gas the Clocks out of Firbank Hall. Only as she responds to further questions on Kate's part—and as the two of them piece the squares together to make the quilt—does Mrs. May reveal her brother's attempt to rescue the Clocks by hacking through a cellar grating. Good stories, it seems, are, like quilts, often constructed cooperatively. In the last chapter, Mrs. May speculates about the possible future of the Borrowers, whom her brother did not see escape, but the Clocks' story is left virtually open-ended. Good stories are, of course, not necessarily closed geometric structures, like quilts.
Irwin claims that the writer of fantastic fiction asks the listener to play the "game of the impossible" with him or her. The presentation of Mrs. May as internal storyteller and Kate, as internal listener, while perhaps a more elaborate frame than Irwin would consider necessary in adult fantasy, constitutes a device which serves to set an example for the child reader of just how such a game is ideally played. Going beyond Irwin's theory, one might say that Kate thus becomes the "implied reader in the text."
There is still more to be said about this frame, however. A well-recognized purpose of frames, as Draudt notes, is to invite comparisons (and often contrasts) between those characters in the frame and those within the main story itself.13 The frame of The Borrowers lends itself to this interpretive activity.
In the central story, we meet the Clocks as the last survivors of a large group of Borrowers who inhabited Firbank Hall in its heyday, when there were more humans from whom to borrow. They are no longer in contact with other Borrowers. Reduced from former prosperity, Pod and Homily have become reconciled to the security of an underground existence in which the view through the cellar grating affords the only glimpse of the green world without. Pubescent Arrietty is not so content. When Pod, her father, is first spotted by the convalescent boy, a crisis takes place which forces the parents reluctantly to recognize that, against all Borrower custom, Arrietty, since there are no sons, must be trained in the art of borrowing. They are unwilling yet to admit that the "survival of race" (p. 116) depends on their finding other Borrowers and, implicitly, a mate for Arrietty.
Arrietty's first venture above ground and into the garden is fateful; not only does it whet her appetite for fresh air and greenery, but it affords her the opportunity to meet the boy, to whom she tells her story over a period of time. In the short run, her contact with the boy leads first to a brief period of false and lulling prosperity with his help in borrowing and then to the catastrophe of expulsion (and possible extermination). In the long run, Arrietty's act of rebellion in becoming friends with the boy against her parents' warnings—persuading him to take a letter to some relatives who have already emigrated, they think, to a badger set in a nearby field—may be their salvation; this would make the garden meeting a kind of "fortunate fall."
In this book, however, Arrietty's striving for some independence is balanced against her parents' caution rather evenly and, although the question is posed, the answer to whether her act was ultimately good or bad is left here to an unknown future. In the relationship between Mrs. May, as the older generation and Kate, as the younger, there are also the faint stirrings of a generational struggle between Kate's desire to believe and Mrs. May's scepticism. As noted above, this scepticism is not strongly questioned nor does Mrs. May lose status as an imaginative human being for it, but the stage is set, perhaps unconsciously on Norton's part, for a role reversal in the next book, in which Kate controls the story. There Kate cultivates another internal narrator, whose faith in the Borrowers is stronger than Mrs. May's. Indeed, at the beginning of The Borrowers Afield, the omniscient narrator claims, adopting yet another rhetorical strategem, that Kate herself is the "writer" of the entire chronicle.
Before turning to that development, however, one might take a glance back at the question of storytelling itself and find further parallels between frame and central story. For Mrs. May, like the Clock family as a whole, constitutes the last survivor in this book; her brother and apparently all other close relatives are dead; as far as she is aware—just as borrowing will die with Pod if he doesn't pass it on to Arrietty—the story of the Borrowers will die with her, if she does not pass it on to another young girl; both these acts of passing on from generation to generation are seen here as necessary to the future survival of the Borrowers. In its emphasis on storytelling, the frame of The Borrowers not only sets up Kate as "implied reader in the text" but also lends itself to a "deconstruction" which reveals the writer touching on the notion of art—here storytelling—as the ultimate survival mechanism.
Three years after The Borrowers appeared, the first readers of its sequel, The Borrowers Afield, were greeted with this opening paragraph:
It was Kate who, long after she was grown up, completed the story of the borrowers. She wrote it all out, many years later, for her four children, and compiled it as you compile a case-history or biographical novel from all kinds of evidence—things she remembered, things she had been told and one or two things, we had better confess it, at which she just guessed. The most remarkable evidence was a miniature Victorian notebook with gilt-edged pages, discovered by Kate in a gamekeeper's cottage on the Studdington estate near Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire.
The story now assumes the semi-scientific status of a "case history or a biographical novel." Confirming its assumption of a new level of reality, several pages follow which examine the stages through which Kate went with regard to belief in the Borrowers: from her initial credence to wonder, from wonder to indifference and dismissal as childish fantasy as she became involved in her own mundane affairs, from dismissal to acceptance because, as the omniscient narrator notes parenthetically, "There were still to be, had she only known it, developments more unlooked for and extraordinary than any Mrs. May had dreamed of" (p. 4).
With this echo of Hamlet's speech to Horatio, Mrs. May becomes, at least temporarily, more Nellie-Dean-like, while the chasm between those tied down to normality and those capable of vision begins to widen, with Mrs. May and Kate for the most part on opposite sides of the gap. The frame events find Mrs. May as the recent inheritor of the gamekeeper's cottage on the grounds of Firbank Hall. She takes eleven-year old Kate with her for first viewing, at which time Mrs. May becomes involved in long discussion with a lawyer named Beguid (whose name is pronounced "be good," as the narrator is careful to explain), discussions involving deeds, drains, and renovations.
Meanwhile, Kate discovers and befriends the displaced gamekeeper, Tom Goodenough, who is about to be sent to the "almshouse." Beguid, of the admonitory name, obviously does not think that Tom is really "good enough" and looks down upon him as a "tiresome old humbug" and "the biggest liar in five counties" (p. 20).14 This meeting, however, brings Kate one step closer to Arrietty, who, we discover, confided in Tom in his youth, as he himself is confiding in Kate in his old age. Tom's involvement with the Clocks began when he was present at the "gassing" (as "a boy from the village … with a ferret," in chapter nineteen of The Borrowers ). He alone of those present witnessed the Clocks' exodus through the grating and the beginning of their odyssey across the field to find their relatives; the latter, however, had left the badger set and come to reside in the wall beside the hearth in this same cottage, then inhabited by Tom and his grandfather, the old gamekeeper.
The beginning frame here takes four initial chapters to erect, establishing Tom Goodenough as a gruff and rather irascible old man, angry at his displacement and distrustful of putting anything "in writing" because of the way in which the present written will giving Mrs. May the cottage has overridden his old master's word. Old liar or not, he seems reliable here, or at least unlikely to have made up the story just to please a curious girl.
Tom really becomes acquainted with the Clocks only after they have spent a harrowing winter outdoors in a boot which Mild Eye the gypsy has lost and they have met Spiller, an orphan Borrower—inarticulately rough and enterprising, dressed in pelts of rodents. Spiller witnesses Mild Eye's finding the boot and his bringing it back to his caravan with the Clocks in it. Spiller—who knows the Clocks' relatives, Aunt Lupy and Uncle Hendreary, who live in Tom's cottage—then enlists Tom to come rescue the Clocks and take them back to the cottage. This Tom does and is rewarded, as we learn at the end of this book, by Arrietty's overtures of friendship—based, it becomes clear, on her irresistible attraction to human beings.
Although there is no end frame as such as The Borrowers Afield —only the beginning of Tom's and Arrietty's friendship, told as part of the central story—the next book initially takes up the same frame situation. The central story of The Borrowers Afloat takes them through their uneasy stay with rather unwelcoming relatives, another exodus from the cottage down the drainpipe and into a stream, where they are again in danger from Mild Eye and again rescued by Spiller who comes for them in his flat-bottomed boat (made from a wooden silverware tray) and takes them to Little Fordham, a model village which would seem just scaled and suited to Borrowers. Time seems to pass more slowly in the frame than in the central story (suggesting an interesting difference between human time and Borrower time), so while almost a year has passed in the course of The Borrowers Afield, the beginning frame of The Borrowers Afloat is still set within the visit of Mrs. May and Kate. It shows Kate about to pass on what she has learned to Mrs. May, who seems about to be convinced again of the possibility of the Borrowers' existence, as they look together at the small hole in the wall behind the wood pile which may be the entrance to the place in Tom's cottage where the Borrowers once dwelled. This is the last mention of Kate or Mrs. May in the series—briefly drawn together again in speculation about the Borrowers.
The end of The Borrowers Afloat, however, takes a great liberty with consistency of point of view, assuming that we are still accepting the rhetorical situation set up at the beginning of The Borrowers Afield, i. e., that Kate has managed to assemble and write down this story. As narrator, she is too omniscient, for what is shown at the end is Crampfurl—the gardener at Firbank Hall who spends his evenings with Mrs. Driver, sampling Aunt Sophy's Madiera—briefly spotting Spiller's boat with the Clocks in it. The new level of reality set up by Tom's evidence is going now to be confirmed by other witnesses outside the frame. This development, while inconsistent with the earlier framing devices, prepares us for the takeover by the omniscient narrator in the next two books; there, as in this instance, all the characters will operate at the same level of reality; human beings both hostile and sympathetic to the Borrowers will confirm their existence. The texts of the next two books are no longer chiefly concerned with a storytelling frame as either a rhetorical device for authentication or as a self-reflexive technique.
This development does not, however, cause the reader as much readjustment as the previous emphasis on frames perhaps suggests. All along, Norton has used poetic license in telling the central story—which obstensibly originates in the combined eyewitness accounts of Arrietty, Mrs. May's nine-year old brother, and Tom Goodenough, as boy and old man. Even in the first book, the level of what the narrator calls "guessing" about what happened is high. While the narration there, for the most part, records only Arrietty's inner consciousness, when necessary, the narrator does not hesitate to move into other minds as well, including the alien one of Mrs. Driver, plotting to capture whoever has been engaging in petty pilfering in Firbank Hall. Nor does the style of telling the central story, which is interrupted by much circumstantial detailed description but little intrusive narrator interpretation, vary much in the first three books from the style in the last two books. Even when internal narrators are present, Norton seems to strive, almost paradoxically, for the impression of an unmediated account during the actual storytelling.
The Borrowers Aloft projects a whole new set of human characters: Mr. Pott, one-legged, ex-railway man who builds the model village of Little Fordham for his own pleasure and accepts donations for the Railway Benevolent Fund from visitors; Mrs. Menzies, a gentle maiden lady of artistic talent and belief in fairies, who assists him unofficially and becomes friendly with Arrietty; Mr. and Mrs. Platter, proprietors of a highly commercial model village, who consider themselves competitors with Mr. Pott, who is completely unaware of their existence.15 The Platters, presented as caricatures of crass entrepreneurs, steal the Clock family from Little Fordham, where they had been enjoying an unusually comfortable existence, and keep them in the attic during one whole winter while Mr. Platter builds a glass house in which to display their every move to visitors. Meanwhile, Arrietty, Pod and Homily come across instructions in an old newspaper for building a balloon; borrowing ingeniously from the junk-filled attic, they manage to construct one in which to make their escape through the window in the early spring, sailing back to Little Fordham where Spiller waits to greet them.
Here the narrator leaves them, as if forever, with certain prophecies about Arrietty's marriage to Spiller and their independent life in a tree house (satisfying Arrietty's need for adventure in the outdoors), and the fates of the Platters, (contradicted in the epilogue to The Borrowers Avenged ), Mr. Pott, and Miss Menzies. In these last two pages, the narrator takes, for the first and last time, a strongly intrusive stance and, in effect, turns to address the reader, passing on the storytelling itself to him or her: "The story still goes on, but it is your turn now to tell it … your guess will be as good as mine" (p. 192). The narrator thus sets both Borrowers and readers free (or abandons them, some readers may feel).
This ending suggests that the older Clocks, who generally opted for security over adventure, will be content to stay in Little Fordham with its benevolent overseers; Arrietty alone needs seek a less protected life with Spiller. The ending is in line with Norton's contention in 1952, in accepting the Carnegie Medal for The Borrowers : "In each generation, only youth is restless and brave enough to try to get out from under the floorboards."16 Something happened, how- ever, during the intervening twenty years to make Norton less willing to leave the older Clocks in Little Fordham. So, at the end of The Borrowers Aloft, having made a renunciation not unsimilar to Prospero's giving up his magic wand in The Tempest, the narrator takes it up again in The Borrowers Avenged.
In the last book, the same characters appear, joined by others from the parrish of the church where Aunt Lupy, Uncle Hendreary, and their youngest son have taken refuge. Spiller leads the Clocks to the old rectory of this church when Pod decides that Little Fordham is not only too exposed, but is also so well provided materially that it affords him few of the challenges on which his psychological survival depends. The old rectory, described in loving detail by Norton, is no such easy berth, having been deserted by human beings except for the caretakers who live in the kitchen portion of the house. There is, however, a young male Borrower living there, Peagreen, a member of the stuckup Overmantel family, crippled by a fall from the mantel and left behind when his family were driven out by Art Nouveau renovations. Peagreen, who is an artist, becomes, in effect, Arrietty's new confidant, giving her for the first time a Borrower rather than a human being in whom she can confide. As becomes increasingly clear, Arrietty's need for communication cannot be satisfied by Spiller, the unlearned and inarticulate; whether Peagreen will become Spiller's rival for Arrietty's hand, contradicting earlier predictions, is left open for the reader's guessing.
The provision of Peagreen, however, is important not for its romantic complications, but for the final sealing off of the most likely leak to the human world. Arrietty's striving for independence and need for communication have often resulted in her taking up with humans. Humans, it seems, by their very size and nature, cannot help interfering with the Borrowers—even if not all humans are as viciously avaricious as the Platters, who in this book make another unsuccessful attempt to capture the Borrowers, and, almost farcically, are instead accused of attempting to steal the church treasures.
In this last book, although the Platters, like Mrs. Driver and Mild Eye in the earlier stories, are the near and present danger, an easy life is a great danger as well. Norton's attitude towards the easy life has somehow always been implicit even in earlier stories: her characters come alive under adversity and need; periods of prosperity seem somehow to corrupt them, even as early as Mrs. May's brother's attempt to help them borrow; by the end of the series, survival seems synonymous with independence from benevolence as well as malevolence. The leaving of Little Fordham and the decision to break all contact with human beings is a rejection of both.
Norton has always seen the Borrowers' story as allegorical; in her Carnegie Medal address, she said that her tale, "has something of the whole human dilemma—a microcosm of our world and the powers that rule us."17 While Norton's first books seem to reflect the Second World War and the troubled recovery from it, her last story seems clearly to exhibit disapproval of the welfare state as making life too easy and unchallenging, instead of encouraging people to do proverbial things, like pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps or taking care of "their own." Tom Goodenough's own story should prepare us for Norton's conservative point of view, for he, as the old gamekeeper, represents a passing order of "working poor" who would rather die in service than in an "almshouse." Significantly, he is contrasted with the stuffy, unimaginative lawyer, Beguid, representative of the new breed of commercial types, but he is also contrasted with Mild Eye, who is depicted as the stereotypical sly Gypsy poacher on the old estates—opportunistic, not industrious.18
In this last book, we are made to laugh at Aunt Lupy's taking to religion, yet when she sings a snatch from the hymn "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small …," (pp. 200, 205) words which echo in Arrietty's mind, one wonders whether we are also being assured that "God will take care of His own." If so, Norton certainly thinks that such a God intervenes little in human (or Borrower) affairs and is most likely to help those who help themselves. All along she has tried to demonstrate this, although she twice permitted a boy to rescue the Borrowers, deus ex machina fashion. Such rescues are not the case after the first two books, however, and, as already noted, the gradual withdrawal of human narration from their story may well symbolize freeing the Borrowers from god-like human intervention.
The logical narrational end of this philosophy and theology is for the Borrowers' creator to give up her story, emulating that Old Testament God who gives his creatures life and free will, but allows them to be banished from Eden, and to wander the earth living by the sweat of their brows. The distant style of the storytelling throughout the series is an aesthetic approximation of this creative stance; the giving up of the story after the fourth book is an attempt to set the Borrowers free; but the last book proves that at least this creator is, fortunately for her readers, only another human being, as unable as her human characters to give the Borrowers up, when she can use them for human purposes—and can herself live on through them.
1. There is also a spin-off picture book, Poor Stainless (1966; rpt. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971) which purports to be a story about her childhood that Homily Clock tells to her daughter, Arrietty.
2. The American edition of the first four Borrowers books were published by Harcourt, Brace and World, the last by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. The Borrowers did not appear in American until 1953. Page numbers of quotations from these editions will appear in parentheses in the text.
3. Ann Swinfen, In Defense of Fantasy: A Study of the Genre in English and American Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 131.
4. Julia Davenport, "The Narrative Framework of The Borrowers: Mary Norton and Emily Brontë," Children's Literature in Education, 14, 2 (1983), 78.
5. I have so benefitted in the past from some of these studies that their insights have become a part of my habitual approach to literature, but I did not return to them for the purposes of the paper and will, therefore, make no attempt to cite any but those I have consulted or discovered recently.
6. "Reality or Delusion? Narrative Technique and Meaning in Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King," English Studies 4 (1984), 316-26.
7. Says J. R. R. Tolkien, in "On Fairy-Stories," The Tolkien Reader (1947, rpt. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), p. 14: " … since the fairy story [i.e., fantasy] deals with ‘marvels’ it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or an illusion." W. R. Irwin, in The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), pp. 70-71, 73, says, "In most fantasies, then, the opening maneuver is decisive. Whatever the method, all have one purpose, early and total persuasion … the author's choice of spareness, lavishness or something between is—or should be—ruled by a rhetorical consideration: ‘How much specified experiencing does the reader need to form the persuasive illusion I wish him to have?’", but also: "Any fantasist who attempted to unify his work by the daring indirect devices of Faulkner, or according to something like the Chinese Box structure of Wuthering Heights, would founder." (Italics mine)
8. I have occasionally seen studies of popular series in children's literature that have emphasized the sense of satisfaction and security children get from a repetition of familiar formulaic narratives in which familiar characters appear.
9. In "Norton, Mary (nee Pearson)," Twentieth Century Children's Writers, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), p. 583.
10. Irwin, p. 70.
11.Irwin, pp. 64-65. I have probably, however, expanded the limits of what Irwin means by "human involvement" here, since he is simply concerned that humans be affected in some way by the fantastic elements and—rather too strongly, I think—denies that the reader of fantasy should be able to identify with the characters, in any way. The kind of emotional distance he might like to maintain between the child reader and Arrietty, for instance, would in all probability force children completely out this "game of the impossible."
12. Barbara Hardy in Tellers and Listeners: The Narrative Inspiration (London: The Athlone Press, 1975), pp. 154, 155 describes Marlow as "the imaginative but rational man" and quotes Conrad as saying, "‘Of all my people he's the one that has never been a vexation to my spirit. A most discreet, understanding man’ (‘The Author's Note,’ 1917 Preface to Youth)."
13. Draudt, p. 317, "As in many other frame narratives, the mediating narrator serves above all as foil to the … protagonists."
14. Plays on names are a striking characteristic of this series; not only do the Borrowers themselves have oddly altered "borrowed" names, but one can see here a development of satiric naming which suggests that, in this context, Mrs. May's name should be noted as fully partaking of the connotations of both possibility and permission in the auxiliary verb "may" itself.
15. The element of social satire becomes stronger in these last two books. As it does, these books come to resemble more and more T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1946), which depicts a colony of Lilliputians discovered by a little girl, Maria. One hears echoes of Maria's wicked governess, Miss Brown, and her cohort, Maria's guardian, Mr. Hater, in Mrs. and Mr. Platter.
16. Quoted in "Norton, Mary 1903-," Something about the Author 18 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980), 239.
17. "Norton, Mary 1903-," p. 239.
18. As I have said elsewhere in an as yet unpublished essay, "It is unfortunate that Norton's portrayal of Mild Eye in The Borrowers Afloat is so stereotypical in its sly shiftiness, for if there were ever a group of human beings with a history of experiences close to that of the Borrowers, it is certainly the gypsies. But like most English writers for children, Norton emphasizes middle class values and loyalties … " Norton's approach to feminist concerns—in spite of her fine portrayal of Arrietty as a relatively independent young woman and the further development of houseproud Homily as capable of amazing adaptation—is also cautiously conservative; Arrietty will only move from her parents' home to her husband's and adopt his lifestyle. Moreover, the pre-First World War setting suggests a general nostalgia for "the good old days," when old country houses like Firbank Hall and the rectory were in their heyday.
Lois R. Kuznets (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Kuznets, Lois R. "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume 1, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 198-203. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1985.
[In the following essay, Kuznets discusses Arrietty's childhood rebellion in The Borrowers, likening the Clock family's plight to that of immigrants and war refugees.]
While I was born at least ten years too soon to have been a child reader of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, I know I would have adored it as a girl of seven or eight. As a child of that age, I disliked Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, put off, it now seems to me, by its unstable, nightmarish quality. The particular brand of fantasy in The Borrowers, however, which rests solely on the premise that "little people" of five to six inches exist, or at least existed within living memory, would have satisfied my needs for limits and controls on fantasy, and piqued my life-long fascination with miniatures and miniaturization (a fascination brought out more generally by doll houses). Moreover, I would have been intrigued by the realistically detailed, exciting story of "racial" survival in which these miniature characters are involved, with the rite of passage of a young girl at its center. Beyond all this, the turn-of-the-century time and English-country-house setting, both of which I had already come to associate, especially through The Secret Garden, with the best of children's stories, would have been serendipity. What joy there would have been to discover there were sequels, as there were to my beloved Little Women!
For the first book in the Borrowers series was followed in relatively rapid succession by The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959) and The Borrowers Aloft (1961). Then, after some twenty years, came The Borrowers Avenged (1982). All the American editions are illustrated in detailed pen and ink sketches by Beth and Joe Krush, illustrations which complement the text in its sharp delineation of character and the ingenuity of its various interior settings.
The story of the Clock family (so-called because they had made their home for years beneath the grandfather clock in the entrance way of Firbank Hall) is a story within a story, enclosed within a rather elaborate narrative frame. The frame varies slightly but is highly emphasized in the first three books; there is a major change in the nature of the frame in the last two books. The reader of The Borrowers receives it in the form of a tale told by Mrs. May, an elderly live-in relative, to Kate, an eight-year old, as they crochet together in Mrs. May's sitting room. Mrs. May, in turn, had learned about the Borrowers from her brother, who, while convalescing with his Aunt Sophie at Firbank Hall at the age of nine, met and befriended the young Borrower, Arrietty. Although Mrs. May appears herself to be rather sceptical, especially in contrast to Kate in her eagerness to believe, this frame creates what Gillian Avery describes as "a powerful mythology"; the Borrowers are provided with a provenance in the "little people" of folklore, grown small and dependent through historical circumstances, which leave them in their present position of having to inhabit dwellings in which human beings lead regulated but, fortunately, careless lives, and provide the Borrowers with plenty of raw mate- rial for shelter, food, and clothing. The notion of the Borrowers' hidden dwellings in the substructures of our houses, repositories of all the everyday items that seem so regularly and bewilderingly to disappear, is so appealingly logical and natural as to be better than real; it further substantiates their existence (even up to the present day!).
We meet Pod, the father, Homily, the mother, and Arrietty, the daughter, when the small family has seemingly accommodated itself to the fact that it is the last remnant of a rather large population of Borrowers who inhabited Firbank Hall in its heyday. The exodus of the other Borrowers is the result of both the unfortunate earlier sighting of a Borrower by one of the housemaids and the shrinking population of human beings (reduced to invalid Aunt Sophie, above stairs, who gets gently drunk on fine old Madeira every evening, and, below stairs, to her officious housekeeper, Mrs. Driver, not above taking a nip herself upon an evening with Crampfurl, the gardener).
When the story opens, Pod, having a little trouble climbing curtains as he ages, has been sighted on one of his borrowing expeditions, and even helped, by the recuperating boy. This sighting alerts the elder Borrowers to some of the precariousness of their position, precipitating a decision to train Arrietty in the art of borrowing, contrary to the usual Borrower practice, which reserves it for males. On her first borrowing expedition, Arrietty meets the boy and arranges for him to deliver a letter to some relatives who have previously left Firbank Hall and are reputed to have settled in a nearby badger set. (Arrietty, unlike her uneducated parents, has taught herself to read from bits and pieces of old letters used as wallpaper and some small Victorian books which have been borrowed).
The letter is delivered, and elicits a rather odd response which does not give pertinent information about the whereabouts of Aunt Lupy and Uncle Hendreary. Nor, when Pod and Homily find out about this letter, as they inevitably do, does it make them any happier about the untraditional friendship between Arrietty and the boy. They are frightened at the prospect of being forced by the boy's knowledge of their existence and whereabouts into vacating their otherwise comfortable situation. Immediately after the boy discovers the Clocks' home under the kitchen floor, however, there develops a period of dubious prosperity during which the boy brings them all sorts of goodies—doll furniture and the like—in exchange for Arrietty's reading to him.
During this prosperity, Homily's house pride swells to almost corrupting proportions. The horrifying climax to this period of unbridled borrowing from human stores is the discovery by Mrs. Driver, who refuses to acknowledge her initial perception of the Borrowers as strangely human and different from vermin; she calls in the rat catcher, who plans to gas them out, and finally, the boy, who is about to be sent back to his expatriate family in India, makes one last brave and desperate effort to save them by breaking through a grating in the house foundation, which will allow them to escape from the gas and make for the fields to find their relatives. The Borrowers' escape is left as only a possibility in this first book; but Mrs. May helps Kate to envision optimistic pictures of their survival as a near-pioneer family in unfamiliarly rustic surroundings.
Behind this well-made plot is an internal drama which gives The Borrowers psychological depth, making it possible for the adult reader, as well as the child, to return to it time and again. In addition to being a fantasy and an adventure story, The Borrowers is also a bildungsroman—a story of growth and development on the part of Arrietty, who is a pampered and protected fourteen when the book opens. She is already "champing at the bit"; one of her frequent pastimes is gazing through the grating into the garden, hitherto forbidden to her, an act both natural and symbolic; this is the place she will meet the boy. Although in her parents' eyes, the meeting in the garden and subsequent friendship is almost equivalent to Eve's temptation and fall (the comparison is mine rather than Norton's), this springtime happening is clearly also the "fortunate fall" that all children have to experience in order to grow up, abandoning the Eden of childhood innocence and parental protection. Norton admirably dramatizes the ambivalence which the child feels in relinquishing the state of secure dependency for one of dangerous responsibility for her own acts. In one scene, for instance, Arrietty experiences a feeling of malaise when her parents admit they were wrong and she was right.
The theme of "survival of the race" (Norton's term) gives a special strength and poignancy to this developmental struggle. Unspoken, yet nevertheless expressed, is the consideration of Arrietty as a young woman going through puberty with no real prospects of finding a mate in her family's present situation. Even had she not met or fraternized with the boy, who is ironically, of course, of the wrong "race" and size, the family could not have remained in this house, with all other Borrowers, known or unknown, in a virtual diaspora. The subsequent books deal with this problem by bringing in the character of Spiller, a young orphaned Borrower who has lived by his wits for many years; the latest book complicates it by adding another romantic possibility in the form of Peagreen, a poetic cripple.
The Borrowers has a universality in its depiction of Arrietty's mild but effective teen-age rebellion. That is intentional on the part of Norton, who has been quoted in Something about the Author as saying that this book, has "something of the whole human dilemma…. In each generation only youth is restless and brave enough to get out from under the floorboards." Moreover, as the quotation implies, Arrietty is not the only one in the family who is torn between security and independence. The conflict is writ large in her parents also, because the story has another sort of universality; like many realistic stories of immigrants and war stories of the twentieth-century, The Borrowers depicts a family in extremity, one that will become displaced refugees. Like the Jews in Germany, the Clocks may have delayed too long. Although this analogy may not be intentional on Norton's part, it is one not difficult to make, particularly because of Mrs. Driver's Nazi-like ferocity in her need for extermination, and her wish to see the gassed bodies "laid out in sizes on a clean piece of paper" (163).
None of the Borrowers books that follows the first has the same intensity of emphasis on this aspect of their plight, perhaps because Norton herself was closest while writing this first book to her own World War II experience in Great Britain, and her subsequent evacuation with her children to the United States. The other books show the Borrowers largely in danger from the greed of, first, Mild Eye, the gypsy, and then, the bourgeois Platters; in their depiction of the latter couple, the last two books come close to turning into social satires of a type perhaps more appealing to adults than to children.
It is unfortunate that Norton's portrayal of Mild Eye in The Borrowers Afloat is so stereotypical in its sly shiftlessness, for if there were ever a group of human beings with a history of experiences close to that of the Borrowers, it is certainly the gypsies. But like most English writers for children, Norton emphasizes middle-class values and loyalties, exalts the "working poor," and promotes the idea of people "pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps." While she has a good eye for the absurdities and extremes of human nature in members of all social classes, her later books, in dealing with the model village of Little Fordham in which the Borrowers briefly settle, could also be read as condemnations of the welfare state on the assumption that it makes people dependent.
There are other aspects of a social philosophy emerging in the five books, aspects that deserve further investigation elsewhere. One could argue, for example, about whether or not these books could stand up under feminist scrutiny. The critical literature on the Borrowers books is small, although many writers about children's literature mention and recommend them with general comments on stylistic excellence. Eleanor Cameron was the first to comment on the charms of the borrowed, slightly altered nature of the Borrowers' names (30-1). Wallace Hildeck uses the passage of nature description which comes just before Arrietty's meeting with the boy as an example of total and subtle mastery over suspense (44-6).
My own interest in the miniature causes me, as an adult reader, to be intrigued by descriptive passages that I might well have skipped as a child reader—passages sound and heavy with technical detail (in showing the inner structures of old walls, the mechanics of small machines, and the like) and absolutely precise as to scale. When I first read The Borrowers, I mused over the notion of an adult Norton, crawling around on her hands and knees, attempting to see the world from a Borrower's point of view; I now know that that perspective was achieved in Norton's childhood (and accurately preserved) when she played extensive imaginative games with small china dolls in interior and exterior settings similar to those she depicts in the Borrower books (Something about the Author 237). The whole series, however, is imbued with a respect not only for imaginative ingenuity, but for craftsmanship; and in her own craftsmanship, Norton relies not on her childhood vision alone, but on research and study into technology. Her descriptive passages are dense and layered because imaginative vision and technical knowledge are combined in them. Another kind of layering arises through her ability to switch back and forth more swiftly than Swift in Gulliver's Travels from the Lilliputian to the Brobdingnagian point of view, describing "human beans" through Borrowers' eyes and vice-versa. In this respect, she is even more agile than T. H. White in Mistress Masham's Repose, a book about the survival of Lilliputians in England which, published in 1946, seems to have had some influence on Norton's writing (from internal evidence, I would suggest more on the later books than on the earlier).
There have been books I read and loved in my childhood that have not stood up to subsequent scrutiny in my adulthood as books of continuing appeal. Coming to The Borrowers and its sequels later in life, I can no longer conceive of an imaginative world that does not include knowledge of these books (although here, as with other classics, I am not always in agreement with their social philosophy). They are on my first list of recommendations for child readers. These children are, perhaps, not lucky to come into our world in the last quarter of the twentieth century; but at least they will have the benefit of the whole Borrowers series, and they will not find Arrietty's precarious world outdated or irrelevant in ours. Obviously I agree with Norton when she claims that The Borrowers is "a microcosm of our world and the powers that rule us" (Something about the Author).
The Borrowers and its sequels are all published by Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, Inc. (San Diego, New York, and London), in both hardback and paperback (Voyager Books). Poor Stainless: A New Story about the Borrowers (same publisher, 1971) is a kind of picture book digression in the form of a semi-cautionary tale Homily tells Arrietty about her youth.
Avery, Gillian. "Norton, Mary (nee Pearson)." Twentieth Century Children's Writers. 2nd ed. R. L. Kirkpatrick. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.
Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books. Boston: Little Brown, 1962.
Hildick, Wallace. Children and Fiction: A Critical Study in Depth of the Artistic and Psychological Factors Involved in Writing Fiction for and about Children. London: Evans, 1970.
"Norton, Mary 1903-." Something about the Author 18. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980.
Patricia Pace (essay date October 1991)
SOURCE: Pace, Patricia. "The Body in Writing: Miniatures in Mary Norton's Borrowers." Text and Performance Quarterly 11, no. 4 (October 1991): 279-90.
[In the following essay, Pace examines how The Borrowers addresses issues of coming-of-age, body image, and childhood fear through Norton's exploration of Arrietty's diminutive size.]
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Jon C. Stott (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Stott, Jon C. "Greatness Achieved: The Borrowers." In Mary Norton, pp. 35-66. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
[In the following essay, Stott offers a thorough examination of The Borrowers' thematic elements, focusing on issues of sight, narrative framework, and characterization.]
In 1972, 20 years after its publication, British critic Nigel Hand wrote of The Borrowers that it "challenges comparison with the most successful work in the field."1 His opinion echoed the judgment of Marcus Crouch, who believed that "of all the winners of the Carnegie Medal, it is the one book of unquestioned, timeless genius."2 The novel was an instant success, winning the (British) Library Association's Carnegie Medal as the best children's book of the year. Enthusiastic reviewers praised the exciting plot, skillful characterization, precise use of details, convincing quality of the highly improbable events, and above all, both the originality of the author's conception and her superb mastery of language in presenting it.
As Hand noted, however, "Only those writers who are possessed by, and in possession of, a serious theme, can stir delight to the point where feelings are not merely activated, but awakened, refreshed, and truly recreated" (Hand, 38). Not surprisingly, critics studying what psychologists Margaret and Michael Rustin call "deep structures"3 have searched for the elements they believe give The Borrowers the resonance that has contributed to its staying power. The patterns of the female bildungsroman; the themes of social tension in the modern world, the power of creative imagination, and the relationship between sight and insight; the relevance of the frame story—all have been examined as highly significant elements of meaning.
Clearly, the meaning and importance of The Borrowers does not depend on just one or even a few of the elements critics and reviewers have noted. It is not just a matter of a well-told, exciting story with believable characters; nor is it just the fact that these are informed by deeper structures. The novel is greater than the sum of its techniques, contents, and themes. Like the bed quilt made by Mrs. May and Kate at the end of The Borrowers, it is a new creation, woven from old materials and by a variety of techniques into a seamless unity. To understand this creation, it is helpful to examine the materials and techniques, first individually and later together, as they form the unified creation, The Borrowers. The novel examines how individuals, most specifically Arrietty, grow and mature through their increased understanding of themselves in relation to their families, their natural environments, and their pasts, and how they create stories of their lives as part of this process of understanding and growth.
The Plot: Being Seen and Its Results
The highly original concept that is the basis of the plot provides, once again, an example of tradition and individual talent. Stories of little people or fairies are an essential part of British folklore, and since the time of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), many fictions have been written about tiny people in contact with human beings. Drawing on these traditions, Norton postulates the existence of a race of six-inch-tall people, who differ from human beings mainly in size and who live beneath the floorboards or in the walls of old country homes. They subsist by borrowing from human beings—that is, by taking objects, materials, bits of food, and even names, which they ingeniously adapt to their own needs. Like the events in pourquoi, or explanatory folktales, their activities offer possible explanations for the frequent, mysterious disappearance of small objects. Life is precarious for them: not only are they in danger of being seen by human beings, but once they are seen, Borrower traditions dictate emigration to ensure survival. The Borrowers is the story of one family of these tiny people, the Clocks—Pod, Homily, and their daughter, Arrietty, the last remaining Borrowers in a large house that used to contain many Borrowers and human beings. Their story is told by an old woman, Mrs. May, who recounts their adventures to her niece, Kate. Although the woman has never seen a Borrower, she learned about them from her brother, who, many years ago, as a young invalid recuperating in the old home, met and interacted with the Clocks.
Although the plot seems to unfold effortlessly, daily and special events flowing one into the other, it is carefully constructed around the idea of being seen and the consequences thereof for Borrowers and human beings. The narrative begins on a spring day. Arrietty, restless and disgruntled, writes in her diary, and Homily, snappish and worried, prepares dinner as they wait for Pod to come home from a borrowing expedition. When he returns, Arrietty is sent to bed so that he can tell Homily that he has just been seen by a boy and that the family must immediately emigrate. Later, when they explain to Arrietty the facts of life—the dangers and consequences of being seen by human beings—and the fact that Pod has been seen, they are surprised when the girl expresses hope that the family may emigrate and anger at being cooped up. They agree to allow her to accompany her father on a borrowing trip.
On the momentous day, after Pod has given Arrietty permission to explore outdoors, she is discovered by the boy who had seen her father. In the ensuing conversation, both are amazed to learn about the existence of large numbers of members of the other's species, talk about their lives, and depart with an agreement that Arrietty will teach the boy to read in return for his delivering a letter to the Hendrearys, Borrower relatives who had emigrated to a distant field.
One evening, after her father has gone to visit Great-Aunt Sophy, the sherry-drinking, invalid owner of the house, Arrietty sneaks to the boy's bedroom, where she learns that he has brought a letter from the Hendrearys. Discovered by her father, she is taken home, where she tells about her first meeting with the boy. Pod is angry at the danger in which she has placed them; Homily, distraught at the renewed possibility of emigration; and Arrietty, adamant about the necessity of communicating with their relatives in order to save the race. Later that night, the boy brings furniture from the doll's house for their home. His action begins "a golden age" (Borrowers, 130) of borrowing. Homily is delighted, although disappointed that no one can see their new wealth; Pod is exhausted from the constant rearranging of the furniture; and Arrietty is overjoyed that she, in exchange for the treasures, is allowed to read every day to the boy, enjoying his friendship, the knowledge both are acquiring from the books he brings, and the opportunity of spending time outdoors.
Mrs. Driver, the housekeeper, misses objects the boy takes from the drawing room, however, and sets out to catch the thief. Wrenching up the kitchen floorboards, she finds to her horror not only the missing objects but also three tiny people, scurrying for hiding places. Although Crampfurl, the gardener, scoffs at her account of seeing hundreds of little creatures, he agrees that it is a matter for the police. When she discovers the boy in the kitchen attempting to rescue the Clocks, she locks him in his bedroom.
At this point, the direct narration of the plot ceases, for as Mrs. May tells Kate, her brother never saw the Borrowers again. When the girl protests that it is not fair to stop telling the story at this point, Miss May then recounts later events: the boy's continued imprisonment, Mrs. Driver's elaborate preparation for the extermination of the creatures, and her forcing him to watch the operation as he awaits the arrival of a taxi to take him on the first stage of his journey back to India. At the last moment, the boy acts heroically. Seizing a pickax left unattended by one of the exterminators, he rushes into the hall, where he attempts unsuccessfully to batter open the newly sealed hole behind the clock that had been the Borrowers' only exit from their home, and then outside where he pries loose the grating near the Clocks' kitchen. Not knowing whether his efforts have been successful, he enters the taxi. As Mrs. May assures Kate, however, his efforts were successful. A year later, she had visited the house and left a sack of food and doll's house furniture in a field near a badger set to which she thought the tiny family might have gone. The sack was not there the next day; but instead she found a tiny acorn teacup and smelled hot pot. In the novel's last chapter, she and Kate imaginatively hypothesize how the Clock family might have set up its new home.
The plot of The Borrowers is both intriguing and exciting. The reader delights in seeing a miniature life-style, amazing because of its tiny scale and its similarity to human life-styles, and vicariously participates in the day-to-day danger of the Clocks' lives and the extreme danger that results from their having been seen. One of the ways Norton creates a convincing story and enables readers to achieve willing suspension of disbelief is through precise, detailed description of the setting, thus allowing them to visualize the unfamiliar locales of many of the actions and to appreciate the characters who live there. One critic has jokingly hypothesized the idea of the author "crawling around on her hands and knees, attempting to see the world from a Borrower's point of view."4 Norton's first requirement was, as this critic implies, to depict the physical details of setting from the perspective of the Borrowers, so that the reader could better understand and sympathize with the ingenuity and courage of these characters whose lives depend on their ability to live in constant proximity to and in constant dependence on and danger from human beings. She achieves this in part by showing how human objects that are commonplace and small are given surprising uses, being transformed into Borrower-size equivalents of larger objects familiar to human beings. For example, in the passageways leading from their home to the entrance beneath the clock, Pod has placed numerous obstacles, using "all kinds of things for these gates—a flat leaf of a folding cheese grater, the hinged lid of a small cash-box, squares of pierced zinc from an old meat-safe, a wire fly swatter" (Borrowers, 13). How small these beings must be if such items can serve as gates; how courageous to venture into human domains to find and fetch them; and how clever to devise these functions for them. The same use of details is seen in the description of the family sitting room: sheets of discarded letters serve as wallpaper, postage stamps as pictures, stacked matchboxes as chests of drawers. The only item that is tiny by human standards, a set of miniature Victorian volumes, is as large to Arrietty as a church Bible would be to readers. Indeed, Tom Thumb, the two-foot midget after whom the books were named, "would seem a giant to a Borrower" (Borrowers, 19).
If within the home of the Clocks small human objects are made normal-size for Borrowers, when they enter the human world, the reverse is true. What is normal or small for human beings becomes huge for the Borrowers. The dark interior of the grandfather clock has "cave-like shadows" (Borrowers, 60); "the edges of the rugs [are] like richly colored islands in a molten sea" (Borrowers, 61); the doormat "rose knee deep before [Pod] like a field of chestnut corn" (Borrowers, 62); the steps are "terraced cliffs" (Borrowers, 62). While the scale of objects in the front hall is formidable to a Borrower, that of other objects is terrifying. The stove from beneath which Pod must sometimes emerge to borrow was at one time "a glowing inferno, dropping white-hot coals" (Borrowers, 56). Beyond the house, the world of nature is equally large. Petals are "curved, like shells" (Borrowers, 68); a clump of wood violets and clover is "a jungle" (Borrowers, 69); a primrose can be "held … like a parasol" (Borrowers, 69); and beads of dew roll "like marbles" (Borrowers, 69). In her descriptions of objects in the house, Norton defamiliarizes the familiar, not only creating a highly imaginative setting but also emphasizing the courage and cleverness of the Clock family, who are able to adapt to and survive in a world that may seem mundane to readers but is of epic proportions and sometimes danger to the Borrowers.
Not only are the physical details precisely described, but also they are carefully arranged. Norton may well have used the understanding of set design and stage lighting acquired in her years in the theater to display settings in a way that brought their importance to the attention of readers. In a play, the main focus of the action would be the Clocks' subfloor apartment. The sitting room, kitchen, and bedrooms would occupy the stage, with lights falling and rising to emphasize where events were occurring. The dimness beyond would suggest the lengths of tunnels that lay between the rooms and the entrance; to one side would be the grating out of which Arrietty often looked. The attentive reader, like an audience in a theater, can see not only the details of the setting but the overall arrangement of the Clocks' world.
The setting is not just concretely visualized and precisely laid out; it is also presented symbolically, as the opening sentence of the direct narration, which may be an echo of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, implies: "It was Pod's hole—the keep of his fortress, the entrance to his home" (Borrowers, 13). The gates are like the drawbridge and portcullis of a medieval castle, protecting the embattled occupants from invaders. At the center is the home, a domestic place of comfort and security. Yet it is also a prison, for the gates, as Arrietty comes to realize, are to keep her in. Protected though it is, however, this home proves vulnerable: the floorboards are easily removed, allowing human beings to see the hidden dwelling. And it is a trap, for when the clock entrance is sealed, the grating cannot be removed by the Borrowers as they attempt to flee the ratcatcher's fumes. Above their home is the human world on which they depend and the source of their greatest dangers. Outside is the garden: to Arrietty, a world of freedom for which she yearns; to Homily, a place of danger and dirt that she fears and abhors.
Exciting though the plot is, Norton's characterization of the Clocks and what they call "human beans" most engages readers. Certainly, interest in characters is one reason Kate reacts so angrily when Mrs. May appears to have stopped telling the story at the point of Mrs. Driver's discovery of the Clocks and imprisonment of the boy. The creation of sequels was made possible because of Kate's and readers' need or desire to find out more about the characters in whose lives they had become so involved. Not surprisingly for a children's novel, the focus of interest is on Arrietty—a child, the first Borrower presented in the direct narration and the one whose inner thoughts are most frequently and fully delineated. As critic Lois Kuznets has noted, the novel is in large part a bildungsroman, "the rite of passage of a young girl" (Kuznets, 198). Although Kuznets questions "whether or not these books could stand up under feminist scrutiny" (Kuznets 1985a, 202), it is possible to argue that they do, that Norton, writing nearly two decades before the rapid growth of feminist consciousness and scholarship, accurately presents the pressures and conflicts experienced by a 13-year-old girl on the verge of young womanhood. This examination of Arrietty's development can best be considered in relation to the Borrower and human adults in her life.
Parents and Olympians: Adult Borrowers and Human Beings
Arrietty lives within a benevolent patriarchy ruled by Pod. He controls entrance into and exit from the home, "his fortress" (Borrowers, 13), by a number of complicated hairpin and safety pin locks only he knows how to open. He is a good provider, the only one who ventures out to gather furnishings and food for "his wife and child [who] led more sheltered lives …, far removed from the risks and dangers of the dreaded house above" (Borrowers, 14). Toward his wife he is indulgent, reluctantly giving in to her whims for different objects and aware of her moods, although never appearing to understand the reasons for them. Toward his daughter, he is protective, designing the gates to keep her from the dangers beyond.
Despite his kindness and abilities as a provider, Pod has considerable limitations: his pride in his own abilities and his conservatism. An ingenious craftsman and a skilled borrower—Homily tells Arrietty that he is "the best borrower that's been known in these parts since … before your grandad's time" (Borrowers, 38)—on his first borrowing trip with Arrietty, he demonstrates his skill in order to maintain his superiority over his wife and daughter. Opening the lock on one of the gates, he proudly states that neither she nor Homily could do it. When, as they pull tufts from the doormat, Arrietty complains that these hurt her tender hands, he replies that his are hardened. Benevolent and efficient though he may be, he must be in control, superior to the women for whom he ventures from home to provide.
Pod is an arch-conservative. Explaining to Arrietty the time-tested techniques of increasing the profits and decreasing the dangers of borrowing is understandable. Yet he rigidly hides behind received conventions if faced with new situations. When Homily suggests taking his daughter with him, he retorts, "I never heard of no girl going before" (Borrowers, 51), and he tells Arrietty, "There's rules, my lass, and you got to learn" (Borrowers, 64). Later he accuses her of not respecting tradition. Because of his dependence on tradition, he finds it exceedingly difficult to cope with new and surprising circumstances. He fails to take important actions at key points—not warning Arrietty of the existence of the boy, for example—and he frequently puts off making decisions. After discovering her with the boy, he tells Homily that they can do nothing that night except have supper and go to bed. In his refusal to share responsibilities, to act decisively, or to adapt quickly, he is partly responsible for the events that lead to the final catastrophe.
His most serious limitation is his protectiveness of Arrietty, although he justifies it to her on the grounds that "you're all we've got" (Borrowers, 46). He seems unconsciously unwilling to accept that she is growing up. This attitude would explain why he does not tell her of the boy's existence and is horrified when he sees the two talking together. He remarks about the unpredictability of the boys, yet he may also fear letting her meet a member of the opposite sex who could introduce her to a world that would free her from his conservative, paternalistic care and control. "[W]here does freedom take you?" (Borrowers, 50), he asks early in the novel. His literal warning to Arrietty about her candle, "Careful of the light!" (Borrowers, 28), may symbolize his wariness of new ideas. He had been a daring Borrower in his youth, but now considers that behavior foolish.
These observations are not meant to suggest that Pod is a negative character. He is not; however, his patriarchal authority is one factor with which Arrietty must contend if she is to mature. Ironically, he inadvertently and unknowingly makes it possible for her to make her first steps toward freedom. His belief that he is the best one to gather brush from the doormat gives her the time to wander into the garden, where she sees the boy. Later, in order to impress her with his ability, he shows her the techniques of climbing with a hat pin, thus giving her knowledge she will use to climb the stairs to visit the boy in his bedroom.
In contrast to Pod, Homily is someone from whom Arrietty can learn, both directly and by example, and someone who plays a major role in fostering the girl's maturing process. Critics and reviewers have termed Homily fussy, distracted, emotional, house-proud, and snobbish. To these can be added the adjectives self-centered and manipulative. She is all these by turns and often several simultaneously. In some ways, she is an unpleasant, unsympathetic character. Although she had mocked Aunt Lupy's affected manners and pretensions, when her own house is grandly refurnished with the boy's borrowings, she too becomes affected and snobbish, pronouncing parquet exactly as her sister-in-law had, asking Pod to build a drawing room, and regretting that there are no other people to whom she can display her possessions. Her horror of the prospect of emigration is caused as much from the thought of being with her sister-in-law and in dirty, uncivilized conditions, as from perceptions of real or imagined dangers. She is not above nagging Pod into acquiescence to her desires, and her worry over his late return home is self-indulgent guilt as much as concern for his safety. Nonetheless, Homily has many positive virtues, not the least of which are her devotion to and concern for her family. She is proud of Pod's unquestioned skill and reputation as a Borrower and of Arrietty's ability as a reader. She is genuinely relieved at Pod's return from his expeditions and is curious to hear about Arrietty's first trip beyond the gates of their apartment. She works hard and willingly at creating a home for them.
In studying Homily's character, the important question is not, What is it? but, How has it become that way? Answers can help to explain the significant role she plays in Arrietty's maturation. Since the early years of her marriage and certainly since the emigration of the Hendrearys, Homily has lived within the confines of the floorboard apartments, her only company her child and her husband. She is totally dependent on Pod for all the materials needed for homemaking, and her main contribution to his activities has been her suggestion that he use a pin and tape device for easier climbing. If she is house-proud, it is because, being housebound, she depends on her home for a basic sense of self-worth and accomplishment. Her manipulations are sometimes the only way she can get the materials for the homemaking activities so important to her.
Yet Homily's life has not always been so lonely and restricted. In Poor Stainless, a story published in 1971, Homily reminisces about her childhood. Working at a routine task with her daughter, she recounts an event in which a very young Borrower went missing for a week and all the other Borrowers, male and female, young and old, spent a day searching through the house. "Somehow," Homily remarks to Arrietty, "I don't seem to forget that morning, though nothing much happened really" (Poor, 23). The most memorable aspect of Homily's story is not the account of the search but her description of her responses to the new world she experienced. She speaks of her breathless amazement at seeing the bright morning room and the elegant Overmantel who lived in it. She recalls that, when she had followed her uncle out of the room: "he turns away, and I go after him crying a little—I wouldn't know for why" (Poor, 22). She had been profoundly moved by the space, light, and beauty and saddened at leaving it. This, however, was not her only trip upstairs. Almost inadvertently, she lets slip to Arrietty the fact that, after an initial trip to the scullery for the search party organization, she would sneak back there. "I liked the scullery," she tells the girl," … with the sunshine coming through the yard door and falling down on that old brick floor" (Poor, 16). Years later, the strongest emotions evoked by her memory of the events are anger and indignation that Stainless had enjoyed a week in the outside world: "‘He'd enjoyed every minute of it!’" Homily's voice rose. "‘He'd had one wild, wicked, wonderful, never-to-be-forgotten week of absolute, glorious freedom.’ … The chiffon between Homily's fingers seemed to dance with indignation…. ‘[W]e never did think it was fair!’ Crossly, she shook out the chiffon" (Poor, 31-32). Homily had once had a taste of the world beyond the confines of her home, had understood the nature of freedom, but had never had a chance to fulfill her yearning for it. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, shades of the prison house had closed upon the growing girl. Nigel Hand has postulated that "Through the character of Homily Mary Norton registers some of the tensions of life in a mobile and technological society, with all its uncertainties and loss of traditional bearings; and with great economy she shows what unproductive strategies it can generate" (Hand, 54). Even so, the negative elements of Homily's character, particularly the anxiety Hand emphasizes, are probably not so much a result of sociological circumstances as they are a repression in Homily's adult life of the desire for freedom that had been awakened in her as a girl.
Despite her repressed life and perhaps because of it, Homily does play an important role in enabling Arrietty to leave the confines of their home. She opposes the procrastinating Pod, saying they are going to tell Arrietty about his having been seen, and dominates—with many humorous digressions in which she judges other snobbish Borrowers—the ensuing conversation. It is her decision that Pod take the girl on a borrowing trip and her insistence that lead to Arrietty's making the first excursion. "Why not?" she tells her objecting husband. "Let her just see at any rate" (Borrowers, 57). Her choice of a specific day to ask Pod to get the bristles from the front doormat and to take Arrietty with him seems to have been carefully thought out, for she later tells her daughter, who speaks to her from outside the grating, that the door is always open on the first day of spring. Homily's knowledge of the open door was perhaps gained during the secret excursions of her youth; whether this is the case or not, she has made it possible for Arrietty to pass through an open door, across a threshold. Although she explains that training Arrietty as a Borrower would be valuable in the event of an injury to Pod and in their old age, she may well recognize in her daughter her own youthful excitement in the now thwarted need for freedom. To repress it in Arrietty would be to doom her daughter to a life such as her own has become. Without Homily's initial assistance, the freedom Arrietty eventually achieves would probably not have been possible.
Unlike the last two adult Borrowers in the big house, who live in a loving relationship with each other, the last of the three human beings—Great-Aunt Sophy, Mrs. Driver, and Crampfurl—coexist in a state that borders on hostility. Mrs. Driver sees Great-Aunt Sophy only to deliver her nightly decanter of Fine Old Pale Madeira and Crampfurl only to share with him a stolen bottle of the port. Unlike Pod and Homily, whose protection of Arrietty is benevolently motivated, the human beings, as was Aunt Beatrice in The Magic Bed-Knob, are like Kenneth Grahame's Olympians in their relationship with the boy, viewing him as at best an intrusion into their lives. Their actions are in contrast to the kindliness of old Mrs. May to Kate and the nurturing of Homily to Arrietty, respectively. Crampfurl has virtually nothing to do with the boy. In fact, Crampfurl seems to be in the story basically as someone to whom Mrs. Driver can complain and as someone who can question the veracity of her sighting of the Borrowers. The focus is on Great-Aunt Sophy and, to a much greater degree, Mrs. Driver.
Since a hunting accident 20 years earlier, Sophy has withdrawn from an active life, and her children have died or left home. Homily sympathetically recognizes her loneliness, remarking about her drinking, "She had so few pleasures, poor soul" (Borrowers, 81). Her only friendship is with Pod, whom she believes a product of her inebriation. Even the one visit by Homily was important to her: "She perked up like anything," Arrietty tells the boy, "and kept asking for her" (Borrowers, 81). Still, Pod is important to her only as a listener to her repeated narrations about the long-gone days of glory. Her name, Sophy, is ironic, for even though she gives the boy his lessons, she does not possess the wisdom it implies. In many ways, she is a failed crone, not providing young people with the insights into life her age ought to have given her.
Mrs. Driver, whose name symbolizes her domineering personality, has "ruled supreme" (Borrowers, 18) for many years. The boy's description of her and her conversations, overheard by Arrietty, reveals how much she relishes control, threatening the boy for rearranging the doormat and refusing to perform many household labors she considers beneath her. Her need to maintain her control after the discovery of the thefts from the morning room is reflected in the fact that the last page of chapter 17 and nearly all of chapter 18, the final chapter of direct narrative, focus mainly on her thoughts and actions.
A thief, not a borrower, Mrs. Driver has considered a "drop of Madeira here, a pair of old stockings there, a handkerchief or so, an odd vest, or an occasional pair of gloves … within her rights" (Borrowers, 136). Thievery by someone else is, however, another matter. Eager to maintain the security provided by her control of the house, she fears that someone is trying to trap her, perhaps even Great-Aunt Sophy. When she finds the boy in the kitchen, she imprisons him, lying to her mistress that he has a cold, making communication between them impossible. She also decides to exterminate the Borrowers, sealing their avenue of escape and engaging the ratcatcher, experiencing an evil delight in anticipation of success. "[A] malicious gleam, a look of triumph" (Borrowers, 154) is in her eyes when she apprehends the boy; and she envisions that the old woman will "change her tune, like enough, when I take [the Clock family] up afterwards, laid out in sizes, on a clean piece of newspaper" (Borrowers, 163). She forces the boy into the kitchen to watch the extermination and is eager to return from taking him to the train station, to be "in at the death!" (Borrowers, 172).
Nonetheless, her attempt to reestablish her mastery is thwarted. Crampfurl doubts her sighting; Ernie Runacre, the young policeman she had tried to control years before, smirks at her; and Great-Aunt Sophy believes she has been drinking. The old woman seems to have known all along about her theft of the Madeira. Although readers are not told what happened on her return from the train station, they can well imagine how Mrs. Driver must have felt when informed that no little people had been found. No one would believe that she actually saw what she reported. She has not been able to capture these tiny people and has been thwarted by a boy. Mrs. Driver is as vulnerable in her world as the Borrowers are in theirs.
The Brave New Worlds of Arrietty and the Boy
Arrietty and the boy grow toward maturity partly in opposition to these repressed parents and Olympians. That their relationship to each other shows growth is appropriate, for while each is a lonely, isolated child, each complements the other, much as do Miss Price and Emelius Jones in Bed-Knob and Broomstick and James and Dulcibel in Are All the Giants Dead? In part because they differ in size and gender, but more important in relationship to the adults in their lives, in the source of their knowledge of the world at large, and in their temperaments, they are able to help each other. The unique qualities each possesses are beneficial to the other.
Arrietty is constrained not only by the gates and gratings of her apartment, the paternalism of her father, and the fussy restrictions of her mother but also by the limits of her knowledge of the world. She can see only a small patch of land and sky from her grating, and the relevant book in her library, Tom Thumb's Gazetteer of the World, is probably small in content as well as in size. Similarly, her knowledge of the past is limited. From Homily, she has received a gossipy and somewhat biased account of the many Borrower families who once lived in the great house and reports of interesting incidents that occurred before her birth; from her father, the time-honored conventions and ethics of borrowing. In her diary and proverb book are only brief sentences noting significant historical events for each day of the year.
To Arrietty, the most interesting person in the family mythology is Eggletina, Uncle Hendreary's daughter, who at age 13, the same age as Arrietty, had wandered outside, never to be seen again. Before Pod and Homily tell Arrietty of Eggletina's presumed fate, being eaten by the cat, Arrietty has compared herself with her cousin, wishing that she too could have had a mouse for a pet. When she finds out what happened, Arrietty continues the comparison, telling her parents, "I bet she just ran away because she hated being cooped up…. Like I do" (Borrowers, 49). It is ironic that the only peer example in her life is an apparently long-dead cousin she has never seen.
The direct narrative begins with the focus on Arrietty. Although the girl likes the coziness of her home, she is angry at her mother's asking for help with chores, kicking "ill-temperedly" (Borrowers, 14) at a potato and speaking rudely to Homily, whom she horrifies by announcing, "I could climb a curtain…. I could borrow" (Borrowers, 25). At the edge of womanhood, she is restless and near rebellion. Confined physically and psychologically, she yearns for the freedom of the outside world represented to her by the limited view seen through the grating.
Her repressed desires are partly released when, after Pod's return, her parents tell her about his having been seen and Eggletina's fate and then announce that she will soon be allowed to accompany her father borrowing. Before the conversation, she had been in her bedroom "[staring at] without seeing" (Borrowers, 35) the cigar-box roof depicting "lovely painted ladies dressed in swirls of chiffon [and blowing] long trumpets against a background of blue sky" (Borrowers, 35). Returning to her bedroom later, she "gazed up at her painted ceiling" (Borrowers, 52), on which "the lovely gauzy ladies blew their trumpets, silently, triumphantly, on soundless notes of glee" (Borrowers, 54). By noting that Arrietty is now reacting to the ceiling and by adding the words triumphantly and glee, Norton draws attention to the change in the girl's attitude as a result of the meeting. Arrietty feels as free as the floating women seem to be. After Pod and Homily tell her the facts of Borrower life, her reactions are not what they expect. On hearing of Eggletina's adventure, Arrietty only wants to know how she got out. Learning that her father has been seen, she asks if they could emigrate. She begins to cry and angrily tells her parents, "I don't think it's so clever to live on alone, forever and ever, in a great, big, half-empty house; under the floor with no one to talk to, no one to play with, nothing to see but dust and passages, no light but candlelight and firelight and what comes through the cracks" (Borrowers, 49). Her mood changes when the possibility of her borrowing is raised: "‘Oh—’ she began in an ecstatic voice" (Borrowers, 51).
Norton's depiction of Arrietty's actions, perceptions, and emotions during the girl's first trip beyond the floorboard apartments gives the specific episode highly symbolic dimensions. As a learning experience, the passage through the tunnels, out from under the clock, and through the door are described as a movement from dark to light. Initially, "Arrietty saw a faint light at the end of the passage" (Borrowers, 60). Her first impressions of the world beyond the clock are of an almost overwhelming, "sudden blinding glimpse of molten gold" (Borrowers, 60). When her vision focuses, "she saw, in a glory of sunlight—like a dreamed-of gateway to fairyland—the open front door" (Borrowers, 61). Having passed through the literal gates constructed by Pod, gates that have imprisoned her in a darkness both physical and nonphysical, she prepares to pass through metaphorical gates that liberate her into a world of imaginative fulfillment and freedom. Significantly, moments after looking at the door, she notices her father: "Arrietty saw him scurry across the sunlit floor. Swiftly he ran—as a mouse runs or a blown dry leaf—and suddenly she saw him as ‘small’" (Borrowers, 61). Her newly acquired perspective diminishes her father's importance; she is taking her first steps away from what feminist critic Annis Pratt has called "enclosure in the patriarchy."5
Venturing into the garden, Arrietty enters what Pratt calls "the green world," where Nature "becomes an ally of the woman hero, keeping her in touch with her selfhood" (Pratt 1981, 21). She walks out onto the front step and around to the side of the house, where she talks to her mother through the grate. Then she wanders away from her father, exploring among flowers, plants, insects, and birds, all of which are described by Norton in terms that make them seem huge but nonthreatening to the girl. The symbolic significance of these events is apparent when we consider the verbal clichés that can be used to describe the actions. She has crossed a threshold, turned a corner (despite her father's initial prohibition against doing so), stood on the outside looking in, and wandered out of sight (and possibly out of mind) of her father. Her sense of liberation is reflected in her movements: "The stones in the path were firmly bedded and her light, soft shoes hardly seemed to touch them. How glorious it was to run" (Borrowers, 66). As she talks to her mother, "her toes danced on the green moss" (Borrowers, 66).
Appropriately, Arrietty at first sees just the boy's eye and only later hears his voice. Having moved beyond Pod's protective eye and admonishing voice, she will meet someone who, after being initially threatening, is curious and questioning. Arrietty tries to comprehend her situation by reference to the only element of family tradition that has relevance to her, thinking that what happened to Eggletina will now happen to her. But she calms herself and bravely confronts the boy, staring at his eye. Her bluff works, and she adroitly encourages his questions about reading. She is shocked when he calls her a fairy, denying that such creatures exist. Her reaction is important, for the boy, in calling her a fairy, is denying her identity as a Borrower. She knows what she is and is not as a species; she does not, as yet, know who she is as an individual. Recounting her father's exploits with pride, delineating the family mythology, and outlining the ethics of Borrowers, she defines herself only in relation to her family and tradition.
She is also ethnocentric. She calls the boy silly when he tells her there are far more people than Borrowers. Given the scale of her family's physical needs, she cannot comprehend enough material or food to supply more than a few human beings. "Human beings are for Borrowers—like bread's for butter" (Borrowers, 84), she announces. When the boy asks where the other Borrowers are and suggests that the Clocks are the last three, her smugness is shattered. She announces that she has decided not to read to him and begins to cry. Now it is Arrietty, not the boy, who stares "with frightened eyes" (Borrowers, 86), and she feels cold in the shadow he casts. The joyous optimism with which she has greeted the spring sunshine has been obscured. Kuznets has compared this scene to the biblical Fall in the Garden of Eden, a loss of innocence accompanied by an awareness of the complexity of life (Kuznets 1985a, 200). Whether or not the experience is perceived in quite these biblical terms, Arrietty has had a nonsexual awakening, a permanent loss of ethnocentric innocence, one that prepares her to see what she and other people really are, instead of what she has been told they are.
Arrietty is not yet ready to face this new world bravely. She retreats, announcing that she is going home, and is almost relieved to see her father: "how round his face was, how kind, how familiar" (Borrowers, 88). The yearnings for the outdoors she had felt when staring out from her grating have been somewhat qualified by her experience. Still, she returns to her home and family profoundly altered. Her restlessness, which had changed from vague, undefined yearnings to a desire to have the kind of experience Eggletina had, has a specific focus: she wishes to have the boy deliver a letter to other Borrowers as a means of saving her family and, ultimately, the race. She now views the apartment differently: "How familiar the room seemed, and homely, but, suddenly, somehow strange: the firelight flickering on the wallpaper—the line which read: ‘ … it would be so charming if—’ If what? Arrietty always wondered. If our house were less dark, she thought, that would be charming" (Borrowers, 90). During spring cleaning activities, which she had always enjoyed before, Arrietty "bang[s] about impatiently" (Borrowers, 96), worried that she will be unable to get a letter to the boy. The opportunity comes when she accompanies Pod on a second trip, a nighttime expedition through the darkness. When she enters the morning room, domain of the legendary Overmantels, she imagines their glamorous, luxurious life-style, but because of her meeting with the boy, wonders, "Where were they now? … Where could such creatures go?" (Borrowers, 99). Earlier, reflections about Eggletina's disappearance had made Arrietty dissatisfied with her own life; now, thoughts about the disappearance of the Overmantels raise implicit concerns for the well-being of her family.
Overhearing Mrs. Driver and Crampfurl talking about the boy's removing the doormat and searching in ferret holes, Arrietty realizes the urgency of seeing him: "I must hear what happened. I must hear if [the Hendrearys are] all right. I don't want us to die out. I don't want to be the last Borrower. I don't want … to live forever and ever like this … in the dark … under the floor" (Borrowers, 105-6). When her father is out one evening, she sneaks past the open gates and up the darkened stairs: "On the upper landing she saw an open door and a great square of golden light which like a barrier lay across the passage" (Borrowers, 108). A much more knowledgeable and resolute Arrietty now traverses this light and crosses this threshold. This time, she sees the complete face of the boy about whom she has some knowledge. Together, they read the letter from Uncle Hendreary, and Arrietty gains new information: her relatives are alive; her family is not the last of the race. Discovered by Pod, Arrietty responds to her parents' outbursts with considerable maturity and comprehension: "‘They are frightened,’ Arrietty realized; ‘they are not angry at all—they are very, very frightened’" (Borrowers, 115). But Pod and Homily, who have had little understanding about her feelings—attributing, for example, her restlessness to spring fever and her grumpiness to feeling "seedy" (Borrowers, 105)—do not comprehend the motives for her actions. When she announces, "I'm trying to save the race!" (Borrowers, 116), Pod speaks sternly of violating tradition. Dismissed to her bedroom, where, as earlier, she stares at the ceiling while listening to her parents talk, she feels ambivalent. She sees the complexity of her new life: "She did not want to lose [home and possessions], she realized suddenly, lying there straight and still in bed, but to have all the other things as well, adventure and safety mixed—that's what she wanted. And that … is just what you couldn't do" (Borrowers, 120). As Kuznets has noted, Arrietty is coming to terms with "the ambivalence which the child feels in relinquishing the state of secure dependency for one of dangerous responsibility for her own acts" (Kuznets 1985a, 200).
During the golden age of borrowing that follows, Arrietty learns from the boy about her place in relation to the world at large: "What worlds they would explore together—strange worlds to Arrietty. 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 lived turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people" (Borrowers, 132). After Mrs. Driver's discovery of the family, when Arrietty's dream of emigration is achieved, she cries for happiness: "Her wet face glistened in the candlelight; it was alight and tremulous and she raised her arms a little as though about to fly, and she swayed as she balanced on her toe-tips…. she closed her eyes against the brightness of the vision [of emigration]" (Borrowers, 151).
When last seen in the novel, she is perched at the top of the bag in which the boy has placed her family, looking outward. Arrietty's journey is by no means complete. She is like the characters at the beginning of the folktale "The Story of the Three Little Pigs," whose leaving home is only the first step on the road to maturity. She has lost her selfish concerns and her ethnocentrism, bravely moving toward the dangerous, unknown, but exciting world of adulthood.
Considering his importance to the narrative—his seeing the Borrowers and his having been seen by Mrs. Driver activate the major events of the novel—the character of the boy has received little critical attention. He is one of the reasons the Clocks are able to survive and the reason their story does. The Rustins have traced his movement from immature, lonely isolation to fulfillment (Rustin and Rustin, 70-71). Mrs. May tells Kate that "he died what they call ‘a hero's death’" (Borrowers, 6), a British army colonel serving in India. The events of the story help to explain how such a timorous boy achieved such status. What is there about him that caused him to become involved in the Borrowers' lives, and what is there about this involvement that caused him to talk about it to his sister, Mrs. May, not only during a childhood boat trip to India but later in his life? How did his experience change his life?
The boy's physical world is infinitely less circumscribed than Arrietty's. Born in India, schooled in England, he knows, as he tells Arrietty, a great deal "about railway stations and football matches and racecourses and royal processions and Albert Hall concerts" (Borrowers, 86). Nonetheless, he is the baby of his family, the only boy, and unlike his sisters he cannot read. Never a strong child, he has been sent to the great house to recover from rheumatic fever. His life here is much lonelier than Arrietty's; far away from his family, he is in contact only with Great-Aunt Sophy and Mrs. Driver. He says that the former "gives me dictation and teaches me to write. I only see her in the mornings when she's cross" (Borrowers, 81) and that the latter "gives me my bath and hurts my bruise and my sore elbow and says she'll take a slipper to me one of these days" (Borrowers, 81). Significantly, Arrietty first sees the boy outside on Mrs. Driver's day off. Perhaps he finds the house as much a prison as Arrietty does and is seeking an escape, however brief.
When he meets Arrietty, he is frightened, believing her to be a fairy and threatening her with his ash stick, no doubt believing in that wood's magical potency. After she tells him about Borrowers, he replies, "smiling triumphantly" (Borrowers, 87), that he believes they are dying out and that she will eventually be the only Borrower left. Lonely and somewhat frightened, he reacts with anger and cruelty. He is not, however, a nasty boy: helping Pod was an act of kindness, and he wants to please Arrietty, volunteering to take a letter to the Hendrearys. His asking Arrietty if she can read is not so unusual as it might at first appear. He needs a peer, however tiny, who can help him to overcome the deficiency that makes him feel inferior to his sisters. Moreover, he can provide access to a source of knowledge she does not have: books. Above all, he is a little boy in need of a friend, or as the Rustins have suggested, "a living link with the sisters he so much misses" (Rustin and Rustin, 69). Away from his mother, cared for roughly by two Olympian women, he can find in Arrietty the female contact he needs. His sincerity and sense of obligation are revealed in the ensuing days by his continuing visits to the doormat in search of the letter, despite Mrs. Driver's repeated threats of punishment. He demonstrates his trustworthiness, cleverly evading Crampfurl's attempts to find out what he is doing in the field, thereby keeping the secret of the Clocks' existence. Disastrous though his raiding of the doll's house finally proves, his motivations are good. He had learned during his first meeting with Arrietty of the Borrowers' loss of their worldly wealth in a kitchen flood, and because of his affection for them and his wish to have Arrietty read to him, he brings them material possessions beyond "all dreams of borrowing" (Borrowers, 130). He grows in human understanding and compassion as well as in book knowledge.
The extent of his unselfish attachment to his new friends, his substitute family, is seen during the catastrophe, for he acts decisively in planning for their escape and is excited to learn about their proposed destination, the badger's set. He empathizes with Arrietty, understanding her emotions. When he is discovered by Mrs. Driver, he defends the Clocks against her accusations of thievery and announces that he too is a Borrower. He has come to identify with them and to see their lives from their point of view. The boy whose lip had trembled because he missed his mother now "cried his heart out under the blankets" (Borrowers, 156) when imprisoned in his room by Mrs. Driver. He weeps for his friends and their fate.
Apparently powerless, the boy nevertheless makes possible the Borrowers' escape through a series of actions that are selfless and courageous. Dragged into the kitchen to watch the exterminator at work, he notices a pickax, which he grabs and stealthily takes out into the hall. Unsuccessful in his attempts to dislodge the metal plate blocking the wall exit, he hears the workmen mention ventilation, remembers the grating, and, with the cab coming up the driveway, races outside and tears open the mesh. He displays a clarity and inventiveness of thought, and he shows great courage, for given his fear of the vindictive Mrs. Driver, thoughts of her anger and punishment would have been terrifying to him.
Although he never returned to the great house or learned what happened to Pod, Homily, and Arrietty, the boy continued to think of them. Mrs. May reports that on the boat to India, he would go "over the old ground, repeating conversations, telling me details again and again" (Borrowers, 8), and that when he and his sister had grown up, he continued to speak about the events. That he should remember and frequently recount the episodes of that summer is not surprising. His friendship and his actions had liberated the timid, insecure little boy. Like Arrietty's, it was the first summer of his freedom, the beginning of his journey to adulthood.
Re-creating the Past: Narrative Framework and Point of View
Although early reviewers rightfully praised the originality of concept, plot, and characterization in The Borrowers, they gave only passing notice to another key element of the book's originality: its setting of the adventures of the Clock family within the framework of Mrs. May's telling the story to Kate. As recent critics suggest, an understanding of this framework is crucial to an understanding of the total meaning of the novel, a meaning that is greater than the significance of the Borrowers' story itself. The first chapter presents Mrs. May explaining the background of the events and how she learned about them; chapters 2 through 18 are her direct narrative of events between the times of the boy's first and last sightings of the Clocks; chapter 19 and 20 are set in the present, as Mrs. May tells Kate about the boy's last four days at the house and her visit there a year later, and the old woman and the girl create a hypothetical account of the Clocks' life after their escape from the house.
In creating the framework, Mary Norton is using an ancient storytelling technique, one in which a character recounts events in which he or she has been peripherally or centrally involved. In Tellers and Listeners, Barbara Hardy traces the tradition back to Homer's Odyssey, in which the hero reports his adventures to admiring audiences.6 Other well-known works employing this technique include Milton's Paradise Lost, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Modern literary theorists have termed these types of stories metafictions, defined by Inger Christensen as "fiction whose primary concern is to express the novelist's vision of experience by exploring the process of its own making."7 Christensen goes on to say, "The metafictionist deals with … fundamental issues of communication by directing attention to the narrator, the narrative, and the narratee [the teller, the tale, and the listener/reader] in his work" (Christensen, 14). Such novels raise important questions. Why do authors chose specific tellers? Why do tellers choose to relate specific stories? Why do they choose the listeners they do? How do listeners react to the stories? And finally, how do the frame stories interact with the inner stories to influence the total meaning of the novels?
At the beginning of the English edition of The Borrowers, a paragraph omitted from the American edition implicitly raises these questions: "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?"8 Julia Davenport suggests answers that relate to achieving credibility for an improbable plot. Norton's techniques, she writes, "whet our appetites, and they lend the story a quality of truth and seriousness that keeps it from degenerating into whimsy," and Mrs. May, "a sensible, down-to-earth woman" (Davenport, 76), provides a bridge from Kate's everyday, normal world into the marvelous world of the Clock family. Moreover, Mrs. May has, through her brother, a connection to the events she narrates.
Although the framework undoubtedly fulfills these purposes, Norton could have used other techniques to achieve much the same results. To find more complete answers, we can approach the framework indirectly, comparing it with that of Faulkner's adult novel Absalom, Absalom! That work begins as 18-year-old Quentin Compson sits in the darkened parlor of Rosa Coldfield, an old spinster who talks about her relationship with one of the town's legendary figures, Thomas Sutpen. Initially puzzled by her having invited him to her home and her commencing the narrative, he soon realizes, "[i]t's because she wants it told, … so that people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War."9 Mrs. May, like Rosa Coldfield, wants the story of the Clock family to be told, although, of course, her reasons are different.
Before an examination of these reasons, her narrative, which occupies chapter 2 to chapter 18, must be considered. The primary source of her information is her brother. But her telling is not simply a repetition of his telling. She had, we have seen, listened many times to his going over events and conversations. She, like Miss Price, who "pieced the pattern together" (Bed-Knob, 57) from the Wilson children's disjointed accounts of their first trip on the bed, has organized her brother's information into a coherent, chronological narrative. Some of the material of the story she could have supplied herself, including the detailed descriptions of the house, which she visited a year after her brother left. Her sensitive interpretations of the three female adults in the story, Homily, Great-Aunt Sophy, and Mrs. Driver, are no doubt a product of her mature wisdom and her experience as a woman. Her portrayal of her brother would be drawn from her understanding of him as both a boy and a man. Using these sources of information, Mrs. May is like the Borrowers she describes, creatively adapting old materials to make something new and purposeful. The story she tells is not presented from the point of view of her brother, from whom much of it comes; in fact, he does not appear in the narrative until chapter 9. She begins with her focus on Arrietty and portrays the girl as she relates first to her mother and father and then to the boy. Later Mrs. May considers Mrs. Driver's thoughts and motivations as she plans to capture the thieves. Mrs. May is telling a story about females, for whom she has empathy, to a female.
Just as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner had instinctive knowledge of the appropriate listener for his saga, so Mrs. May knows that Kate is the right audience for her narrative. Although three years younger than Arrietty, Kate is not unlike her: cross and often ill-tempered. Mrs. May is the one who brings up the subject of the Borrowers when Kate remarks about missing objects, and she entices the girl to ask her about these beings. "‘Why so quiet, child?’ asked Mrs. May one day, when Kate was sitting hunched and idle upon the hassock" (Borrowers English edition 1952, 8). Soon after, the old woman begins a story about Arrietty, who, as Homily complains, is also frequently silent and idle. The bildungsroman that follows is presented in a way appropriate to its receptive listener.
In telling the story, Mrs. May is like a crone, the wise old female keeper of lore and wisdom who, in myths, legends, and folktales was responsible for initiating young girls into adult life (Walker, passim). Her use of story as a vehicle of instruction is appropriate, for as feminist theologian Carol Christ has written: "Women's stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself…. If women's stories are not told, the depth of women's souls will not be known."10 Mrs. May has given Kate a narrative framework with which to guide her own inner growth. But good teacher that she is, she does not present a complete, rigidly defined story, and she frequently casts doubt on the factuality of the events she narrates. Unlike Pod, who had inflexibly passed on to Arrietty the (to him) immutable concepts of borrowing, Mrs. May makes necessary a creative, questioning response. Kate must remake the story, understanding it in her own terms. This is one of the reasons that the old woman interrupts the narrative at the end of chapter 18. A tease, just as she had said her brother was, she is vexing Kate out of being an intense listener and into becoming an involved teller of the story.
The location of the telling and the activities in which the old woman and young girl are engaged are appropriate for Mrs. May's purposes. In a twilight atmosphere, suitable to the telling of such a tale, Mrs. May has been teaching Kate the techniques of sewing, "how to run-and-fell and plan a darn" (Borrowers, 3), and later how to quick-stitch. The specific techniques are significant. The technique of "running" involves gathering a number of stitches on a needle at one time, while "felling" is sewing pieces of cloth smoothly together in a manner that makes the joins appear seamless. Quilting, of course, involves the uniting of different colored squares of usually old material into a new object. Feminist critics have frequently seen this predominantly female activity as symbolic of women's lives and activities in general: the joining together of old elements to create something new and valuable.11 Mrs. May teaches the techniques literally and symbolically. During the last two chapters, as they sew together the crocheted patches into a quilt, Mrs. May helps Kate gather together the pieces of information and the understanding she has acquired from hearing the direct narrative to create a unified, seamless narrative to conclude the Clocks' adventures.12
In wanting the story told, Mrs. May wishes not only to instruct Kate but also to fulfill her own inner needs. In performing her role as a crone, telling a story beneficial to Kate, she is achieving a sense of purpose and usefulness. A lonely person without immediate family, she is, as the Rustins have noted, a kind of Borrower herself, living in her old age with relatives: "Mrs. May is able through contact with a young girl to bring alive her own memories and overcome her own loneliness" (Rustin and Rustin, 66). Barbara Hardy's statement about D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers—"The story is … a ritual, a serial telling solicited and encouraged with love. It is not a performance by one narrator, but a communion and a real conversation" (Hardy, 140)—can be applied to the conclusion of The Borrowers, as Mrs. May and Kate work as partners to complete the narration. In telling the story, Mrs. May is also keeping alive an important aspect of her past, for she was involved, however inconclusively or indirectly, in the lives of the Clocks, taking supplies into the fields for them. Moreover, during the retelling, she recaptures a sense of wonder and excitement. Her evasiveness with Kate near the end of the novel may be in part an attempt to hide feelings she is embarrassed to have the girl perceive. Mrs. May is like Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, of whom Barbara Hardy has written, "The imaginative narrator only tells what moves, bewilders, and tests him" (Hardy, 155).
When Mrs. May's conclusions are related to elements of the direct narrative and to the account of the Clocks' life after the escape as it is presented in The Borrowers Afield, however, they become suspect. In the second book of the series, based on information Kate acquires partly from Arrietty's diary, it is learned that the three Borrowers did not settle in the badger set or near the gaspipe, and they did not retrieve Mrs. May's parcel; it was found by the Hendrearys. Mrs. May claims to have gained much of her information from the miniature Memoranda that had formed part of Arrietty's library. But it is described early in Mrs. May's direct narration as having blank pages, and nowhere is there any reference to Arrietty's having written in it. Mrs. May suggests that her brother may have written in it and that both he and Arrietty formed their e's in the same way. Yet in discussing the three days he was imprisoned by Mrs. Driver, she makes no reference to the boy's having written, and one wonders how a boy who could barely read was able to write cursive letters as well as the more practiced Arrietty could.
Why, at the conclusion of the novel, should author Mary Norton raise doubts about the credibility of Mrs. May's narration? Probably the intention is not to invalidate what the old woman has said all along. Although Mrs. May supplies her own interpretations of character, she has no doubt presented the facts accurately. There are many possible answers. First, not knowing what happened to them, she has been forced to invent, with Kate's help, a conclusion that will be emotionally satisfying and reassuring to her and that, because she seems to have played a role in it, will make her as significant to Kate as the boy wanted to be to his sisters. But she is embarrassed as well and tries to slip her unsubstantiated disclaimer past Kate as a means of letting herself off the hook. Finally, as she tells Kate, "Stories never really end. They can go on and on. It's just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them" (Borrowers, 158). With her account of her trip into the field and her hypothesis on the later lives of the Clocks, she has reached that certain point. In the words of the old folksong "Froggie Went a'Courtin'," "If you want to hear more, you must sing it yourself." And two years later, in The Borrowers Afield, Kate does just that, picking up the story with the aid of Tom Goodenough.
During the course of the novel, Kate moves from a rapt listener to an eager coteller. Just as the boy was changed by his involvement with Arrietty, she is changed by her involvement with the story. At the beginning, Kate is a receptive audience, eagerly responding to the bait with which Mrs. May teases her. "There can't be [little people]," she tells Mrs. May. "And yet … and yet sometimes I think there must be" (Borrowers, 4). "Please, go on," she urges. "Please tell me…. Try to remember. Right from the very beginning" (Borrowers, 7).
When Mrs. May announces at the beginning of chapter 19 that it is the end of the story, Kate reacts strongly. The English edition is more detailed than the American in depicting her response: "‘But,’ stammered Kate, ‘You can't—I mean—’and she looked, quite suddenly, everything they had said she was—wild, self-willed, and all the rest of it. ‘It's not fair,’ she cried, ‘it's cheating. It's—.’ Tears sprang to her eyes; she threw her work down on the table and the darning needle after it, and she kicked the bag of wools which lay beside her on the carpet" (Borrowers English edition 1952, 140). Kate realizes that, in addition to a beginning and a middle, a story should have an end, with a strong sense of closure, "the sense that nothing necessary has been omitted from a work."13 But her remarks are personal as well as aesthetic; she has become so involved with the lives of the Clock family that she needs to know the outcome of their dangerous journey. Requiring certainty, she asks Mrs. May a series of questions designed to elicit from the old woman an account of the boy's actions after he had been discovered by Mrs. Driver.
Mrs. May has been a very good storyteller, creating tremendous audience involvement. Kate has learned so much about the Borrowers' lives and characters and has internalized the story so well, that she is able, with Mrs. May, to create an emotionally satisfying closure to the story. Whereas in chapter 18 she was upset because Mrs. May appeared to be stopping the narrative before it was complete, in chapter 19 she is unhappy because of aspects of the narrative the old woman is supplying: "‘But,’ went on Kate in a despairing voice as she picked up the scissors, ‘Homily would hate to arrive there all poor and destitute in front of Lupy’" (Borrowers, 173). She is responding this way because of the sensitive understanding of Homily she has acquired as a listener. Later, when Mrs. May speculates that Arrietty and Homily would not stray from Pod, Kate quickly counters, "Arrietty would" (Borrowers, 175). Although, as will be seen in The Borrowers Afield, their speculations on the family's new domestic arrangements will prove to be factually incorrect, they are appropriate, based on the two narrators' sensitive understanding of the characters of the two Clock females. A satisfying emotional closure has been achieved, in part as a result of Kate's growth of perception during her day of listening and then telling.
As has been noted, however, the frame story and the novel itself end on a note of skepticism and doubt. Readers do not know Kate's reaction to Mrs. May's remark that the Memoranda book, the alleged source of some of her information, could have been written by her brother, not Arrietty. Nonetheless, Mrs. May's statement draws attention to the metafictional nature of the story. It is, after all, a story largely created by a woman who many years earlier had heard a version of it from a brother who was known to be a tease and to have a vivid imagination. If Kate could doubt Mrs. May, who in turn could have doubted her brother, what are readers of the book to do? They must realize that the meaning of The Borrowers comes from the interrelationship of the parts of the work. They must consider the tale and the tellers. As Inger Christensen has noted, "A novelist's vision, or the message he wants to convey, is closely related to the form of his work" (Christensen, 151). As the boy revised reports of Clock history learned from Arrietty, Mrs. May has revised his story, and Kate, who, as the opening of the British edition makes clear, is the frame narrator of the book, revises Mrs. May. Readers must revise all of these storytellers to create the work for themselves. Just as the poet persona watching the guitar player in Wallace Stevens's poem "The Idea of Order at Key West" uses imagination to fulfill a "blessed rage for order,"14 so too do readers of The Borrowers become the final authors of the story. Or, as William Faulkner remarked about the multiple storytellers in Absalom, Absalom! "I think that no one individual can look at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and you see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it. But taken all together, the truth is in what they saw though nobody saw the truth intact…. It was, as you say, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. But the truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird which I would like to think is the truth."15 The story of the Clock family has survived and evolved because of the sequence of interactions between tellers and listeners within the novel. By implicitly drawing attention to the metafictional nature of The Borrowers, Norton is asking that readers also engage in this type of interaction with her book in order to achieve an understanding, a comprehension that makes The Borrowers a unified, consistent work of art. Readers must become Borrowers themselves, taking the material of the novel to create a new work meaningful to themselves.
The Meaning of The Borrowers: Thematic Approaches
Several critics have read the novel as a reflection, commentary, and even symbolic representation of so- ciopolitical conditions in England during the first half of the twentieth century. Nigel Hand has commented on "the tensions of life in a mobile and technological society, with all its uncertainties and loss of traditional bearings" (Hand, 54). Kuznets has called the book a "diaspora in miniature" and related it generally and Mrs. Driver specifically to conditions in Germany during World War II: "The Borrowers depicts a family in extremity, one that will become displaced refugees. Like the Jews in Germany, the Clocks may have delayed too long" (Kuznets 1985a, 201). The Rustins have provided the most extended sociopolitical reading, stating that "The Borrowers series … represents a version of the English social landscape of the period of Norton's life" (Rustin and Rustin, 63), drawing parallels between Arrietty's reading ability and "the extension of post-war education"; the relationship between Crampfurl, Mrs. Driver, and Great-Aunt Sophy and that between "a repressive servant class … [and] the upper-class owner"; and the destruction of the Clock home and "the physical and social changes brought about in Britain by World War II" (Rustin and Rustin, 63).
Yet as these critics implicitly realize, to see the novel only in these terms is to limit its greatness. Novels do grow out of authors' relationships with and responses to their times, but if they are to have a continuing significance, they must do more. Norton herself called attention to the broader aspects of the novel: "it has 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.’"16 As noted, critics have commented widely on the theme of the female bildungsroman. Hand states that "the fiction is always rooted in a search for secure and healthy conditions for life" (Hand, 40). He emphasizes the value of creative imagination in this process, judging the characters by their ability to use this faculty. The Rustins note the importance of achieving fulfillment by escaping from various forms of repressions and imprisonment both literal and symbolic (Rustin and Rustin, 66).
All of these themes are important, but do not explain why the novel achieves such a satisfying unity, one in which all aspects of style, technique, plot, characterization, and theme interrelate. One such unifying principle can be found in the concept of "seeing" and such related ideas as "insight" and "appearance." These concepts underlie the individual elements discussed so far and give the novel its central focus and meaning.
The first evidence of the importance of "seeing" is to be found in the language and style of the book. There are more than 350 uses of words relating to sight, words such as saw, looked, seen, and eye. While many of these words 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 novel begins with Kate looking at 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 odd. Not all the references are as significant as those mentioned, but the total number of references, averaging nearly 10 a chapter, help to create a linguistic climate in which the importance of the visual motif is subtly, perhaps unconsciously, impressed on readers.
The linguistic texture of the book is used in characterization, for the Borrowers' colloquialisms also reflect the importance of seeing and being seen in their lives. "I don't see anything bad in that" (Borrowers, 24), the somewhat rebellious Arrietty remarks to her mother at one point. Speaking of fine china, Homily muses, "But it's once you've had a teacup, if you see what I mean" (Borrowers, 24). Worried about the possibility of their having to emigrate, Pod tells Arrietty, "[Y]ou're all we've got, see" (Borrowers, 46). Examples such as these, found throughout The Borrowers, reinforce 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 or her attitude. Thus the colloquialisms are about "insight" as well as "outsight."
It might be objected that there are many significant references to hearing, and there are. But these, significantly, are related to sight. The clock is the most notable—its noises and chimings relate to the routine by which members of the family live and a knowledge of which helps the Borrowers 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 human adults in the kitchen are an assurance, for when these are heard, the Borrowers are not seen. When Pod relates his first meeting with the boy, the first time he has been seen, "Homily stared at him in silence" (Borrowers, 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 im- portant, the way settings are described relates to tone and meaning. The opening and closing pages of the frame narration are set in a twilight breakfast room, pervaded by a "strange silvery light" (Borrowers, 3) that creates an appropriate setting for the sympathetic, imaginative re-creation 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 embodies 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, not just because it increases the danger of being seen but because it represents a violent disruption of the dim, womblike 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 into the springtime outdoors. Thus, the style by which Mary Norton creates the details of setting is significantly related to tone and meaning, for the visual impressions, particularly of light and darkness, symbolize the characters themselves: Pod and Homily, nearsighted in their view of the world; Arrietty, yearning to escape the darkness to find realities to parallel her youthful visions.
Plot and characterization are developed around the action of the Clocks' being seen and the ways in which they react to seeing and being seen. Obviously, the family live by borrowing—in a sense, they live by seeing what has been left lying around, by perceiving its usefulness to them, and by gathering it without being seen, an occurrence that would require emigration to avoid capture. The plot can be divided into three sections, each of which centers on a major character being seen and contains a conflict as to whether or not the family should emigrate. In chapters 3 through 8, Pod's being seen by the boy threatens but does not totally disrupt the Clocks' lives; in chapters 9 through 14, Arrietty sees the boy and is later seen by her father while she talks to her new friend; and in chapters 15 through 18 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.
Appropriately, the direct narrative ends after the boy sees the Borrowers for the last time. 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 personalities, he has been the catalyst acting on them, forcing them to emigrate, an action that may well have been inevitable. Not only does the action occur because he saw them, but also because of his relationship to them, the story has been related. But although the direct narrative of the Borrowers' lives concludes with chapter 18, 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 he never witnesses.
Who sees the Borrowers and how they react to them determine much of the meaning of the story. There are ten human beings, three of whom—the ratcatcher, the policeman, and the village boy—are of little importance except for the part they play in the final attempt to exterminate the Clocks and for the fact that all are skeptical of Mrs. Driver's sighting.
The four occupants of the house can be measured according to the extent of their belief in the reality of the Borrowers. Crampfurl does not believe, attributing all to the mischievousness of the boy and viewing Mrs. Driver's report with disdain. Great-Aunt Sophy thinks Pod is a product of her sherry drinking. While she does not literally believe, she has a kind of imaginative belief that 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 exaggerated and vindictive. She makes no attempt to understand the Borrowers and tells Crampfurl that she has discovered hundreds of little people. Appropriately, no one except the boy believes her, for hateful, vindictive liar that she is, she possesses neither sympathy nor understanding for the Clocks. The boy, of course, gradually develops these qualities of sympathy and understanding. His response to what he sees makes his summer with the Borrowers 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 from actual seeing of the Borrowers to imaginative insight. He is the appropriate link between the Clock family and his sisters, and through them, to Kate, for he not only views but understands. Mrs. May and Kate never see the Clocks, but do achieve strong imaginative insight. Perhaps the old woman's greatest achievement is her transmission of her imaginative sympathy and insight to 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 a belief and faith based on her own understanding, her own insight. In Kate, she finds a receptive audience, the young girl liking the twilight sadness of the breakfast room and intuitively understanding, almost from the beginning, the details of the Borrowers' lives. 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 else in the novel.
In essence, The Borrowers 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 the narrator's growing insight. As mentioned, a major concern is who earns the right to see the Borrowers. Crampfurl and Mrs. Driver do not, and it is fitting that no one believes the latter when she does. Great-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 retell his story and finish it for him. Their imaginative insight is stronger than Mrs. Driver's eyesight.
Stories Never Really End: Closure and the Necessity of Sequels
If chapters 19 and 20 create an emotionally and thematically satisfying closure to The Borrowers, and if the initial conflict of the Clock family between the need and reluctance to emigrate as a result of Pod's having been seen has been resolved, it must certainly have been apparent to early readers that there was more, "a lot more" (Borrowers, 158), to use Mrs. May's words, to be said about the Borrowers. What were the details of their lives after the escape, and did Arrietty, who had grown up so much in a few weeks, continue to mature? Readers must have expected that implicitly, Mary Norton, like Mrs. May, was making a promise: "I'm going to tell you" (Borrowers, 158). It seems probable that, writing as she was within the Nesbit tradition of several books about the same characters and having created a sequel to The Magic Bed-Knob, Mary Norton was leaving the door open for more by not providing verification for Mrs. May's accounts of the Clocks' arrival at a new home. One of the significant aspects of closure in children's fiction is the central characters' return to their own home or the establishment of a new and better one.17 A sequel could possibly present such closure to the story of the Clock family.
1. Nigel Hand, "Mary Norton and The Borrowers," Children's Literature in Education 7 (March 1972): 38; hereafter cited in text as Hand.
2. Marcus Crouch, "Salute to Children's Literature and Its Creators," in Readings about Children's Literature, ed. Evelyn R. Robinson (New York: David McKay, 1966), 185.
3. Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin, "Deep Structures of Fantasy in Modern British Children's Books," The Lion and the Unicorn 10 (1986): 61; hereafter cited in text as Rustin and Rustin.
4. Lois Kuznets, "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, vol. 1, ed. Perry Nodelman (West Lafayette, Ind.: ChLA Publishers, 1985): 202; hereafter cited in text as Kuznets 1985a.
5. Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 39 ff.; hereafter cited in text as Pratt 1981.
6. Barbara Hardy, Tellers and Listeners: The Narrative Imagination (London: Athlone Press, 1975); hereafter cited in text as Hardy.
7. Inger Christensen, The Meaning of Metafiction (Bergen: Universitets Forlaget, 1981), 11; hereafter cited in text as Christensen.
8. Mary Norton, The Borrowers (London: J. M. Dent, 1952), 7; hereafter cited in text as Borrowers English edition 1952.
9. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Modern Library, 1951), 11. Anita Moss quotes this passage in "Varieties of Children's Metafiction" (Studies in the Literary Imagination 18 [Fall 1985]: 79), although she does not relate it to The Borrowers.
10. Carol Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, 2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 1.
11. See, for example, Cheryl B. Torsney, "The Critical Quilt: Alternative Authority in Feminist Criticism," in Contemporary Literary Theory, ed. G. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), 180-99.
12. In "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: The Borrowers" (Language Arts 53 [May 1976]; 538-44), I have discussed this activity in detail. Lois Kuznets has also noted the symbolic significance in "Permutations of Frame in Mary Norton's ‘Borrowers’ Series," Studies in the Literary Imagination 18 (Fall 1985): 70; hereafter cited in text as Kuznets 1985b.
15. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, eds., Faulkner at the University (New York: Vintage, 1965), 273-74.
16. Anne Commire, ed., "Mary Norton 1903-," in Something about the Author, vol. 18 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980), 239; hereafter cited in text as Commire.
17. Virginia L. Wolf has discussed this aspect of The Borrowers in "From the Myth to the Wake of a Home: Literary Houses," Children's Literature 18 (1990): 53-67.
Noel Perrin (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Perrin, Noel. "Living Dolls II." In A Child's Delight, pp. 29-35. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997.
[In the following essay, Perrin notes how Norton's childhood love of dolls helped inspire the diminutive protagonists of The Borrowers.]
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Chris Hopkins (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Hopkins, Chris. "Arrietty, Homily, Pod: Home, Size, Gender and Relativity in The Borrowers." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25, no. 1 (spring 2000): 21-9.
[In the following essay, Hopkins examines how thematic elements of scale, voice, and sexuality—among other motifs—combine in The Borrowers to form a coherent narrative sequence that is simultaneously threatening and comforting.]
Mary Norton's five Borrowers books for children were written and published between 1952 and 1982, the first four all appearing before 1961. But although they date from the latter half of the twentieth century, they seem to derive many of their central interests from a set of ideas and anxieties that date from the nineteenth century (and that undoubtedly survived into the Edwardian world of Norton's childhood). These ideas—about the masculine and feminine spheres, about domesticity and work, and about living in a world of change—gain prominence particularly because Norton requires us to take the point of view of people who live in a world rendered both strange and familiar by virtue of processes of magnification and miniaturization. Above all, the Borrowers books are about both the pleasures and anxieties of a place called Home. All of these topics—issues of size and viewpoint, home as a place of comfort and potential anxiety, security and change—are, of course, of great moment in children's experience of the world. But the books go further in suggesting that these are matters of enormous concern to adults too, that children and adults are not in fact necessarily in different situations at all. This focus on relativity, on viewpoint, is also connected in complex ways with interest in gendered identities. Both the effects of miniaturization in these resonant narratives and the importance of gender have been discussed in some recent critical accounts of the Borrowers (see Caroline Hunt; Kuznets, "Permutations"; Pace; Stott, Norton), as have ideas of "seeing" (Stott, "Anatomy") and the ambivalent attitude of the stories toward "home" (Wolf). But there is more to say, particularly about the relationship between all these features: between ideas of relativism, the differing ideas about home and "separate spheres" that are central to the sequence, and the classic critical questions about size, gender, and viewpoint in these books. This article will suggest new ways of linking the striking narrative features and themes of the Borrowers sequence together by focusing on ideas of relativity, storytelling, the home, and the development of the sequence as a whole.
The basic narrative of the series is straightforward: it concerns a family of tiny people belonging to a race called Borrowers. The father, mother, and daughter, who have the surname Clock (taken from their original home's entrance passage under the Hall clock), are forced to move from this ancestral home when they are discovered and driven out by the humans who also live in the Big House. Subsequently, they search with much difficulty for a satisfactory new home. We also learn that Borrowers live in odd corners of human houses and survive by borrowing and using any odd scraps that they can find, a practice that explains why humans continually fail to locate small objects such as safety pins and pencil stubs that they know they put away safely.
As Marcus Crouch (Nesbit 140) and Roger Lancelyn Green (274) have noted and Claude Rawson has discussed more fully, an obvious literary source for the Borrowers is Jonathan Swift's account of the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. But in Norton's tales, the little people's concerns and lives are not diminished by their size. On the contrary, much of the time their scale is seen as normal, and the reader is invited to identify with their situation. The centrality of a Borrower-scale viewpoint is acknowledged by the critics who note the sense of reality and seriousness in the stories. Crouch, for instance, finds that "[Norton's] Borrowers are real little people fighting a desperate rearguard action against a society in which they can have little place" (Treasure 115) and adds, "What makes The Borrowers outstanding among fantasies is that Mary Norton knows her own rules…. The harshness in parts of the story, which distressed some readers, comes inevitably from this recognition that an author is responsible for her creation and cannot take short cuts or easy ways out" (Nesbit 140). Margery Fisher observes that the Borrowers "are as real as many characters we or our children will meet in real life, and just as real is the setting of the stories—the dirty world under the floorboards, the damp hedge with its safe corners" (107-8). And Lois Kuznets contends, "The Borrowers books belong clearly to that species of fantasy … that ask[s] the reader to make only one major adjustment in their view of what is possible in the world as we know it and, thereafter, adhere rigidly to commonly accepted laws of reality" ("Permutations" 67).
Norton's own account (written in 1966) of the origins of the Borrowers also constantly stresses the provisional reality of these fictional beings. She explains that as a child, she was, unknown to any adult, very short-sighted, and that as she could not see things that were far away, she hypothesized a world on a much smaller scale: "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? What would one live on? Where make one's home? Which would be one's enemies and which one's friends?" (3). Though the idea of little people just like humans might seem likely to be a sentimental one, Norton emphasizes from the beginning the insecurities and dangers of their lives, and describes her child-self as having seen "through their eyes the great lava-like … lakes of cattle-dung, the pock-like craters in the mud—chasms to them whether wet or dry. It would take them, she thought, almost half an hour of teetering on ridges, helping one another, calling out warnings, holding one another's hands before, exhausted, they reached the dry grass beyond" (4).
But Norton's account also suggests that there is a gendered aspect to the Borrowers' origins.1 Due to her short-sightedness, she writes, "detailed panorama of lake and mountain, the just-glimpsed boat on a far horizon … the swift recognition of a rare bird on the wing were not for her" (3). These long-distance and notably open-air visions belong to her brothers, who shout to her, "Oh come on … for goodness' sakes … we'll never get there" (3). Though her myopia accidentally differentiates her from her brothers, the difference in scale of vision that it produces seems to become a defining feature of feminine and masculine experience in the course of the passage. Thus when she and her brothers are out walking, they have very different visions of a buzzard. Her brothers can call out, "Look, there's a buzzard! There! On that post!" But "it wasn't a buzzard to her: there was a post (or something like a post) slightly thickened at the top" (4). When she imagines the Borrowers' vision of the buzzard, it is not like her own myopic one, but nevertheless she stresses the difference of their viewpoint from the masculine one: "suppose one of these creatures … called out as her brother had just done, ‘Look, there's a buzzard!’ What a different intonation in the voice and a different implication in the fact" (4). The brothers are presented as free (to a degree), but also as insensitive to positions other than their own, literal-minded rather than imaginative, factual rather than emotional. Their vision is envied, but is not entirely positive, and the short-sightedness that is its opposite is not wholly negative: it suggests possibilities of empathy and ways of seeing beyond the merely factual.
It is notable that in this account the brothers do not share in their sister's imaginings. Her fantasy remains completely private, and they are never aware of its existence. They also have no share in another experience that Norton sees as formative, the childhood illnesses that confine her to a sickroom and create the need for her to develop her small people further as a response to boredom. Presumably her brothers had measles and the like, but they do not figure in this scene, which seems therefore to define such confinement as a feminine experience, or even as a metaphor for a girl's experience of domesticity. It is notable that the prototype Borrowers of the sickroom borrow most of their materials from the work basket ("threads and wools for climbing ropes, needles and pins for alpenstocks" ), but use them for activities that are dangerous and "masculine" given their scale: "mountain-climbing among the bedroom furniture … commando-like assault courses."2
This reading of the passage becomes particularly productive given that each of the Borrowers books has a young female Borrower (with no brothers) as its central consciousness. The gender roles and division of labor in the Clock family are much like the nineteenth-century ideal that John Ruskin described in Sesame and Lilies (1865). Pod, the father, goes out to work; the entrance under the clock is "Pod's hole—the keep of his fortress; the entrance to his home" (15). The mother, Homily (or is it Home-ily? or both?), stays at home, which she never leaves until the family is forced out, and is exceptionally house-proud. As Jon Stott says of their child, Arrietty, "if she is house-proud, it is because being housebound, she depends on her home for a basic sense of self-worth and accomplishment" (Norton 43). Arrietty likewise does not go out from under the floor, and is meant to help her mother. But she often feels confined by their life under the kitchen floor, as Humphrey Carpenter points out (and slightly overstates): "Childhood is equated not with a Golden Age of special perceptions and visions, but with a state of imprisonment…. The Borrowers' domain beneath the floorboards … is characterised as above all stuffy, poky and limiting … it provides not womblike security but a choking constriction" (217).3 Thus, for instance, the following passage starts in the voice of an impersonal narrator, but it soon moves into Arrietty's mind to give us her sense of confinement:
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. His wife and child led more sheltered lives…. But there was a grating in the brick wall of the house … through which Arrietty could see the garden…. and where birds came, and pecked and flirted and sometimes fought. "The hours you waste on them birds," Homily would say, "and when there's a little job to be done you can never find the time. I was brought up in a house … where there wasn't no grating, and we were all the happier for it. Now go off and get me the potato."
Arrietty's mother clearly sees her daughter's interest in the outside world as interfering with her domestic role. Indeed, Arrietty herself shares this view, since she often performs domestic tasks badly when called away from the grating; in this case she rolls a whole potato from the storeroom and nearly knocks Homily into the soup.
Arrietty's limited view through the grating is another version of Norton's limited vision (and the minimal detail visible to her is again a source of both frustration and pleasure), but it can also be compared to nineteenth-century images of women who are confined in a domestic space and have only a limited view of the outside. The most obvious example is Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" (1831-32) and the numerous paintings based on it, of which Holman Hunt's and John Waterhouse's are the most famous.4 And indeed, like the Lady of Shalott, Arrietty has a kind of curse hanging over her head in the shape of the awful example of another Borrower daughter, Eggletina. Just as the Lady's curse is mysterious, so is Eggletina's fate. Eggletina seems to be invoked whenever Arrietty desires something she is not allowed, but there is no clear account given of what happened to her. Thus when "in vain Arrietty had begged for a little mouse of her own, a little blind mouse to bring up by hand like Eggletina had had," she is told, "And look what happened to Eggletina!" (15). We, and Arrietty, eventually learn that Eggletina went out into the Big House and was killed by a cat, brought to the house after her father, Hendreary, had been seen by a human.
Apart from her glimpses of the world through the grating, Arrietty's only escape from under the kitchen floor is via books. Neither Pod nor Homily can read or write, but Arrietty teaches herself from their wallpaper (made out of some borrowed letters) and from the five "Tom Thumb" edition books that she owns. In one of these, Tom Thumb's Diary and Proverb Book, Arrietty keeps a diary, and thus, like many nineteenth-century women, has some limited private (if metaphorical) space in which to express herself. This is an allowed escape, because Homily clearly regards literacy as a feminine and genteel skill, and because she has no actual knowledge of what her daughter is expressing. (Margaret and Michael Rustin see Arrietty's literacy as a reference to post-1945 educational improvement , but it seems just as likely to arise from nineteenth-century ideas about literacy, self-improvement, and, indeed, femininity.) Even so, Homily often interrupts Arrietty's writing in order to set her a domestic task. Arrietty's diary certainly sometimes records forbidden experiences, such as her first meeting with the boy, and thus gives her some ability to order and preserve her own private thoughts; nevertheless, interruptions to diary writing apart, there are hints that writing only provides so much security or comfort.
The diary, of course, also offers glimpses of the outside through reading. In her interleaved volume, Arrietty reads a proverb a day because she "sometimes" finds them comforting (18); each proverb is accompanied by the record of some historical event. Often there is a disquieting lack of consistency between proverb and recorded event. The first example quoted is "You may go farther and fare worse," which is coupled with "Order of the Garter, instituted 1348." The proverb may refer to Arrietty's as yet unexpressed wish to go outside, and can be seen as a potential warning. The Order of the Garter seems irrelevant (unless it implies that without adventure there is no reward), which may be the point: the text has only negative guidance to offer Arrietty. In fact, though Arrietty refers to the book's potential for comfort, and though she quotes comforting proverbs to her parents, she often does not see potential ironies or ambiguities in the relation of phrases; for example, in the second book, The Borrowers Afield (1955), "Earth is the Best Shelter" and "Disastrous Earthquake at Charleston, U.S., 1866" passes without apparent comment though it is relevant to their homeless state. Writing, like everything else in the Borrowers' world, does not guarantee freedom or stability, though it offers much.5
Arrietty's situation is not, however, entirely static. Critics have noted the text's interest in Arrietty's growth; see, for instance, the work of Colin Field (4-6), Patricia Pace (282-83), Stott (Norton 89ff.), and Carpenter—though the latter again oversimplifies the narrative when he asserts that it is "an account of a child rejecting parental protection and asserting her independence" (217). Kuznets's judgment seems more accurate when she says that "Arrietty's striving for some independence is balanced against her parents' caution rather evenly" ("Permutations" 71). The obvious development for Arrietty would traditionally be marriage, in that this fate would fulfill the domestic role for which Homily attempts to train her. Romance, though, does not seem to be a possibility: she is not yet old enough, and there are no other Borrowers living in the house. This isolation is what leads Arrietty to protest explicitly and rather desperately against their life (though in terms of loneliness rather than in terms of marriage):
I know we've managed to stay when all the others have gone. But what has it done for us in the end? I don't think it's so clever to live on alone, for ever and ever, in a great, big, half-empty house, under the floor, with no one to talk to, no one to play with, nothing to see but dust and passages … Eggletina had a tame mouse; Eggletina had yellow boots with jet buttons, and Eggletina did get out—just once!
It is then decided (unexpectedly by Homily, who seems to feel that otherwise Arrietty's frustrations will precipitate some worse crisis) that Arrietty is to go borrowing, even though Pod at first protests that he "never heard of no girl going borrowing" (39).
Arrietty is thus allowed some access to the masculine sphere of work outside the home, although ironically, even the male Borrowers do, of course, work in the home. It is clear that mere entry into this "outside" world is dangerous. But additionally there seems to be the suggestion of sexual danger for a female who goes out into the world, an argument that for some Victorian moralists precluded the possibility of women working. The mystery surrounding Eggletina may have a sexual dimension; her fate is always talked about as if it were worse than death. Her parents, thinks Pod, made a mistake by not telling her the truth: "they hadn't told her, you see. That's where they went wrong. They tried to make her believe there wasn't nothing but was under the floor" (26). It may be that the cat that gets Eggletina has a symbolic sexual resonance: she is killed (apparently) by her own sexual desire or by a predatory male. In fact we eventually learn in the third book that Arrietty's cousin has not been killed by the cat, although she has been deeply traumatized and seems incapable of speech. Sexuality may also have a bearing on Eggletina's and Arrietty's wish to rear a baby mouse, a sign of their awakening desire to love and/or mother.
The sexual nature of the outside is further stressed by the meeting between Arrietty and a being whom Homily and Pod have refused to name in front of her (they refer to it as "a something you've never heard of" [3-7]). This is the human Boy, with whom Arrietty has a long conversation on her first borrowing trip. That the encounter is erotic and amatory seems clear from the description of how Arrietty reads to him: "Sometimes, as she grew bolder, she would lean against his shoulder. He was very still while she read to him and always grateful. What worlds they would explore together—strange worlds to Arrietty" (87). Her encounters with the Boy also address all her conscious desires for liberty: he provides companionship, is met outside in the garden, and is interested in books and knowledge. His size is an indicator of his ability to be a threat (and Pod maintains the ancient Borrower wisdom that Boys are the most dangerous of all humans), but he turns out not to be a danger, or at least he does not intend danger. Though bigger than the Borrowers, he also has an affinity to them, as a child subject to the power of adults.
The relativity of size is not only the principal device of the Borrowers narratives, but also a major thematic concern. The humans in the stories have no more stable a life than the Borrowers who depend on them. Their lives as witnessed by the Borrowers are full of illness, old age, house-moving, loneliness, and sudden death. If the Borrowers work in a world that is paradoxically both familiar and terrifying, so too do all humans. Those who work in the houses inhabited by Borrowers are as subject to forces beyond their control as the Borrowers themselves. Such is the case of the maid Rosa Pickhatchet, who having been terrified by seeing a Borrower, not only hands in her notice, but is later suspected of the theft of small items that have disappeared. Tom Goodenough seems likely to have to move out of his lifelong home because his landlord has died and left the property to someone else. In this sense all humans can be made small, can be treated as children, can be gendered "feminine," can be made homeless, do need homes. Indeed, the very possibility of imaginative engagement with the Borrowers suggests that we are not locked into a stable world of absolute positions. As Caroline Hunt says, "although the Borrowers are understandably viewed by full-sized adults in the books as vermin to be exterminated, readers empathize with their fear of being seen and with the constant threat that hangs over them" (123). The situation of the Borrowers is, in fact, familiar to both children and adults.
Just as home in general can provide both security and constriction for humans and Borrowers alike, so different kinds of home offer highly complex satisfactions and threats. There is no doubt that the series suggests the high value of and vital need for home, but it is interesting to see how attitudes toward home and beliefs about what kind of home is desirable develop over the course of the five novels. In the first novel, The Borrowers, it is clear that Arrietty is impatient with Homily's credo that home, as the feminine sphere, is sufficient unto itself; the child is prepared to exchange comfort for adventure (although it becomes apparent that she does not always appreciate the awfulness of the dangers she enters into). Once the Clocks have lost their home, the remainder of the series explores the question of what kind of new home they should—or can—find.
Indeed, this question becomes the organizing principle for all the stories, although many critics have doubted that there is any real logic to the development of the sequence. Thus Crouch comments that the first book was "so vastly successful that the writer had to go on with a string of sequels, following the Borrowers into new outdoor adventures … but the original book … is perfect and needs no appendages" (Nesbit Tradition 141). Caroline Hunt does not agree that the sequels are of lesser quality, but sees each as simply reproducing the appeal and concerns of the first book: "yet each plot holds to the charming and rejects real development" (127). Kuznets, commenting that there has been little critical work done on reading series or sequences, suggests that there is a development through the sequence, linked to narrative devices, but that this development does not arise from a consistent internal logic. Instead of betokening "an organic unity … these rhetorical changes are connected with a deepening commitment on Mary Norton's part to the notion of making her Borrower characters independent of all human beings" ("Permutations" 67). Kuznets's line of inquiry is convincing, but it could also be argued that the development is generated internally and that the Borrowers themselves are quite aware that they are exploring various ways of living with humans. Thus the Clocks' search for a home becomes both an exploration of what home can mean and, I would contend, the basis of a strong internal logic. Stott recognizes that it is completely logical for the sequence to continue until closed by the security of an enduring home (Norton 67ff.). But one can explore the nature of this continuation further by considering the variety of homes the Clock family tries to inhabit, and also the sequence's complex handling of questions about whether any home can provide absolute comfort and closure. The exploration of different homes and their various problems is, in fact, systematic, as is the connection between this quest and the thematization of relativism in the stories' concerns and techniques.
The Borrowers Afield explores the pleasures and the dangers of the notion of a return to a natural home. Such a home offers Arrietty everything she has wanted:
"This," Arrietty thought, "is what I have longed for; what I have imagined; what I knew existed—what I knew we'd have …"
She saw in the distance the lonely group of trees: they still seemed to float on a grassy ocean. She thought of her mother's fears of open spaces. "But I could cross this field," she thought, "I could go anywhere…." Was this perhaps what Eggletina had thought? … Did enterprise always meet with disaster? Was it really better, as her parents had taught her, to live in secret darkness underneath the floor?
For Arrietty this outside world is associated with space, freedom, imagination and new possibilities. Moreover, she sees it specifically as releasing her from the imposed identities of their old confined home. Congratulating herself on her ability to climb a hedge, she thinks, "It's heredity … just because I was a girl, and not allowed to go borrowing, it doesn't mean I haven't got the gift" (156). The use of tense is significant here: "just because I was a girl" implies that she is released from that role in this new world.
There are, though, things she does not see, and things that make this natural world a less natural home. Unlike Arrietty, Pod notices "a sparrow-hawk hung motionless in the clear sky" (159). While picking nuts Homily and Arrietty come to "a place where some beetles were eating a long-dead mole. ‘Don't look,’ said Homily, quickening her step and averting her eyes, as though it were a street accident" (166). Though the "street accident" comparison is partly a comically inappropriate one (an example of Homily's "gentility," as well as an identification on her part with city experience, even though street accidents are not part of her experience of "the city," which for her has been a house in the country), it is also apt in another way. Being preyed upon and eaten, being run over, are possibilities common to city and country, shared by all those who move outside the security of the home.
Moreover, there is a darker side to the wide open spaces of Arrietty's imagination: if the Clocks are not so confined within their home, neither are intruders so effectively excluded from it. Moths, worms, centipedes, mice, and foxes are not just Homily's pessimistic imaginings, but actual and sudden intruders into scenes of domestic harmony. The moth, for example, flies into the boot where they are temporarily living, while they are sitting round a candle-end drinking tea. When Pod's half-scissor and hatpin, his most useful tools, disappear from their hooks in the boot, he observes that whoever took them is "armed," while they are left weaponless (181). Thinking further on this, Pod concludes that the thief must be a Borrower, as an animal could not unlace the boot and a human would just kick it over. This thought brings to mind not only a new set of dangers, but also the possibility that the Clocks have en- tered a world where the fundamental rules of civilized behavior no longer operate. For it is an absolute rule that a Borrower never takes from another Borrower. Such an action would be theft, not borrowing, and a crime seen as undermining the very nature of Borrower life. Furthermore, Pod clearly thinks that this unknown Borrower may attack them, so that the relation in his mind of the crime of theft to that of murder is evident. The nature of home as a place where safe boundaries can be established is here under threat. In fact, the tools have been "borrowed" in a sense not usually used by Borrowers, in that they are returned (though that may not have been the original intention). The unknown Borrower is called Spiller, and he is totally at home in the field, but is not altogether a source of comfort.
Arrietty meets him first (just as she met the Boy earlier):
Staring she saw, like a bunch of budding twigs, the shape of a browning hand…. "Who are you?" she asked.
"Spiller," he said …
"You're filthy," remarked Arrietty disgustedly…
"Maybe," he said.
"Where do you live?"
His dark eyes became sly and amused. "Here and there," he said, watching her closely.
"How old are you?"
"I don't know," he said.
"Are you a boy or a grown-up?"
"I don't know," he said.
"Don't you ever wash?"
"No," he said.
If this natural home is one where Borrowers can be free, it is also one where identity is threateningly fluid and undefined. Spiller may or may not actually know the answers to Arrietty's questions, but even if he does, he knows that it is dangerous to give definite answers. The corollary of freedom seems to be the motto, "Trust no one."
Spiller's life itself is clearly seen as one of an unparalleled freedom, but so "other" from orthodox Borrower life as to be an alternative that even Arrietty cannot easily desire. Desire is, indeed, the appropriate word, since Spiller, like the Boy in the first Borrowers book, is a (potentially) sexual and romantic figure for Arrietty. Desire is essentially linked to notions of the home in the Borrowers books, because the Borrower home, like the theoretical Victorian home, is a haven from sexual as well as other dangers. To be inside the home is to be in a safe form of relationship to known people; to be outside the home is to expose oneself to unknown and unregulated relation. This anarchy, of course, is not always experienced negatively: for Arrietty part of the pleasure of being outside is undoubtedly sexual, although it is suggestive how disturbed she and her mother are by Spiller's dirtiness. Moreover, the question of what the future holds for Arrietty and even for the race of Borrowers is an issue that her parents often raise. If she is safe at home with them now (not that she is, in fact), she will not always be: she needs to have a future relationship of her own to ensure the continuation of her safety and comfort. Her quest for adventure is itself perhaps motivated, if unconsciously, by such needs. Thus while in some ways she is rebelling against the orthodoxies of Homily's sense of home, she is, in another way, perhaps seeking them for herself.
Spiller's potential as a sexual partner is sustained throughout the remainder of the series, but it is a partnership that is never fulfilled. To be sure, he acts the part of romantic hero with great success on a number of occasions. Risking his own life, he saves Arrietty from the gypsies' dog, and later he enables the Clocks to escape from Tom's deserted cottage, an act that surely qualifies him as a suitable son-in-law from Arrietty's parents' point of view. The problem with Spiller, though, is exactly that of his being outside a conventional home: the attractions are also part of a danger. Spiller is everything that a male Borrower should be, independent, inventive, intrepid, and difficult to see. But unlike most Borrowers, he has no social instinct at all, no need for a home in the ordinary sense. His ability to disappear, as well as his tendency to do so without warning, is often remarked. He returns Pod's hatpin into his hand without Pod even knowing that Spiller is there beside him: "a shadowy third shared their dim-lit cavern, a dun-coloured creature of invisible stillness" (200). Excellent and useful qualities as these are, they in the end make Spiller an impossible partner for Arrietty, and an impossible model for a Borrower's life. For Spiller himself is never there—never in any specific place for long enough to be apprehended: he is invisible not just to humans, but to other Borrowers and, in the end, perhaps even to himself. As Stott observes, "Spiller has no tradition within which to de- fine himself" (Norton 79). Thus while he seems to reciprocate Arrietty's feelings for him, he is unable to express them and usually disappears halfway through conversations with her.
This model of masculinity and this model of a home outside home seem to preclude social life of any kind. Spiller is so sexual a figure that he cannot engage in sexual relations; he is complete unto himself and needs no relationship to construct an image of himself, no established space where he can be safe and comfortable. It is interesting that Arrietty's Uncle Hendreary compares Spiller to that other seeker of freedom, Eggletina. She, like Spiller, is a notable figure of absence as well as freedom: she never speaks and never interacts with other Borrowers. Though being "afield" is a positive experience for Arrietty (and even for Homily, who develops unexpected qualities), it is finally an experience that she wishes to be only a transitional one. After the initial pleasures of freedom, Arrietty, like her parents, wants to find a more permanent home. This desire is never simply fulfilled, however. Crouch claims a final arrival for Arrietty at the traditional narrative goal of satisfied love and security in the person of Spiller: "no one would grudge Arrietty's hard-won bliss with the virile and resourceful Spiller" (Nesbit Tradition 141). He is, however, mistaken, both literally and metaphorically. Spiller is never still for long enough to be grasped so completely, and Arrietty's attitude toward him is not so straightforward. When the Clocks do settle into a final home in the last book, The Borrowers Avenged (1971), Spiller's romantic lead is challenged by another kind of masculinity—that of the lame artist Borrower, Peagreen. The latter's lameness notably differentiates him from Spiller, the active creature of open spaces, while his interest in books and knowledge aligns him with the human Boy of the first book. Spiller and Peagreen can be seen as matching Arrietty's two means of access to freedom—that of literal escape and that of escape through the imagination.
It is true that Norton herself gives authorial backing to Spiller as Arrietty's destined partner in the epilogue to The Borrowers Aloft (1961), which comments that "she will marry Spiller, of course." But this ending is not available in the narrative sequence itself, in which neither Peagreen nor Spiller is definitively paired off with Arrietty. Peagreen ends the saga by questioning whether anyone is ever in a final state of being "safe": "Are we? Ever?" (699-700). Stott argues that a conversation between Peagreen and Arrietty about Spiller suggests both Peagreen's role as friend and Arrietty's "public declaration of love" for Spiller (Norton 105). But it seems significant that whatever the intention of the author, the narrative is not carried through to this marriage-plot closure. The sequence ends not with resolution, but with a characteristic question about the relativism and provisionality of all modes of modern life. It could be said that the sequence is organized through a series of what appear to be closures that do not endure, homes that only temporarily house.
It is a mark of a shift in Arrietty's attitudes—or rather a sign of the constant importance of home despite her desire for other experience—that when the Clocks and the Hendrearys are all forced to move (in The Borrowers Afloat ), she finds herself fascinated by the Borrower myth, which turns out to be a fact up to a point, of a place called Little Fordham:
This place of recent years had become a kind of legend to Borrowers … Little Fordham was a complete model village…. It was inhabited, or so they had heard, by a race of plaster figures, Borrower size, who stood about in frozen positions; or who, wooden-faced and hopeless, rode interminably in trains….
But what fascinated them most about the place was the plethora of empty houses—houses to suit every taste and size of family: detached, semidetached, stuck together in a row, or standing comfortably each in its separate garden—houses which were solidly built and solidly roofed, set firmly in the ground and which no human being, however curious, could carelessly wrench open—as they could with dolls' houses—and poke about inside. In fact, as Arrietty had heard, doors and windows were one with the structure—there were no kind of openings at all.
Instead of frustration at being confined in a home, there is here a pleasure in security. Even the lack of opening doors and windows is seen as an advantage (the Borrowers, Arrietty thinks, can make their own hidden entrances). But there are a few warning signs; the mock Borrowers who ride hopelessly and endlessly in trains sound a little ominous.
In due course, Spiller takes the Clocks to Little Fordham. It affords many pleasures to the family, but it is not the ideal home it at first appears. There is an external danger from a rival and ruthlessly commercial model village owner, Mr. Platter, who sees the Borrowers and wants to install them in his village, regarding them as the biggest (smallest?) possible attraction. His plans for them seem particularly significant. He builds them a house with a glass wall:
One side of their cage-house, they learned, was to be made of thick plate glass, exposing their home-life to view…. The furniture was to be fixed to the floor and set in such a way that there should be nothing behind which they might hide….
Every conversation overheard brought day by day an increasing awareness of their fate: to live out the rest of their lives under a barrage of human eyes—a constant, unremitting state of being "seen." Flesh and blood could not stand it, he [Pod] thought; they would shrivel up under these stares—that's what would happen—they would waste away and die. And people would watch them even on their deathbeds—they would watch, with necks craned and shoulders jostling—while Pod stroked the dying Homily's brow or Homily stroked the dying Pod's.
This projected "home" seems to combine the worst features of being without a home and of being confined within one. Its inhabitants would be perpetually visible, yet unable to move or hide. Even the only possible rejection of this state—death—would become a part of the spectacle as the most private experiences became a kind of theater. This image is undoubtedly partly one of a modernity in which home in the Borrowers' sense ceases to exist, of the home as a space that cannot at all exclude the public world from its boundaries. Arrietty's quest for escape from the "Victorian" home she grows up in may have acquired a certain transforming nostalgia by the last book of the series.
Little Fordham itself may also stand for some aspects of modern life, if in a less stark way. For its perfection (its very urbanity) does not seem to constitute the perfect home. While the Clocks are held in captivity by Mr. Platter, their house is repaired in the most luxurious detail by Mr. Pott. But this renovation does not lead to contentment:
Arrietty sat by the fireless grate in the far too tidy room…. Home? Was it really "home"? … It lacked something—it was, perhaps, too ordered, too perfect and in some way confined. Improvisation is the breath of life to Borrowers, and here there was nothing they had striven for, planned or invented: all had been "given," arranged by a kind but alien taste.
This passage explores in miniature the notion that the series as a whole explores in detail: what a home is, and what dangers constantly threaten it. Though these dangers are often external, there is also an internal threat of too much security, of stagnation. The Borrowers' adventures demonstrate that home can never be taken for granted, and that if it can its very value begins to disappear. The books never simply idealize home (the homes of the Borrowers include irritation and dissent), but they nevertheless celebrate the value and the need for security and comfort. The notion of a miniature race of beings inside human homes itself makes home a more exciting place, though also a less safe one. A human's home does not officially include the Borrowers, but neither can it wholly exclude them. Despite the high worth that both humans and Borrowers put on their homes, they constantly invade each other's spaces. Caroline Hunt's sense that "coziness" and "nostalgia" characterize the texts and world of the Borrowers does not seem entirely true. Though the books offer a sense of the pleasures of stability, they also suggest its discontents and the difficulty—and undesirability—of maintaining any kind of simple and absolute stability. In the introduction to her article, Hunt cites Susan Stewart's argument that the miniature is "a metaphor for the interior space and time of the bourgeois subject" (115). Privacy and autonomy—if these are to be associated with bourgeois subjectivity—are certainly highly valued in these texts, but they certainly do not maintain that the personal sphere is a private place. On the contrary, the narratives suggest that the private and public spheres are in continuous and unstable kinds of contact. The essential definition of a home as a known and secure territory is thus both asserted and continually undermined.
I began this article by arguing for a gendered dimension to the genesis of the Borrowers, and particularly by linking this point to relativity. It seems worth concluding by noting that just as the books do not create home solely as a secure space, neither do they see it as only a feminine concern. In fact, gender itself is not accepted as a simple unchangeable fact. Everyone seems subject to danger and change, and in that sense to "feminization." For if size is seen as relative, so too are the possible and the impossible. The first three books are set within a brief framing narrative in which humans discuss whether such creatures as Borrowers could exist. Peter Hunt is unimpressed by these "increasingly labyrinthine ‘frames,’" which, he sniffs, "have provided critics interested in narrative structure with a good deal of material" but simultaneously leave "the books … encumbered by a very unwieldy framework" (137). The comment about critics presumably refers to Kuznets's work on "permutations of frame." But Hunt misses the essential relation between these framing discussions and a central concern of the series, and even Kuznets sees the frames as less central than my reading suggests. The framing discussions about the actuality of the Borrowers never come to definite conclusions, but the narratives they tell seem to suggest that we can never be certain of our own size or position. Viewing him from a rooftop, the Clocks note that a man on a bicycle "looked quite ordinary—almost like a Borrower from here" (478).
Stories, reading, fictions, imagination are highly valued in the Borrowers books for these reasons. Relativity is a dangerous fact of life that we all experience and need to understand; fiction gives us ways of understanding different viewpoints and, indeed, can enable us to move between them. As Stott so acutely suggests, there is a strong connection between telling stories and being a Borrower: "Mrs. May is like the Borrowers she describes, creatively adapting old materials to make something new and purposeful" (Norton 55). Equally, all readers are Borrowers, since they make sense of the world through weaving together what they can: "Readers must become Borrowers themselves, taking the material of the novel to create a new work meaningful to themselves" (Norton 60). Story-telling, like gender and size, is relative and provisional; it can entrap or liberate. As Norton argued in her account of the Borrowers, in the Europe of the 1940s "there were human men and women … being forced to live … the kind of lives a child had once envisaged for a race of mythical creatures" (6; see also Kuznets, "Diaspora"). So, too, Home is many things: a place of safety and a place of danger, a place of rest and the place where you work, a place that gives your life stability, a place that can never be entirely relied upon, a place that can develop. As Pod says, danger is everywhere, "Before and Behind, Above and Below" (159). On the other hand, if the impossible and possible are not clearly fixed, and if size is always relative, then there is also always the possibility, as Arrietty finds, of some degree of change and some degree of comfort. Home—and the gender roles that it signifies—is both inside and outside the public sphere, partly private, partly not, and this ambiguity is a source of anxiety, but also of a comfort that is nevertheless far from static, assured, or dull.
1. Patricia Pace also suggests this point (283-84), basing her discussion on Norton's different and less explicit account in Something about the Author (237), and on her own psychoanalytic approach to the miniature. In the passage that I have quoted, however, gender is explicitly associated with the origin story in a more detailed way.
2. Brian Doyle cites an origin story located in a more traditionally feminine sphere: "Mrs Norton has said that the original idea … came from her own childhood when she used to play out elaborate games with small highly painted china dolls" (211). This account is also that given in Something about the Author (237) and cited by Lois Kuznets in "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature" (202). Norton makes no reference to dolls in her other account of the Borrowers' origins, the 1966 letter that forms the Introduction to The Complete Borrowers.
3. Stott's related point seems more carefully weighted: "at the center is the home, a domestic place of comfort and security. Yet it is also a prison" (Norton 40).
4. Other examples can be found in paintings such as Hunt's The Awakening Conscience or D. G. Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini.
5. Kuznets suggests that the Borrowers' narrative frames show the texts' interest in "the notion of art—here storytelling—as the ultimate survival mechanism" ("Permutations" 72).
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985.
Crouch, Marcus. Treasure Seekers and Borrowers: Children's Books in Britain 1900-1960. London: Library Association, 1962.
———. The Nesbit Tradition: The Children's Novel in England 1945-70. London: Benn, 1972.
Doyle, Brian, ed. The Who's Who of Children's Literature. London: Evelyn, 1968.
Field, Colin. "Writers for Children: 2—Mary Norton." The School Librarian 11.5 (5 July 1963): 464-69.
Fisher, Margery. Intent upon Reading: A Critical Appraisal of Modern Fiction for Children. Leicester: Brockhampton, 1964.
Green, Roger Lancelyn. Tellers of Tales: Children's Books and Their Authors from 1800 to 1968. London: Kaye and Ward, 1953.
Hunt, Caroline C. "Dwarf, Small World, Shrinking Child: Three Versions of Miniature." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 115-36.
Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
Kuznets, Lois. "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature." Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette, IN: Children's Literature Association, 1985. 198-203.
———. "Permutations of Frame in Mary Norton's ‘Borrowers’ Series." Studies in the Literary Imagination 18:2 (Fall 1985): 65-78.
Norton, Mary. The Complete Borrowers. Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1992.
Pace, Patricia. "The Body in Writing: Miniatures in Mary Norton's Borrowers." Text and Performance Quarterly 11:4 (Oct 1991): 279-90.
Rawson, Claude. "Little People." London Review of Books 15 September 1983: 20-21.
Rustin, Margaret, and Michael Rustin. "Deep Structures of Fantasy in Modern British Children's Books." The Lion and the Unicorn 10 (1986): 60-82.
Stott, Jon C. Mary Norton. New York: Twayne, 1994.
———. "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: The Borrowers." Language Arts 55 (May 1976): 538-44.
Wolf, Virginia L. "From the Myth to the Wake of Home: Literary Houses." Children's Literature 18 (1990): 53-67.
Andrew O'Malley (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: O'Malley, Andrew. "Mary Norton's ‘Borrowers’ Series and the Myth of the Paternalist Past." Children's Literature 31 (2003): 71-89.
[In the following essay, O'Malley depicts Norton's "Borrowers" series as espousing a return to the traditionally conservative and class-conscious culture of a bygone England.]
Contemporary reviewers of Mary Norton's "Borrowers" series, published between 1953 and 1982, often expressed the desire to see her work placed alongside the "classics" of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century children's fantasy.1 While evoking the "golden age" is a fairly standard way of praising children's books, it is, in the case of Norton, particularly revealing, as she is an author clearly invested in representing, cherishing, and preserving a certain vision of the past. Many critics, including Lois Kuznets, Caroline Hunt, and Patricia Pace, have remarked on the "conservative hankering after the past" that characterizes Norton's work (Hunt 125). Kuznets attributes her longing for a more ideal past (especially in the last instalment of the series, The Borrowers Avenged ) to disillusionment with contemporary British society:
Norton seems clearly to exhibit disapproval of the welfare state as making life too easy and unchallenging instead of encouraging people to do proverbial things, like pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and taking care of their own.
Such assessments are, I think, correct, and recognition of Norton's political leanings is fairly commonplace.
Norton's conservatism involves, however, quite a complex vision of an ideal past, and amounts to much more than a complaint about the state of modern affairs. Her "Borrowers" novels find their ideals in a conservative fantasy of Britain's preindustrial past, in a society that operated by a gentle paternalism. Held together organically by custom and a traditional, fixed hierarchy, the harmonious model of patrician-plebeian social bonds is supposed to have flourished until the pressures of industrial capitalism caused its unfortunate but inevitable erosion.2 Such a gesture as Norton's toward an idealized feudal past is perhaps best understood using Raymond Williams's concept of a "structure of feeling," which is "not primarily a matter of historical explanation and analysis" (The Country and the City 35). Such portrayals of the past and its inhabitants serve ideological functions. In Norton's nostalgic yearning for a world unspoiled by modernity, in which all know and keep their places, we find a view that peculiarly suits a still dominant construction of childhood. Both childhood and the traditional society of Britain's past are imagined here as ever-waning states of innocence.3
The series follows the adventures of the Clock family, members of a miniaturized humanoid race, who live, mostly undetected, under the floorboards, behind the wainscots, and in any other secret place they can find in human homes and structures. At the end of the first installment, The Borrowers, they are forced to flee their comfortable home under the kitchen of an old manor house because an association with a human boy leads to their detection. The four books that follow (The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged ) detail the Clock family's subsequent wanderings, escapes from greedy and unscrupulous humans who would keep and display them, and attempts to locate a suitable new home. The texts' appeal to children lies in large part, according to Caroline Hunt, "in the completeness of their tiny world," in Norton's carefully detailed construction of a microworld that reflects how children perceive an environment designed for grownups (126). Children can readily identify with the Clock family (their name is taken from the grandfather clock that conceals the entrance to their home) because they too are small and dependent on full-sized people for their survival.
In some ways, this is a difficult assertion to contest; children are indeed defined in large part by their dependence on and difference (not just in size) from adults, and these conditions do, no doubt, afford them perspectives on their material surroundings different from those most adults take for granted. Following Jacqueline Rose's assertion that "the child's own experience of the book … [is] more or less impossible to gauge," I am concerned rather with investigating the ways in which these texts represent class, history, and childhood (9).4
How the tiny protagonists in Norton's texts reflect contemporary Western assumptions about the state of childhood is a subject broached by Perry Nodelman. Remarking that miniaturized figures ("toys, dolls, and other small things") are an important part of the children's literature repertoire, Nodelman suggests some of the ideological motivations at work in such stories as The Borrowers : "books about miniature creatures tend to focus on the ways in which children, in their likeness to toys, are inherently weaker, more prone to give into their weaknesses, more in need of resolve and energy than adults" (153). Norton's representation of her diminutive protagonists certainly reinscribes notions of the child's otherness from the adult. The fact that the borrowers are a distinctly subaltern and separate race, quietly eking out an existence on the castoffs and detritus of the dominant civilization of "human beans" (as they call us), makes further, and parallel, implications about the otherness of the lower classes. That the characters in Norton's series find themselves in a relationship to humans that mirrors the child's dependence on and awe of the adult, implies parallels between a "natural," paternalistic family hierarchy, and an organic and fixed class structure as well.5
Norton's books are peppered with sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious commentary on the degraded state of modern industrial society. Like such conservative thinkers as Edmund Burke and Matthew Arnold before her, she invokes a bygone, traditional way of life and work as a perch "from which industrialism and liberalism [are] to be continually attacked" (Williams, Culture 11). The Borrowers Afield (the second book of the series) opens with Kate's disappointment over the inn in which she and Mrs. May are to stay. She envisions an inn as a symbol of old-fashioned British comfort and hospitality: "it should, of course be on a moor [….] there should be scullions; mine host should be gravy-stained and broad in the beam [….] And there should be a fire—crackling and blazing, laid with an impossible size log" (11; italics in original). The modern inn pales in comparison: "there was […] an elderly waiter, the back part of whose hair did not at all match the front; the fire was not made out of log, but of bored-looking coals tirelessly licked by an abject electric flicker" (12). Modern reality is characterized by falsity and artificiality; gone is the "real" and genuine warmth of Norton's/Kate's fantasized past.
In the fourth book, The Borrowers Aloft, Norton provides a comparison between the two builders of miniature models of the town of Fordham. Mr. Pott, a naïve, endearing pensioner, makes his tiny houses and figurines with immaculate care, all by hand, and using improvised materials, simply for the love of his craft. He is assisted by Miss Menzies (in many ways, a foil for Norton herself), who is also devoted to traditional craft: "[she] designed Christmas cards for a living, wrote children's books, and her hobbies were wood carving, hand weaving, and barbola work. She also believed in fairies" (25). Unbeknownst to Mr. Pott, he has a jealous rival in Mr. Platter, the crass, materialistic, and unscrupulous undertaker and building contractor, who is only interested in the tourist trade a model village can bring him. His models are "whipped up […] in no time at all"—the work is contracted out, using modern materials and manufacturing technologies, and is utterly sterile and charmless (23).
Old Tom Goodenough, who befriended the Clocks as a boy, after their emigration from Great-Aunt Sophy's manor house, continues the story of the Clocks in the second volume of the series. His name has not only an archaic, old-English quality, but also invokes the allegorical label names common to children's literature in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.6 When the reader is introduced to him, Tom is expertly cutting thatch to repair the roof of his cottage; he is the symbolic preservation of both an outdated (but cherished) way of life, and of the childhood memories that allow the story of the Clocks to continue and to be transmitted to another generation.
The Borrowers begins with the elderly Mrs. May instructing the child Kate in the quaintly antiquated craft of quilting. This is a fitting metaphor for the close, personal interactions preindustrial society was supposed to embody; it suggests further the care people invested in their work, and the continuity of tradition over generations. When the girl discovers her crochet hook has gone missing, her older companion suggests the borrowers must have made off with it. Kate asks her to explain, and she is told about the race of tiny people whom Mrs. May's brother discovered when he was a boy at the turn of the century. This narrative frame already removes the story of the borrowers to an earlier time, but Mrs. May goes on to connect them to the further removed "folk" history of England's past: "[e]ach generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden. In the olden days, it seems, and in some parts of England, our ancestors talked quite openly about the ‘little people’" (9).7 Like popular belief in fairies in the modern, industrial age, the borrowers are dying out. The Boy who first encounters Arrietty opines that she is probably amongst the last of her kind: "‘you'll be the very last because you're the youngest. One day … you'll be the only borrower left in the world!’" (87). His assertion upsets Arrietty, of course, but it appears to be true. Norton's short prequel to The Borrowers series, Poor Stainless, provides a glimpse into the vibrant borrower community that lived in Great-Aunt Sophy's house just a generation earlier, when Homily was a girl; now only she, Pod, and Arrietty remain in the house.
The gradual disappearance of the borrowers and their way of life mirrors that of ancient plebeian culture, and the paternalism that was supposed to have sustained it before the onset of the industrial revolution. Laments over this lost or vanishing way of life bear a great deal of resemblance to nostalgic recollections of lost childhood, and often the two impulses occupy the same ideological and textual space. When Wordsworth, for example, mourns the passing of his youth in Book V of The Prelude, he mourns at the same time the disappearance of a simpler, rustic, and pre-industrial mode of being. Folklorists and antiquarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who set about collecting for posterity the traditional oral stories and cultural practices of plebeians, attributed their disappearance to the death of ancient ways in the face of progress, reason, and an inevitable modernity.
As John Mullan and Christopher Reid have suggested: "[p]opular culture becomes of interest [in the eighteenth century] to the educated partly because it reminds them that something has been lost in the desirable progress towards civility" (10). E. P. Thompson has questioned the validity of this perception of loss, suggesting instead that plebeian culture remained vibrant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that the privileged classes merely grew blind to it: "as the plebeian culture became more opaque to gentry inspection, so other customs became less visible" (Customs 6). Norton's "Borrowers" books are, to some extent, motivated by an impulse similar to that of the antiquarians of a century and a half before; she is attempting to make visible a culture that has become invisible, and to preserve an ideal past that is, in her eyes, the victim of progress. Further, like the folklore collected by the Grimms and others, which quickly became a staple of the nursery, Norton fits her version of a simple, plebeian culture to children's consumption by sanitizing it of violence and sexuality and by reducing it. Indeed, a large part of what inspires critics and reviewers to consider the series alongside "classics" of earlier generations is its reinscription of the parallel codes of an essentially harmless, quaint, uncomplicated past plebeian culture, and an adult longing for the imagined simplicity of childhood itself.8
What links children with borrowers—along with physical size, and a close-up perspective of the minutiae often overlooked by adults—is certainly their shared state of dependence on adults/"human beans" for their survival. Borrowers may have been, as Mrs. May observes, "‘touchy and conceited, and thought they owned the world’" (Borrowers 8), or may claim, as Arrietty does, that the greater human world was designed to serve them: "‘[h]uman beans are for borrowers—like bread's for butter’" (Borrowers 84). Such conceits (associated, at least since John Locke, with the child's limited understanding of the physical and social worlds), however, are merely the bravado of underlings who nonetheless understand their true station. Pod, when the Clocks and the Hendrearys are faced with the departure of the humans who keep their current home, confesses the awful truth of the borrowers' absolute dependence to Arrietty:
"Arrietty," said Pod, turning toward her. His face had become very grave. "All we've told you about human beings is true; but what we haven't told you, or haven't stressed enough, is that we, the borrowers, cannot survive without them." He drew a long deep breath. "When they close up a house and go away, it usually means we're done for …"
"No food, no fire, no clothes, no heat, no water …" chanted Homily, almost as though she were quoting.
"Famine …" said Pod.
Miss Menzies, one of the few humans aware of and sympathetic to the borrowers, also recognizes this fact: "‘[t]hey need fuel and shelter and water, and they terribly need human beings. Not that they trust them’" (Aloft 43).
In exchange for the subsistence with which humans graciously yet unwittingly supply borrowers, borrowers fulfill their end of the bargain by remaining mostly invisible and unobtrusive (neither seen nor heard), and by giving their awe and deference to their providers. It is Pod's custom to go, on occasion, to Great-Aunt Sophy's room to pay his respects to the mistress of the house (to whom the whole family always reverentially refer as "Her"). He patiently waits while she sips her Fine Old Madeira and recounts to him stories of her youth (she believes Pod to be a bottle-induced hallucination). Arrietty's constant desire to make contact with and to gain the notice of big people also speaks to this obligation and desire to please her superiors:
It was reckless and stupid, no doubt, but also strangely thrilling to address and be answered by a creature of so vast a size, who yet could seem so gentle; to see the giant eyes light up and the great mouth softly smile. Once you had done it and no dreadful disaster had followed, you were tempted to try it again.
This is, in essence, the exchange that confirmed the plebeian-patrician bond in conservative historical accounts of preindustrial British society. All resources and wealth flow forth from the upper classes, who expect in return only the reverence, gratitude, and invisibility of those whom they sustain.
Beyond their dependence on and submission to their superiors in size, the Clocks are clearly marked both in physical appearance and cultural practice as members of an old-fashioned English lower class. Beth and Joe Krush's illustrations show Pod in the carefully patched trousers and bowler hat of the respectable laborer of an earlier time. His and Homily's speech betrays a limited formal education; ungrammatical structures and dropped aitches abound. The parents have the concerns that at one time would have been associated with those of the respectable poor trying to secure a better life for their children. They are very concerned that their daughter Arrietty reap the benefits of an education they themselves did not enjoy: "Homily liked her to write; Homily encouraged any form of culture. Homily herself, poor ignorant creature, could not even say the alphabet" (Borrowers 19). The first illustration of the Clocks, in the first book of the series, depicts them as the very model of the industrious, laboring family unit. It is a tableau of ideal plebeian domesticity seen in children's literature since the late eighteenth century, and promoted in the Cheap Repository Tracts of such class reformers as Hannah More: mother sits at her sewing, daughter dutifully reads her book, and father works busily at his antiquated trade of cobbler.9
There is, of course, a lengthy discursive history of configuring common people as physically smaller, less significant, and less visible than members of the more privileged ranks of society, and this history makes Norton's characterization of the borrowers seem quite natural. John Brand, the noted antiquarian and documenter of British plebeian customs in the late eighteenth century, sought to render visible the mysterious and hidden traditions of the common people: "[n]othing can be foreign to our inquiry, much less beneath our notice, that concerns the smallest of the vulgar; of those little ones who occupy the lowest place, though by no means of the least importance, in the practical arrangement of human beings" (I:xviii). The 1836 Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain uses a spatial metaphor that could easily be applied to the Clocks' position in Great-Aunt Sophy's manor house to describe the subordinate nature of the Irish diasporic underclass: "[t]he Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilized population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilized community" (cited in Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class 476).
No great imaginative leap is required to go from configuring the poor as diminutive versions of their social betters to equating them with children. Brand, for example, makes the connection quite clear, pointing out how plebeians, like children, need rational guidance to be drawn out of their fears and superstitions: "[f]or men, who ‘are but children of a larger growth,’ are not to be weaned; and the reformation both of manners and religion is always most surely established when effected by slow degrees, and, as it were, imperceptible gradations" (I:ix). Brand later likens the role of state legislators seeking to suppress the more vicious plebeian traditions and feasts to that of the guardians of the young: "as careful mothers and nurses … they get their children to part with knives … [and] let them play with rattles" (I:xi). Left without strict supervision, plebeians (and their potentially unruly culture), like children, are a potential danger to themselves and others: it is, after all, not only the children who risk getting cut.
I recognize that relying so heavily on comparisons of Norton's novels to representations used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries may seem somewhat anachronistic, considering the Edwardian dress of the characters and setting of the story, and the mid-to-late-twentieth-century publication dates of the texts. Despite the narrative's historical markers, the Clocks are clearly not a working-class family of the age of manufacture. Pod's trade (shoemaker) is an ancient one, and he practices it in the traditional manner and in his own home. Despite their dependence on the big people who unwittingly sustain them, the Clocks enjoy the relative freedom of those who are not subject to the artificial rhythms of the factory, and who do not subsist by the sale of their labor. In fact, the borrowers exist outside of a capital-driven and currency-based economy, managing instead by barter and borrowing. Perhaps the fullest example of this simpler and more primitive economy is Spiller, the "wild" borrower who lives outdoors, hunts, traps, and trades his meat to other borrowers for such necessaries as clothing. Norton avoids the potential class antagonisms associated with an industrial-age working class by configuring the borrowers more as preindustrial plebeians who, in the conservative model of paternalism imagined by the series, exist in a relative state of harmony.
The Clocks are identified with the "respectable" plebeian culture (one that has adopted, at least in part, a middle-class ideology) of a bygone age, as Pod's usual, "moderate" pattern of borrowing demonstrates: "the daily sortie and modest loot—a little here, a little there—nothing to rouse suspicion" (Afield 149). Not all borrowers, however, share exactly the same cultural practices. Indeed the cultural practices that tend to define class affiliation vary depending on where borrowers live, and with what types of people they have contact. In effect, the borrowers "borrow" the class culture of the humans whom they have the greatest opportunity to observe. The Clocks live under the kitchen floor, and their way of life reflects the humble station of the human servants who work in that part of the house. Spiller, usually a solitary figure, has more contact with a local band of gypsies, and his style of borrowing reflects their nomadic existence and "rougher" plebeian, lottery mentality: "Spiller preferred a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines technique: a swift whip-round of whatever he could lay hands on and a quick getaway" (Afield 149). The Overmantles and Harpsichords (who seem, with the exception of Peagreen, to have vanished) live in the parlor and consume a rich diet made up of the left-overs from teas and parties. Unlike the more cautious and respectably teetotaling Clocks, they indulge, shockingly, in liquor and tobacco. Their contact with the better class of people who live in the house yields the more refined tastes and airs Homily finds so insufferably snobbish.
Peagreen, the lame, sensitive, artistic borrower whom the Clocks encounter in the last installment of the series, is, apparently, the last member of the elite Over-mantle branch of the race. He explains how he came to enjoy a greater degree of literacy and appreciation of high culture than most borrowers: "‘I suppose it depends on where you were brought up. In the old days, in a house like this, the human children had tutors and governesses and lesson books: the borrowers soon picked things up. My grandfather knew Greek and Latin. Up to a point …’" (Avenged 151). In a sense, however, these class distinctions between borrowers are artificial, since none of their culture is their own. Caroline Hunt's observation that "[s]ome borrowers are snobbish, some silly, some mean" may characterize personal differences between borrowers, but it does not account for the articulation of class difference within the group as a whole. Class differences between various groups of borrowers are perhaps best understood in terms of what Thompson describes as "horizontal divisions."10 Some of the heterogeneity John Belcham sees in the working classes of the era of the Industrial Revolution seems applicable to the imagined plebeian culture of the borrowers: "[w]ithin the working class there were many contesting cultural groupings—‘respectable’ and ‘rough,’ chapel and pub, autodidact and illiterate" (59). Class in borrower society is not an innate category, as their class cultures are never of their own making, but are, rather, derived from emulation.11
What emerges in Norton's series, then, is a model not only of trickle-down economics, with the big people generating the wealth that sustains the dependent little people, but of trickle-down culture as well. By representing borrower culture as primarily derivative of "human bean" culture, Norton follows the thinking of such figures as the nineteenth-century industrialist Henry Brougham. For Brougham, the natural direction of all cultural and intellectual exchange was downwards from the higher to the lower orders:
One word […] upon the manner in which learning and improvement make their way in society. I think it must be admitted that it is always one way, and that downwards. You begin by making the upper classes aware of the value of certain kinds of knowledge […] then […] the middle parts of the middle class get well acquainted with the subject and feel its importance […] and they try, by their exertions and their money […] to spread to the class below them a little of the same learning, which they possess themselves; and so that lower class gets by degrees impregnated.
(cited in Vincent, "Decline" 28)
Like the lower classes imagined by Brougham, the borrowers are of a species that does not—indeed cannot—generate its own knowledge and culture (let alone wealth). As Mrs. May informs Kate early in the first book, the borrowers are so devoid of any cultural autonomy that their very names are not of their own making: "with half an ear you could tell they were borrowed [….] Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all" (8). G. L. Gomme makes a similar assertion about the lower classes and their inability to produce culture in his 1913 Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics: "[t]hey [the poor] owe their preservation partly to the fact that great masses of people do not belong to the civilization which towers over them [and] which is never of their own creation" (cited in Thompson, Working Class 6).
The borrowers do not so much shape their environment as take on its characteristics, just as plebeians in domestic service were imagined to borrow (like the Overmantles) not only the property of their masters but a reduced form of their culture. Lupy, when she and Hendreary move into a church, quickly takes on the pious demeanor of her surroundings: "She kissed Homily rather soberly, and then did the same to Pod. ‘Welcome,’ she said with a gently un-Lupyish smile, ‘welcome to the house of the Lord’" (Avenged 194). She even goes so far as to assure her guests that they can drink the wine she offers them, "with a clear conscience, because it has not been blessed" (195). The "wild" borrower, Spiller, has become integrated in his natural surroundings to the extent that he completely blends in with his environment.
While emulation may be the only form of cultural expression available to borrowers, it carries with it the danger of transgression as well. Borrowing is tolerated, but only if it supplies basic needs; if their consumption and behavior exceed certain class boundaries, the borrowers endanger the delicate balance that allows them to coexist with humans. The Clock family's encounter with a human boy and Arrietty's subsequent ill-fated friendship with him lead to their eventual expulsion from the house. Out of a misguided charitable impulse, the boy tries to help the Clocks improve their home by providing them with the ornate and luxurious furnishings of an old doll's house. Tellingly, Pod has never come across all this fine furniture before, because the doll's house had always been "on the top shelf of the cupboard by the fireplace in the schoolroom […] right up by the ceiling" (Borrowers 128)—both spatially and metaphorically out of his reach.
When they gain, through the boy, unprecedented access to a variety of luxury items formerly considered out of bounds, they begin to take on the airs of their social betters. In addition to the dollhouse furnishings, the boy outfits their humble abode under the floor with such valuable trinkets as a miniature silver harp and violin, and a jewelled snuff-box, taken from the display case in the parlor. The Clocks also begin to enjoy such delicacies as caviar instead of the humble fare of potatoes and chestnuts that had previously sustained them. Homily is most affected by the family's advance in social station and their new status as conspicuous consumers; she expresses a desire for parquet (which she snootily pronounces "par-r-rkay") floors, and begins to take greater pains with her appearance: "[she] curled her hair nearly every evening nowadays and, since the house was more or less straight, she would occasionally change for dinner into a satin dress; (it hung like a sack, but Homily called it ‘Grecian’)" (135). For all his down-to-earth, simple wisdom, Pod is not immune to the temptation of social climbing; he starts to use Great-Aunt Sophy's room as his private place to unwind: "the room, one might almost say, had become his club; a place to which he could go ‘to get away from things’" (135).
Too extensive or visible an emulation of the habits and patterns of consumption of one's betters has, as J. M. Golby and A. W. Purdue have noted, always been fraught with the danger of transgression:
Those in the superior social positions have never taken kindly to evidence of the increased prosperity of those in inferior stations and their aspirations to comforts and refinements. Singing and piano lessons for tenant farmers' daughters in the eighteenth century, and holidays abroad for the working classes in the twentieth, have similarly been received with sarcasm mingled with outrage.
In the eighteenth century, none were more subject to the contempt and suspicion of such transgressive forms of emulation than domestic servants, especially women, who were imagined to have a particularly irrational attraction to the fineries of their mistresses.12 Their proximity to the lifestyles enjoyed by their masters meant that emulation was much easier and more common. Norton's borrowers (who, like domestics in a privileged home, live below and out of sight) suffer from the same tendencies, and it is only after their calamitous discovery by the cook Mrs. Driver that the dangers of their aspirations become evident.
The first book of the series ends with the Clocks' desperate escape from the rat-catcher's gas.13 In the second book, they must deal with one of the most radical descents in condition imaginable. They are reduced to living out of doors, braving the elements and enduring the myriad dangers, which, as Pod warns Arrietty, are always present: "Pod looked thoughtfully to where a sparrow-hawk hung motionless in the clear sky. ‘It's everywhere,’ he said, after a moment. ‘Before and Behind, Above and Below’" (Afield 65). According to Hans Blumenberg, a life of constant uncertainty and instability, of being perpetually subject to such arbitrary events as crop failure, disease, war, and the whims of the local lord—what he calls the "absolutism of reality"—defines the pre-industrial plebeian experience.
While living outside represents the realization of an unprecedented freedom for Arrietty, it spells for Homily not only peril, but also a fall from grace, an expulsion from civilization into the savage wilderness. It is for this reason that Homily (at first) views Spiller's primitiveness with such suspicion:
It was the sight of Spiller, perhaps, which had shaken Homily, confirming her worst premonitions—uncouth, unwashed, dishonest, and ill-bred, that's what she summed him up to be, everything she most detested and feared. And this was the level (as she often warned them back home) to which borrowers must sink if ever, for their sins, they took to the great outdoors.
(Afield 114; italics added)
The valuable lesson of being content with one's station—one that is reasserted throughout the series, as, for example, when Homily remarks "‘Never does and never has done borrowers any good to be high’" (Aloft 117)—is itself as old as children's literature. Homily has internalized it appropriately: attempts at upward social mobility, especially by those fitted to be in the lowest ranks, are sins, or transgressions, against the social order; downward class movement is the fitting punishment.
Considering the conservative notion of class structure Norton is portraying here, her tolerance for, if not endorsement of, the petty theft by which borrowers survive may seem somewhat incongruous. Indeed, Arrietty has a very difficult time persuading the Boy that there is any difference between what Pod does and simple theft (Borrowers 83-84). On the one hand, borrowing is not represented as stealing because of the insubstantial nature of the loss suffered by the borrowers' human hosts. However, as the preface to Poor Stainless suggests, to accuse borrowers of stealing is to display a lack of the largesse those in a superior station are supposed to have: "[w]ho could grudge them the odd pencil stub, the occasional bottle cap, the used postage stamp, or the leftover sliver of cheese?" (Poor Stainless 8). Borrowers require so little, that the least humans can do is "accept their hidden presence and gently leave them alone" (Poor Stainless 8). In the paternalistic relation between borrowers and their hosts, humans should turn a blind eye to the insubstantial and harmless liberties taken by the little people—as long as they do not exceed prescribed limits.
Borrowing is also, however, represented as a skill, a trade, or even a craft, with a long and proud history. It is part of a traditional way of life, and the borrowers have a very strong sense of entitlement to the things that they take, a sense of customary right that Norton dismissively ascribes to a quaintly naïve and preposterous sense of self-importance: "they were touchy and conceited, and thought they owned the world" (Borrowers 8). Further, borrowing is a distinctly codified form of scavenging; borrowers do not take from each other, and, as Pod explains, they take from humans only out of necessity: "Borrowers only borrow the things they can't live without. Not for the fun of it. Not out of greediness. And not out of laziness, neither. Borrowing for borrowers […] is their only means of […] [s]urvival" (Avenged 135). As an established practice designed to assist subsistence, borrowing resembles the ancient plebeian system of perquisites and customary usage. Traditional rights to appropriate needed goods prevailed in Britain until enclosure and the more rigid private property laws of industrial capitalism increasingly criminalized their exercise.
Such customary rights as gleaning—the gathering of ears of corn or other produce left behind after harvest—constituted essential additions to plebeian diets, and had scriptural precedent:
The sanction of religious precept was perhaps particularly strong with respect to gleaning customs: "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleanings of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger" (Leviticus 23:22).
(Hay and Rogers 87)14
As Clive Emsley has demonstrated, what plebs claimed as perks extended far beyond the harvest leftovers often required to keep body and soul together. Laborers helped themselves to a wide array of "fiddles," such as: wood from commons or gentry land for fuel, building and even maypoles; "chips" taken by dock workers, including nails, paint, ropes, sailcloth, and anything that wasn't nailed down; filings by braziers; and "cabbage," the pieces of cloth left over after cutting that journeyman tailors took as their due (126-30). Domestic servants also took and expected a wide range of perks: "the butler customarily received old bottles and candle ends. The cook customarily kept pan-drippings, bones, and fat that found no place on the master's plate. The scullion took firings and small coals. The coachman took broken or worn carriage parts" (Limbaugh 251). As Limbaugh notes, by far the most common "vails" taken by servants were in the shape of clothing (253-54). This is a tradition that has apparently survived among the human servants in Great-Aunt Sophy's house, as Mrs. Driver and Crampfurl the gardener partake regularly of the mistress's Madeira. Driver sees no wrong in helping herself to a few other odds and ends as well: "a pair of old stockings […] a handkerchief or so, an odd vest, or an occasional pair of gloves—these, Mrs. Driver felt, were different; these were within her rights" (Borrowers 136).
In conservative versions of history, such small-scale misappropriations of the lord's or owner's property were gently tolerated, as they insured the loyalty and deference that confirmed and validated his authority and maintained the social hierarchy. The reverence with which borrowers treat Great-Aunt Sophy (the lady of the manor, as it were), and the awe in which they hold human beings generally, speaks to this conservative notion of a proper deference for one's superiors. What is absent from this equation, and what cultural historians such as E. P. Thompson have attempted to reintroduce into it, is the perception of this economy from below.
Customary usage and the patronage-deference model did, undeniably, define social interaction between ranks in preindustrial Britain. How the elite and the privileged understood the nature of this cultural exchange is clear. The squire and his manor were at the center of the community; respected and loved by most if not all, he acted as the host of village feasts and celebrations, and the benefactor to the local poor. This is an enticing image of social harmony, in which all the stations of life are linked and share the same vision of their world. This model, however, elides the plebeian understanding of perks as rights claimed, rather than gifts bestowed by benevolent superiors.15
The nineteenth-century radical William Cobbett recognized this view from below in his interpretation of the common law: "the ‘principle of society’ clearly was, as Blackstone defines it, that the indigent and wretched should have a right to ‘demand from the rich a supply sufficient for all the necessities of life’" (Letter II n.p.; italics in original). Thompson points to the ubiquity of plebeian revolts and riots in the eighteenth century to question the myth of a mostly harmonious preindustrial society: "there might be a radical disassociation—and at times antagonism—between the culture and even the ‘politics’ of the poor and those of the great" (Customs 22). The balance that maintained the social hierarchy was often strained, and understood differently by those at either end. Even when tokens of deference were (as they surely very often were) given to superiors, they could never be taken at face value as guarantees of respect or submission: "[t]he same man who touches his forelock to the squire by day—and who goes down to history as an example of deference—may kill his sheep, snare his pheasants or poison his dogs at night" (66). Such criminal expressions of discontent as poisonings and the anonymous writing of threatening letters demonstrate a confrontational plebeian posture that does not jibe with the conservative social model miniaturized in Norton's books.
The invisibility of the borrowers is the result of a modernity that no longer appreciates or recognizes the way of life they represent. As both Mrs. May and later Miss Menzies infer, borrowers lived openly with human beings at some point in the distant past. Norton seems to imply that a callous, materialistic, modern world (increasingly populated by such figures as Mr. Platter and the attorney Mr. Beguid) has forced them into hiding and depleted their numbers drastically. It is perhaps ironic that in her desire to depict the Clocks as harmlessly old-fashioned, Norton chose to make Pod a shoemaker; practitioners of this trade were among the earliest and most active labour radicals.16 Nostalgic appraisals of the past tend, as Thompson suggests, to overlook such details as plebeian radicalism that don't fit into the idealized reminiscence: "[p]aternalism as myth or as ideology […] offers itself in English history less as actuality than as a model of an antique, recently passed golden age from which present modes and manners are a degeneration" (Customs 23). This is how Norton is using the myth: as a lament for a past that has connections to a hazily traditional, preindustrial way of life, and that has just been lost to us.
Further separating the borrowers from the possibilities of plebeian resistance is the absence of a community. Most borrowers live either in isolation (Peagreen and Spiller), or as the discrete nuclear families enshrined since the late eighteenth century in middle-class domestic ideology. Much of the strength and vibrancy of plebeian culture was derived from its collective and public nature. One of the ways antiquarians and folklorists such as Sir Walter Scott and the Grimms declawed popular or plebeian culture, and made it fit for consumption in the middleclass parlor or nursery, was by isolating it from its original communal context.17
Paternalism as ideology justifies social hierarchy and inequality in large part through the infantilization of its subject. The fixed hierarchies of feudalism are indeed no longer a part of British society. The myth of the paternalist past, however, can still be used to legitimize class disparity. By invoking, as Norton does, a "natural" and ancient class structure, the myth suggests a desired shape for current class relations. It has, as I note above, often been observed of the "Borrowers" series that children and borrowers are connected by their shared size and dependence. I would argue further that the model of patronage and deference that Norton reproduces in her books can be used to describe the relationship that commonly exists between adults and children. The nostalgic desire to situate childhood in the past and to preserve it as a perpetual state of the innocence we adults have lost—a desire that has shaped children's literature at least since the Victorian "golden age"—performs a similarly deradicalizing function. The flipside of cherishing innocence is inscribing powerlessness and enabling the construction of difference that characterizes all unequal relations.
1. The blurbs on the dustjackets of the books attest to this. The Louisville Courier-Journal observed that the first book in the series "deserves to take its place on the shelf of undying classics with Mary Poppins, Christopher Robin, and the other monuments." Ellen Lewis Buell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said this of the third book in the series, The Borrowers Afloat: "It is not mere extravagance that has prompted comparisons of these books with The Wind in the Willows, and Alice in Wonderland [sic]."
2. The historical narrative of the demise of British paternalism and the very notion of a society harmoniously united by the balancing forces of deference and patronage have been rigorously challenged in the last two decades, most notably by E. P. Thompson in Customs in Common: "[m]y theme here is to define the limits of paternalism, and to present objections to the notion that eighteenth-century social (or class) relations were mediated by paternalism, on paternalism's own terms" (83 n.1).
3. In The Presence of the Past, Valerie Krips provides useful insight into how these two impulses—preserving a version of the historical past and preserving childhood—intersect: "we distance and differentiate ourselves from the past only, it seems, to draw it closer, to hold it fast in order to prevent it from transforming before our eyes" (9).
4. The fact that Pod and Homily are adults while Arrietty is an adolescent complicates the system of representation in the texts that configures them as children, but does not undermine it. The adults here are still childlike, even if they are not exactly children. As well, Arrietty's adolescence, and the fact that Pod and Homily will grow increasingly to rely on her, collapses the differences between them considerably.
5. J. A. Hobson's assessment of Ruskin's vision of the organic society seems appropriate to the nuclear family, its microcosm, as well: "an orderly system of interdependence sustained by authority and obedience" (cited in Williams, Culture 140).
6. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress—an early fixture in British nurseries—may have started this trend. Other examples of label names include The History of Master Billy Friendly, and His Sister, Miss Polly Friendly (c.1787); The Friends; or, the History of Billy Freeman and Tommy Truelove (c.1790); and Mary Ann Kilner's Jemima Placid, or, The Advantage of Good Nature (c.1785). Tom's name operates at a few levels; Goodenough could reflect how he is content with his humble station in life, or how the old ways of living and working that he embodies are "good enough" and don't need to be "improved"; or, it could suggest his moral character, which although not beyond criticism, is far superior to the greedy lawyer Mr. Beguid, who is evicting old Tom.
7. The link between borrowers and fairies or "little people" is made several times in the series. For example, when Miss Menzies, the would-be benefactor of the Clocks, tries to explain their disappearance to the police officer, she remarks: "‘our ancestors spoke openly about ‘the little people.’ In fact, there are many places in these islands where they are still spoken of today’" (Avenged 10-11).
8. Mullan and Reid describe these parallel impulses and desires in James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's biographer and a devoted collector of contemporary popular literature: "the simplicity which charms Boswell, is not only the simplicity of childhood but a simplicity he attributes to popular culture itself" (8-9).
9. For this idealized representation of the plebeian family in children's literature, see, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life, or the story "Humble Life" in John Aiken and Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Evenings at Home. Any number of Cheap Repository Tracts also have similar portrayals, e.g., The Cottager's Saturday Night.
10. While Clocks, Drainpipes, and Overmantles may observe class differences between themselves, they are all still plebeian in their shared state of dependence. Thompson describes how the mob (generally a plebeian political force) in the eighteenth century was "a horizontal sort of beast": "when, in the quiet 1750s, Princess Amelia tried to close access to Richmond New Park, she was opposed by a vigorous horizontal consciousness which stretched from John Lewis, a wealthy brewer to Grub Street pamphleteers, and which embraced the whole local ‘populace’" (Customs 64).
11. There is, at the same time, a danger in ascribing to borrower culture the full range of its human counterpart. Chris Hopkins implies that the experiences of the Clocks can apply to all people: "all humans can be made small, can be treated as children, can be gendered ‘feminine,’ can be made homeless" (24). Perhaps these things can happen to anybody, but they tend to happen most often to the disenfranchised and those on the margins of power.
12. In part, this bias may have arisen from the statistical fact that the majority of domestics were female. The assumption, however, was applied to plebs of both genders: "[t]he lower class of mankind, and children, are fond of finery, gaudy, dazzling appearances catch their attention" (Wollstonecraft 390).
13. Lois Kuznets, in her article "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature," provides an intriguing reading of the Clocks' experiences in the first volume. She sees an allegory of World War II Jewish persecution and diaspora in the narrative of the "‘racial’ survival" of a family living in constant fear of detection and of forced emigration (198).
14. Pod actually refers to this traditional practice when he and his family are trying to survive out of doors: "‘The nuts is coming on,’ said Pod; ‘nearly ripe they'll be down in that sheltered corner [….] There's gleanings still in the cornfield t'other side of the stile’" (Afield 65).
15. The Clocks' assertion of their right to borrow is represented as a quaint, childish, self-delusion, which they are allowed to indulge because it is harmless, albeit wrong.
16. See Thompson (Customs 59-60; Working Class 279-81) and Limbaugh 234-35 for the role of shoemakers in early, preindustrial forms of trade unionism.
17. Equally important to this process of appropriation was, of course, the conversion of the oral into the textual. See Peter Burke's Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood, and David Vincent's Literacy and Popular Culture for the contours of debates on this and related issues. See also Vincent, "Decline" 20-27 for an interesting account of Scott's antiquarian activities.
Aiken, John, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld. "Humble Life." Evenings at Home. London: J. Johnson, 1792-1796.
Belcham, John. Industrialization and the Working Class: The English Experience, 1750-1900. Brookfield, VT: Gower Pub. Co. Ltd., 1990.
Blumenberg, Hans. Work on Myth. Trans. Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge: MITP, 1985.
Brand, John. Observation on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain. 3 vols. 1848-1859. Ed. Sir Henry Ellis. New York: AMS, 1970.
Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: NYUP, 1978.
Cobbett, William. The Poor Man's Friend, or, Essays on the Rights and Duties of the Poor. 1829. Fairfield: Augustus M. Kelley, 1977.
The Cottager's Saturday Night. London: J. Evans, c. 1794.
Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. London: Longman, 1994.
The Friends; or, the History of Billy Freeman and Tommy Truelove. London: J. Marshall, c. 1790.
Golby, J. M., and A. W. Purdue. The Civilization of the Crowd: Popular Culture in England, 1750-1900. London: Batsford Academic & Educational, 1984.
Hay, Douglas, and Nicholas Rogers. Eighteenth-Century English Society. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
The History of Master Billy Friendly, and His Sister, Miss Polly Friendly. London: J. Marshall, c. 1787.
Hopkins, Chris. "Arrietty, Homily, Pod: Home, Size, Gender, and Relativity in The Borrowers." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25:1 (2000): 21-29.
Hunt, Caroline C. "Dwarf, Small World, Shrinking Child: Three Versions of Miniature." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 115-36.
Kilner, Mary Ann. Jemima Placid: or, The Advantage of Good Nature. London: J. Marshall, c. 1785.
Krips, Valerie. The Presence of the Past: Memory, Heritage, and Childhood in Postwar Britain. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.
Kuznets, Lois R. "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature." Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette, IN: Children's Literature Association, 1985. 198-203.
———. "Permutations of Frame in Mary Norton's ‘Borrowers’ Series." Studies in the Literary Imagination 18:2 (Fall 1985): 65-78.
Limbaugh, Peter. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Mullan, John, and Christopher Reid. "Introduction." Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture: A Selection. Eds. John Mullan and Christopher Reid. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. 2nd ed. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1996.
Norton, Mary. The Borrowers. 1953. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1998.
———. The Borrowers Afield. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955.
———. The Borrowers Afloat. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959.
———. The Borrowers Aloft. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961.
———. The Borrowers Avenged. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982.
———. Poor Stainless. 1966. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen, 1982.
Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte P, 1982.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1984.
Thompson, E. P. Customs in Common. New York: The New Press, 1993.
———. The Making of the English Working Class. 1963. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
Vincent, David. "The Decline of the Oral Tradition in Popular Culture." Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England. Ed. Robert D. Storch. London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1982. 20-47.
———. Literacy and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
———. Culture & Society 1780-1950. 1958. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Original Stories from Real Life. 1791. The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft Vol. 4. Eds. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler. London: William Pickering, 1989.
Izard, Anne. Review of The Borrowers Afield, by Mary Norton, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush. New York Herald Tribune Book Review (13 November 1955): 5.
Lauds The Borrowers Afield, noting that, "[it] is something of a miracle to find the quality of the first book so well sustained in its sequel."
Olson, Barbara V. "Mary Norton and The Borrowers." Elementary English 43, no. 2 (February 1970): 185-89.
Argues that The Borrowers is "relevant to the experience of anyone living in the ‘technologico-benthamite society.’"
Additional coverage of Norton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100, 139; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 160; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Ed. 5; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 18, 60; Something about the Author—Obituary, Vol. 72; and Twayne's English Authors.