Norton, Mary (1903–1992)

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Norton, Mary (1903–1992)

English author who is known for her "Borrowers" series. Born Mary Pearson on December 10, 1903, in London, England; died on August 29, 1992; daughter of Reginald Spenser Pearson (a physician) and Mary Savile (Hughes) Pearson; attended convent schools in England; married Robert Charles Norton (a shipping magnate, on September 4, 1926 (died); married Lionel Bonsey, on April 24, 1970; children: Ann Mary, Robert George, Guy, Caroline.

Actress with the Old Vic Theatre Company, London, England (1925–26); actress in London (1943–45); served two years with the British War Office in England, and two years with the British Purchasing Commission in New York, during World War II.


Carnegie Medal (1952) and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1960), both for The Borrowers.

Selected writings—juvenile:

The Magic Bed-Knob (illus. by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, Dent, 1945); Bonfires and Broomsticks (illus. by Mary Adshead, Dent, 1947); Bed-Knob and Broomstick (rev. ed. of The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, illus. by Erik Blegvad, Harcourt, 1957); Are All the Giants Dead? (illus. by Brian Froud, Harcourt, 1975).

The "Borrowers" series, all illustrated by Diana Stanley to 1971 unless otherwise noted: The Borrowers (Dent, 1952); The Borrowers Afield (Dent, 1955); The Borrowers Afloat (Dent, 1959); The Borrowers Aloft (Dent, 1961); The Borrowers Omnibus (Dent, 1966); Poor Stainless: A New Story about the Borrowers (Dent, 1971); The Adventures of the Borrowers (4 vols., Harcourt, 1975); The Borrowers Avenged (illus. by Pauline Baynes , Kestrel, 1982).

Although she wrote only eight novels in a career that extended from 1943 to 1982, Mary Norton is considered one of the major mid-century British children's authors. From the time of the appearance of her first novel, The Magic Bed-Knob: or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943), Norton demonstrated a superb fusion of what T.S. Eliot called "tradition and the individual talent." She combined elements of her own experiences, transformed to meet the needs of her fantasies, with recognizable aspects of genres popular in British children's fiction in the first half of the 20th century. Her 1952 work The Borrowers, winner of the distinguished Carnegie Medal, quickly assumed status as a classic. The five sequels to that book developed what critic Gillian Avery called "a powerful mythology."

Born Mary Pearson on December 10, 1903, in London, the only daughter of Reginald and Mary Pearson , Norton spent most of her childhood in Leighton Buzzard, a small country town in Bedfordshire County. With her brothers, the nearsighted Mary wandered through the countryside and on rainy days joined them in homemade theatricals. Her house and the surrounding area were to form the settings for the five novels and one short story of the "Borrowers" series—The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), Poor Stainless: A New Story about the Borrowers (1971), and The Borrowers Avenged (1982). In her childhood, said Norton in an interview with Jon C. Stott, the idea for her most famous creations was born: "I think the first idea—or first feeling—of The Borrowers came through my being shortsighted: when others saw the far hills, the distant woods, the soaring pheasant, I, as a child, would turn sideways to the close bank, the tree roots, and the tangled grasses." Trailing along after her brothers, she often daydreamed: "Moss, fernstalks, sorrel stems, created the mise-en-scéne for a jungle drama…. But one invented the characters—small, fearful people picking their way through the miniature undergrowth." Norton did not discuss her childhood reading, but echoes in her novels of the works of E. Nesbit , Kenneth Grahame, Frances Hodgson Burnett , and J.M. Barrie suggest their influence.

As a young adult living with her parents in Lambeth, a suburb of London, Norton audaciously suggested to a dinner guest, the actor-impresario Arthur Rose, her wish to become an actress. During the 1925–26 season, she performed as an understudy at London's Old Vic Theatre. These experiences, which she described as the most memorable of her life, also influenced her writing. For example, in The Borrowers Afield she says of her heroine: "Arrietty wandered out to the dim-lit platform; this, with its dust and shadows—had she known of such things—was something like going back stage." Episodes in her novels often resemble dramatic scenes, with two or three characters interacting in an indoor or confined set.

In 1926, Mary married Robert Norton, a member of a wealthy shipowning and trading family from Portugal. Until the outbreak of World War II, she lived with their four children on a relatively isolated country estate several miles from Lisbon. When the war began, she moved back to London with her children, while her husband remained in Portugal. Her life in Portugal, cut off as it was from extended family and friends, seems to have influenced her portrayal of Homily, the mother of the central character in the "Borrowers" series. Arriving back in London, she may well have felt like Homily: "homeless and destitute…. And strange rela tions … who didn't know she was coming and whom she hadn't seen for years."

As the political conditions in Europe worsened during the late 1930s, Norton remembered

the tiny imaginary people of her childhood: "It was only just before the 1940 war … that one thought again about the Borrowers. There were human men and women who were being forced to live … the kind of lives a child had once envisaged for a race of mythical creatures." Unable to support her family on the income she received first from the British War Office in London and then from the British Purchasing Commission in New York, she began writing essays, translations, and children's stories, including her first novel, The Magic Bed-Knob (1945). The book follows three children, Carey, Charles, and Paul Wilson, who live in the country during the bombing of London. They befriend Miss Price, a shy neighbor who is taking a correspondence course in witchcraft and who places a spell on a bed-knob, thus allowing the three to travel magically anywhere they wish. With her, they are transported to a South Seas island where, through the agency of her magic, they narrowly escape being eaten by cannibals. The book was a critical success. "This story has all the makings of [a classic]," declared The New York Times Book Review. The Library Journal acclaimed it a "modern masterpiece."

The sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks, appeared in England in 1947. (It would not be published in the United States until a decade later when it was revised and combined with her first book under the title Bed-Knob and Broomstick.) Back in the country to spend the summer with Miss Price, the Wilsons discover that the bed-knob can be used for time as well as space travel and wish themselves into the later 17th century, where they meet Emelius Jones, an inept sorcerer whom they bring back to their own time. When he returns to his own era, he is condemned to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. Miss Price and the children rescue him, and the two adults marry and live in the 17th century. The New York Times Book Review found this sequel to be "just as good as the first," while poet John Betjeman called it "quite the best modern fairy story I have read."

Norton's first two novels gave promise of the excellence of the books to come. The Borrowers, Norton's third and greatest novel, was published in 1952 to almost instant critical acclaim. Marcus Crouch comments: "Of all the winners of the Carnegie Medal [awarded annually by the British Library Association to the best children's novel of the preceding year], it is the one book of unquestioned, timeless genius." Still widely read, it has been made into two television specials (one in England and one in the United States). The novel is about a species of tiny people, identical to human beings, who live beneath the floorboards of old country houses, borrowing food and supplies left lying about by the large occupants of the dwellings; specifically the novel focuses on Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty, the last three Borrowers living in a house reminiscent of the one in which Norton spent her childhood. The events of their lives are recounted to a young girl, Kate, by Mrs. May, an aging relative whose knowledge of the Borrowers came to her from her brother who, as a child, had met and interacted with the little people.

Norton's skilled use of description plays an important part in the story's credibility. Articles small to human beings are presented as huge from a Borrower's point of view. Discarded sheets of writing paper are made into wallpaper; a wire fly swatter is transformed into a safety door, keeping their apartments safe against mice. Insects are the size of birds; a drop of dew is as large as a marble; a clump of wood violets and clover is "a jungle." The conclusion to The Borrowers leaves the way open for further stories about the Clock family, the next of which was published in 1955. The Borrowers Afield opens a year after the telling of the first story, as Kate and Mrs. May depart for Firbank Hall, the house where the Clocks lived. The girl meets old Tom Goodenough who, when he was a boy, had been told by Arrietty about her family's escape and travel to the old cottage where Tom lived. He gives Kate the diary Arrietty had kept during their odyssey, and she uses this, along with his reports, to create a narrative that she records for her own children. The novel, which the Times Literary Supplement called "that rare thing, an entirely successful sequel" and The New York Times Book Review considered "in some ways even better [than The Borrowers]," answered many of the questions presumably asked by readers of the first volume but also raised new ones to be dealt with in subsequent novels.

The Borrowers Afloat, the last of the series to use a narrative framework, appeared in 1959. This was followed by The Borrowers Aloft (1961), the fourth novel of the series which has been considered the least successful, falling into predictable plot patterns of setting up house, capture, escape, and relocation. Called by one reviewer "somewhat more contrived," the novel includes far more detailed but less functional accounts of the technical activities of borrowing.

Norton's next major work, Are All the Giants Dead? (1975), marked a new direction in her children's fiction. It tells the story of James, an average boy who is taken by Mildred, a middle-aged writer, to the land where famous fairytale characters live after their major adventures have been completed. James meets Jack-of-the-Beanstalk and Jack-the-Giant-Killer, who are depressed because the former cannot grow a beanstalk for the latter to climb to the land of the last, apparently invincible giant. With James' assistance, the two recover their self-esteem, and Dulcibel, the princess who must marry a frog, learns to control her own future. The adventures over, James finds himself back in his own bedroom. Margery Fisher , the distinguished British children's literature reviewer, called the novel "unexpected, but as brilliant, beguiling, and original as could possibly be wished."

In 1982, Norton, with the encouragement of her English editor, published a manuscript she had been working on for several years, The Borrowers Avenged. This novel, which brings the series to closure, is unlike the earlier works in the series in that it contains a great deal of satire about conditions of 20th-century English life. In addition to their implicit comments on modernization, the books of the "Borrowers" series present a picture of English country life at the time of the author's childhood. In many ways the books of this series, recounting as they do the wanderings and many temporary homes of the Clocks, reflect Norton's life after World War II. Although she gave little personal information about her life from 1945 onward, she lived in several different places, including London, Essex, West Cork, Ireland, and Bideford, England. Norton died at Hartland, England, on August 29, 1992.


Davenport, Julia. "The Narrative Framework of The Borrowers: Mary Norton and Emile Brontë," in Children's Literature in Education. Vol. 49, 1983, pp. 75–79.

Hand, Nigel. "Mary Norton and 'The Borrowers,'" in Children's Literature in Education. Vol. 7, 1972, pp. 38–55.

Kuznets, Lois. "Permutations of Frame in Mary Norton's 'Borrowers' Series," in Studies in the Literary Imagination. Vol. 18, 1985, pp. 65–78.

Rustin, Michael and Margaret. "Deep Structures of Fantasy in Modern British Children's Books," in Lion and the Unicorn. Vol. 10, 1986, pp. 60–82.

Stott, Jon C. "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: The Borrowers," in Language Arts. Vol. 55, 1976, pp. 538–544.

Thomas, Margaret. "Discourse of the Difficult Daughter: A Feminist Reading of Mary Norton's Borrowers," in Children's Literature in Education. Vol. 84, 1992, pp. 39–48.

Wolf, Virginia L. "From the Myth to the Wake of Home: Literary Houses," in Children's Literature. Vol. 18, 1990, pp. 53–67.

related media:

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (117-min. film), starring Angela Lansbury , Roddy McDowall, and David Tomlinson, Walt Disney Productions, 1971.

"The Borrowers" (television special), starring Eddie Albert, Tammy Grimes , and Judith Anderson , NBCTV, December 14, 1973.

Freely adapted from a sketch by Jon C. Stott , University of Alberta, for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 160: British Children's Writers, 1914–1960. The Gale Group, 1996, pp. 197–206

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Norton, Mary (1903–1992)

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