The Borrowers by Mary Norton
Illustrated by Diana Stanley
Whether the toy is a twig doll with a hollyhock skirt and an acorn cup or a Lego figure from a Star Wars set, children like to enact their fantasies in a miniature world. Whatever the era, diminutive has always held fascination. There is a long chain of authors who have fed this interest in a parallel world of small, anchored at one end by Jonathan Swift. No one much remembers the giant Brobdingnagians, but the image of the tiny Lilliputians staking the sleeping Gulliver to the ground is one that stays. T.H White continued the Lilliput story in his imaginative Mistress Masham’s Repose. There have been a slew of other books of variable quality. But the queen of small people was clearly Mary Norton, the brilliant English writer who created The Borrowers.
Pod is the hardworking straightforward father, Homily the anxious harassed mother, and Arriety the spirited and curious 13 year old girl. They live under the kitchen floorboards of an old Georgian house in the English countryside, home to Great Aunt Sophie, a bedridden invalid who enjoys a decanter of Fine Old Pale Madeira every evening between 6:00 and midnight. There was a time when the house was full of borrowers, but the shrinking of the human household was accompanied by the emigration of the borrower families until only one remains. They live by quietly garnering from their human hosts – tea, sugar cubes, and biscuits, silver coins for plates, a lace handkerchief for a bedspread, a Queen Victoria postage stamp to hang as a portrait, discarded letters to wallpaper the sitting room with the writing running up and down in vertical stripes. Arriety’s bedroom is made from cigar boxes, so her view is of feathery palm trees and chiffon swirled ladies.
Their survival depends on their invisibility – only Pod leaves their home for his borrowing forays and the only human being who sees him is Great Aunt Sophy, who assumes their long conversations are a figment of her Madeira-soaked imagination. Their routine is upset when a young boy arrives, sent from India to convalesce from rheumatic fever. Arriety encounters him on her first borrowing expedition, and the consequences of their resultant friendship threaten the existence of the borrower family. They are forced to flee, and their lives are taken up in the sequel, The Borrowers Afield.
Mary Norton wrote six borrower books over a thirty year period – this is a rare series in which the sequels do not disappoint. The writing is light and intelligent, the characters subtly complex, the details inventive, and the stories fresh and truthful. The Borrowers was awarded the Carnegie Medal and ranks among the top children’s books ever written.
The English editions of all but the last in the series were illustrated by Diana Stanley, and it is well worth hunting for them. She captured the tone of Norton’s writing and the nuances of the borrowers’ often precarious life. The same cannot be said for the illustrators of the American editions, Beth and Joe Krush, who seemed to be overly preoccupied by Victorian frippery, a style that Norton did not countenance.