Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mary Norton

Mary Norton wrote twelve books over thirty-nine years, all of them well received both critically and from the reading public as reflected in her sales. Her life is a lens into England of the nineteen hundreds, capturing a number of little-seen nooks and crannies. She is most famous for her Borrowers series, as well as the The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks which were later consolidated into a single story, Bed-Knob and Broomstick. Reflecting the enduring popularity of these stories, all of these books have been made into movies (several versions), theatrical plays, radio programs and TV series.

Mary Norton, nee Pearson was born December 10, 1903 in London, England but grew up in Worcestershire, in the charmingly named town of Leighton Buzzard. She was the youngest of five children and the only girl. Cedars House was your classic English Georgian home, reminiscent of the Uncle's house in The Chronicles of Narnia or the home in The Secret Garden, replete with history and rooms and wings and space for children to build their imaginary worlds. As Norton, a keen dramatist, describes her childhood plays in Third Book of Junior Authors:

It was a house very like that around which the Borrowers' story was written, rambling enough to escape for hours on end from grown-up supervision. Privacy for some reason had to be assured; we never acted our plays to adult audiences, we never rehearsed them - nor, in those days had we ever seen a professional performance. Our theatre was indeed the "living theatre," an added dimension born of moment.

Deserted bedrooms were enchanting places - away from the watchful eyes of those supposed to be in charge of us - they seemed to us like "foreign parts." Those were the days of "airing" mattresses. Small figures, flitting secretly along dark passages, would pause with stealth and open a closed door and there - oh joy of joys! - would be a sudden warmth, shadows of firelight on the ceiling and the whisper of living coals.

Round the fire, propped up against chairs, dragged up desks or ottomans, great sagging mattresses stood on their sides like screens, cooking gently in the steady glow; there would be a smell of hot flock and warm horsehair - a cave of heat and light amid the alien shadows. In no time at all pillows, bereft now of their linen covers, would be gathered into a nest and there we would sit, our backs to the hot ticking, telling our stories and arranging our plays. Sometimes, if we were lucky, there would be biscuits in a canister on a table beside the bed, leftovers from a previous guest. Many a stirring drama was acted out within that charmed half-circle, with a coal fire for footlights and shadows for the wings. On fine days, in the garden, we had yew hedges for a backdrop, and dark, shrubbery tunnels for our exits and our entrances.

Norton was educated in convent schools and then moved on to secretarial school and later into the workforce as a secretary. This was clearly not a positive direction for her and, on being fired for errors in her book-keeping, she decided to pursue her real love, the theatre. Through introductions provided by a playwright who was a patient of her father's, she was able to join the theatre school at the Old Vic and spent two intensely happy years moving from student to understudy of some of the famous thespians of the period.

In 1926 she married a long time friend, Robert Norton. Robert Norton was the son of one of those old Anglo-Portuguese families of whom no one has heard but who are the living legacy of Britain's many centuries of sailing, trading and empire building. I came across the story of the Anglo-Portuguese twenty or so years ago, but have never seen much written about them. Apparently back in the 1700's wine from the Douro Valley began to be shipped through the Portuguese port of Oporto into England. Initially there was a high spoilage rate which was addressed by fortifying the wine with Brandy - this particular style of fortified wine then becoming known as Port.

The English shipping magnates and wine merchants began settling in Portugal to look after their investments and vineyards but remained English in language and customs. This has to some extent continued up until today though I have never seen any numbers as to how many families are involved and how many still live in Portugal, but remain English citizens. Just one more of those fascinating little minor details littered through the garden of English history.

Riccardo Orizio wrote a wonderful little book some years ago, Lost White Tribes, telling the story of those remnant European populations scattered across the globe in the post-colonial world: the descendants of ancient Dutch families in Sri Lanka (Ceylon); the Welsh in Patagonia, Argentina; the Anglo-Indian descendants in scattered settlements across India; the Mennonite settlers in Belize, etc.

The Nortons married in 1926 and moved to Portugal where they lived a wonderful expatriate life. Over the next few years they were blessed with four children, two boys and two girls. They then suffered a number of setbacks with the Great Depression wiping out Norton's wealth. With the outbreak of World War II, Robert Norton joined the British Navy as a gunner and Mary Norton moved back to Britain with the children. She found a job in 1941 with the wartime British Purchasing Mission and moved with the children to New York for two years.

Money was tight and Norton turned to writing to try and help make ends meet, initially writing articles for the American women's magazine market which were later collected and published posthumously in 1998 as The Bread and Butter Stories (as in, written to put bread and butter on the table). She also wrote her first book, The Magic Bed-knob; or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons which was published in 1943.

The Magic Bed-Knob was immediately recognized, even amidst the turmoil of a World War, as a classic in the making by the reviewer, E.L. Buell who wrote "No one can tell for certain when a classic is born - but this story has all the makings of one." The Magic Bed-Knob was followed four years later in 1947 by its sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks. These two stories were then consolidated and rewritten as a single book by Norton in 1957 and became the famous Bed-Knob and Broomstick. It is this version on which the famous Disney movie is based.

In The Magic Bed-Knob there are virtually all of the hallmarks of all of Norton's subsequent writings: strong plot, character development and wonderfully detailed setting set in the context of evocative old English houses and combining both adventure and one single element of fantasy that is so strongly developed that it becomes believable to a child but remains almost understated.

The Magic Bed-Knob involves a English spinster character of certain years, Miss Price, who has, in a brisk and efficient nanny-like way, decided to become a witch. Not a wicked witch mind you, a deficit of evil being part of her Achilles heel. No just an amateur enthusiast finding her way into a number of accidental adventures as she learns the arts of witchcraft. In fact it is through one such mishap, falling off her broomstick and injuring her ankle, that she becomes acquainted with the three Wilson children next door who are visiting their aunt. The children become tangled up in the adventures of Miss Price and her co-conspirators.

Norton returned to Britain in before the end of the war. Her eyes were injured in a V-2 rocket attack but fortunately her eyesight was restored by an operation.

In 1952, Norton published her next major book, The Borrowers. It was, as with her previous books, immediately recognized as a classic, lauded by critics and taken up by children and parents with equal enthusiasm. It won the 1953 Carnegie Medal.

Like Bed-Knob and Broomstick, The Borrowers is also set in an old English house. This time however, the fantasy is based not on magic but on the existence of one of the few remaining families of tiny people, the Borrowers. The Clock family (consisting of father, Pod Clock, mother, Homily Clock and daughter, Arrietty Clock) live below the floor boards in an old house, borrowing what they need from the "human beans." They remain out of sight and unobtrusive until one day Pod is seen by the young boy resident in the house, recuperating from rheumatic fever - and then their adventures begin.

As with Bed-Knob and Broomstick, there is a gripping plot, wonderful character development and sharp description. Norton's description of the world as seen by creatures only six inches in height is so believable that it almost hides the fact that this is fantasy. The fact that the Clock's have always lived in an environment where they are at the mercy of the whims of almost everything else makes their world view strikingly familiar to children.

Norton eventually wrote six Borrowers stories in all: The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, Poor Stainless: A New Story About the Borrowers, and The Borrowers Avenged. Unlike many other series where the quality of the story either declines or becomes very spotty after the first book, the Borrowers series has a remarkable consistency and persistent quality through the entire saga.

Norton only wrote one other book, Are All the Giants Dead?, written while she lived in Ireland in the 1950's. Norton divorced her first husband in the 1960's and married Lionel Bonser in 1970. She moved a number of times in her later years, eventually settling in Devonshire where she passed away August 29, 1992. In 2007, the Carnegie Medal judges, to mark the 70th anniversary of the award, selected ten books as the most important children's books of the past seventy years; The Borrowers was one of those ten.

Independent Reader

Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton and illustrated by Erik Blegvad Highly Recommended

The Borrowers by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Highly Recommended

The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Highly Recommended

The Borrowers Afloat by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Highly Recommended

The Borrowers Aloft by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Recommended

The Borrowers Avenged by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Recommended

Mary Norton Bibliography

The Magic Bed-knob; or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton 1943
Bonfires and Broomsticks by Mary Norton 1947
The Borrowers by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1952
The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1955
Bed-knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton 1957
The Borrowers Afloat by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1959
The Borrowers Aloft by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1961
The Borrowers Omnibus by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1966
Poor Stainless: A New Story About the Borrowers by Mary Norton 1971
Are All the Giants Dead? by Mary Norton 1975
Adventures of the Borrowers, four volumes by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1975
The Borrowers Avenged by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1982
The Bread and Butter Stories by Mary Norton 1998

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