The Borrowers (1952)

IMG_2139The Borrowers by Mary Norton, with illustrations by Diana Stanley.

The Borrowers is the first is a series of 5 books (and one prequel short story) written by Mary Norton between 1952 and 1982. It was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, the “Carnegies of Carnegies”. It has been made into a tv series and several movies – there’s even a Studio Ghibli version, “The Secret World of Arrietty” – and apparently a 52-episodes animated series is currently ‘in development’.

The Borrower books are fantasy novels set in the period between 1907 and 1911 but written over thirty years from 1952. In look and feel they are very Edwardian, you’d think they were contemporaries of The Secret Garden, not Tom’s Midnight Garden.

Pod, Homily and Arrietty are miniature people, borrowers, who live behind and underneath the grandfather clock in the hallway of a large, old house. They are the last anxious survivors of a considerable colony of borrowers who had once lived in style. They exist in dread of cats and of being seen. Arrietty feels frustrated that their existence has to be so covert and takes risks in venturing into the outside world where she makes friends with a little boy who is convalescing in the house. The boy brings them luxurious furniture from a dolls’ house and helps locate their lost family. Their under-floor home is finally discovered and destroyed by the housekeeper, but the little family manage to escape with the help of the boy.

As a child, I had an intense fascination with miniature worlds (my all-time favourite books are Tove Janson’s Moomin books (though NOT the comic strips), so naturally I liked The Borrowers a lot. I was charmed by the scaled-down world where human possessions are ‘borrowed’ to use for a different purpose; blotting paper serves as rugs and postage stamps as wall art, carpet fibres are turned into brushes and chestnuts are eaten slice by slice, like bread. I identified wholeheartedly with bookish Arrietty and her quest for freedom and did not in any way, pick up on the more sinister overtones of the book. I next picked this book up to read to my daughter when she was 7 or 8, but her tastes are modern and don’t run to classic children’s literature. I don’t think we read more than a couple of pages before giving up. For this challenge, I decided to re-read the book in an attempt to validate either of these two opposing views.

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This is exactly the kind of illustration that fired my imagination as a child – a safety pin as a drying rack, a spool of yarn as a stool.

Norton said: “the first idea – or first feeling – of the Borrowers came through my being shortsighted”. This method of shrinking our known world makes the most ordinary surroundings and implements seem genuinely magical. Norton also tantalises her readers by continually reminding them of the evocative unreliability of storytelling. The origin of The Borrowers is wrapped up in mystery: the narrator is Kate, who heard the tale from Mrs May, who heard it from her fanciful young brother, who might have made it up.

This narrative frame of Kate’s brother, a young boy home from India, lonely and recuperating in a half-empty house with old bedridden aunts and unfriendly servants, and who, we learn, later died ‘in the war’ permeates the book with a sense of sadness and an overwhelming sense of loss. This functions on multiple levels. For the human storyteller, Kate, the feeling of loss is linked to the loss of a beloved brother and in extension, the loss of childhood, youth, and family. For the borrowers themselves, the loss of freedom, family and social interaction hangs over the story from the start. The borrowers live circumscribed lives and are potentially dying out, afraid of being seen or heard. They are nothing in their own right: “Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all” (p 12). Arietty is trapped in her life and the old-fashioned expectations of women, she is expected to stay home and help her mother. Only by being an only child is she allowed to learn how ‘to borrow’. Of course, this is when she meets the boy, and her increased freedom is dearly paid for by the loss of home and comfort.

Other critics have pointed out the many ways in which Norton have represented social class in the series, in some ways satirical and overt, some less so. What strikes me very clearly is that these books feel very Edwardian and not ‘modern’ at all. AN Wilson considers the work as in part an allegory of post-war Britain – with its picture of a diminished people living in an old, half-empty, decaying “Big House”. I am not sure it is as straight-forward as that – it would make quite an interesting study for a session on class in children’s literature.

What strikes me as an adult is how incredibly sad this story is. The Borrowers is a story of loneliness and two children, one a human, one a borrower, who have an equal need for friendship and companionship. Arietty reads to the boy, and he helps her track down her remaining family. Yet their friendship is doomed and bring about the end of the borrowers’ life in the house. By then we’ve switched back to the narrative frame: “[The housekeeper] began to drag him towards the door. The tears spilled over his eyelids and ran down his cheeks “Don’t hurt them’ he begged. ‘I’ll move them. I promise. I know how.’ (…) She pushed him into the schoolroom and locked the door, and he heard the boards of the passage creak beneath her tread as, satisfied, she moved away. He crept into bed then, because he was cold, and cried his heart out under the blankets”. These themes of loss and loneliness went entirely over my head as a child. I was delighted with the lilliputian world of Arietty and fascinated by the imaginative use of human detritus. The fact that the book can be read as a story on many levels is what marks it out as a classic.

I am now 20 books into this challenge, and the litmus test happens at bedtime: do I read the latest challenge, with some semblance of enjoyment, or do I find excuses to pick up another book or listen to an audiobook instead? I picked up The Borrowers every night without fail, though with an increasing sense of sadness. I am sorry I didn’t persevere with reading it aloud to my daughter – overall this was a great read, a classic, in fact. 9/10

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