The Borrowers by Mary Norton

Mary Norton
The Borrowers

I was completely charmed by this wonderful book and loved every moment of reading it. I felt I wanted to ration myself and not race through it and reach the end, but just read a couple of chapters at a time and savour it and make it last. It is beautifully written and such a perfect blend of magic and practicalities, and I got the sense, with all the details, that the characters were so vivid and alive in the author's head and that she wanted to believe they were real as much as the reader does.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

I was completely charmed by this wonderful book and loved every moment of reading it. I felt I wanted to ration myself and not race through it and reach the end, but just read a couple of chapters at a time and savour it and make it last. It is beautifully written and such a perfect blend of magic and practicalities, and I got the sense, with all the details, that the characters were so vivid and alive in the author’s head and that she wanted to believe they were real as much as the reader does. 

I loved the book from the first few chapters, just from the practical details of the items the Borrowers use to create furniture. I can picture it all so clearly in my mind, and even though this is obviously a children’s book, I think dealing with practical things like this brings the book alive for adults too. I couldn’t stop myself from listing things, just wanting to record the magic and wonder, and yet the possible reality (!), I felt with it all. The Borrowers have half a manicure scissor to use as a kitchen knife, old letters as wallpaper, postage stamps as pictures, matchboxes as chests of drawers, a cut-off hazelnut shell as a cup, the bottom of a pill box and the pedestal of a chess piece as a table, a mustard pot as a fuel storage unit, safety-pins as coat hangers, a cog-wheel and a funnel from an oil lamp as a fireplace and as piping to direct the fumes to the kitchen flue in the house above and with crumbled candle grease as fuel, handkerchiefs as bedcovers and sheets, an oak-apple as a teapot with a quill as a spout, a thimble as a soup pot, pen-nibs as flour scoops, a small electric-bell clapper as a hammer, cotton-reels as seats, blotting paper as carpet, upturned drawing pins as candle holders, a foie gras pate tin as a bath, beads as buttons, door mat fibres as brushes, an aspirin bottle lid as a sink, an eyebrow comb and a toothbrush as hairbrushes, two cigar boxes for a bedroom, and they have teacups from the dolls’ tea service in the schoolroom, and they have hot and cold water by tapping the pipes from the kitchen boiler with a scent-bottle cork. They also have miniature volumes of ‘Tom Thumb’ books which Victorians used to love to print, and Arrietty learnt to read from these books, and learnt to write by following the words on the letters stuck on the wall, and she keeps a diary. They eat buttered roasted sliced chestnuts as toast, slice boiled chestnuts as a loaf of bread, and cover breadcrumbs with sugar as a dessert, as well as eating dried currants warmed infront of the fire. I am just blown away by the imagination of it all!

I also love the families being named for where they live in the house. The main family in this book, Pod and Homily and their daughter, Arrietty, have the surname Clock as they live under the grandfather clock in the hall. There were also the Harpsichord family, and the Overmantels, and the Rain-Pipes from the stables, and the Sinks, and the Broom-Cupboards, and the Rain-Barrels, and the Linen-Presses, and the Boot-Racks, and the Stove-Pipes, and the Bell-Pulls, and also the Hon.John Studdingtons (who lived behind a picture of this person, I think they may be my favourite name!). Uncle Hendreary and Aunt Lupy were also Clocks, though Lupy was originally a Rain-Pipe who then married a Harpsichord, and then married Hendreary Clock when a widow with two children. Homily was originally a Bell-Pull. I just love the imagination of it all. The Clocks are the only Borrowers living at the house now, the others have all gone away/’emigrated’, either because company in the house lessened so there were less pickings to borrow, or because of the danger from the house getting a cat. These included Uncle Hendreary and his wife Lupy and their children. The Hendrearys left because Uncle Hendreary was seen by a human, so a cat was bought to rid the house of pests and it is believed their daughter, Eggletina, was caught and killed by this cat, the house then became so dangerous and full of sad memories that the others all moved away, although the Hendrearys waited a year before leaving hoping that Eggletina would come back but she never did. I love the humour of how Uncle Hendreary was seen, he was on the drawing room mantelpiece when the housemaid, Rosa Pickhatchet, came into the room to dust, he stood still on the mantelpiece and she dusted him along with the other ornaments but he then sneezed! I also love the seriousness of the exact date of the ‘seeing’ being recorded, 23rd April 1892, and by the full name of Rosa Pickhatchet, it reminds me of battles and ships being recorded by dates and names during the war, and that to the Borrowers this being seen is as huge as that. There’s also the charm of the surnames contradicted by the less desirable characteristics of the people, so not everyone in this world is charming and friendly, they have unfavourable characteristics too, such as the ‘stuck-up’ Overmantels who Homily disapproved of because the men smoked and drank as they could borrow leftovers of these things from the morning room their overmantel was in, with the women admiring themselves in the looking glass in the room and being lazy as they only ate breakfast food as this was the only food served in the morning room. Homily also describes the Harpsichords as ‘stuck-up’ and that they were pasty as they only ate the afternoon tea leftovers which were served in the drawing room. Homily also insists the Clocks are as old and educated a family as the Harpsichords. Again, it all adds to the ‘real world’ and believability of it all, that there is snobbery and disapproval of each other. 

I also respect Norton for allowing that the Borrowers’ lives are dangerous, and that death can come to them, particularly with the child Eggletina, it isn’t just a magical charming idyllic world, there are dangers there and care must be taken. It’s very cleverly written, I think, because of this, it feels different to Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, for example (which I do love), as it’s more realistic and believable (well, obviously it’s a made-up world (or is it…?!) so not really realistic!), it’s not all perfect and magical but has difficulties and dangers, though admittedly I imagine The Borrowers is for an older child than the reader of Faraway Tree. And although the reader may envy the Borrowers’ world, Arrietty is frustrated in it and with her life under the clock, viewing it as being cooped up, and longing to explore the bigger world upstairs and outside in the garden, while this fills her parents with horror as their intention of keeping Arrietty inside was to keep her safe, I can imagine these differing views between restrictions and safety is also one that would resonate with young readers. The competitiveness between the boy and Arrietty is depicted so accurately too, just as it is between young children, them both vying to impress and outdo the other in their achievements and to show their life/world as the better one, even upsetting and scaring each other a little just as children do. Norton manages to get just the perfectly accurate tone here.

And yet, this world and the Borrowers themselves, are potentially contradicted right from the start of the book with Mrs May telling Kate about the Borrowers when Kate remarks that a crochet hook is missing, but stating that it was all told to her by her brother when he was young and wanted to impress his sisters, that she never saw them and wasn’t ever sure if her brother actually did or whether it was all a fabricated story, that it ‘all sounds such nonsense and it was so very long ago’, so there is then doubt about their existence at all, and even talking about the brother brings sadness and danger as he was killed in the War. I think Norton has treated the reader respectfully and tried to bring as much realism into the story as she could. Mrs May says they used to live in India when children ‘among mystery and magic and legend’ but when they arrived in England her brother was ill and was sent away to their great-aunt’s house in the country to recover, and this is where he said he saw the Borrowers and got to know them and became part of their lives. Mrs May herself is old and hints that she forgets things, saying she remembers her brother’s tales ‘better than many real things which have happened’. Again, I think this is such clever storytelling, as Norton has made the reader desperately wish for it to be true by littering the story with doubt, so you determinedly want to believe because you are being repeatedly told it probably isn’t true.

The writing changes depending on the situation too, the descriptions of nature are so enticingly and descriptively detailed, and yet when there is suspense and drama the sentences are short and quick such as when Arrietty first sees the boy, and yet there is also humour within the suspense such as Homily worrying about her appearance and the unwashed dishes even though she is terrified when the boy prises up the floorboard to look down on them. 

The Borrowers in this story are father Pod, mother Homily, and daughter Arrietty Clock, aged 14, and they are 13cm high. Borrowers come from generations of ‘little people’ who have become smaller and smaller over the ages in an effort to escape notice and survive. They borrow from humans and tell themselves that the humans are their slaves, that the Borrowers are far more numerous than the humans as humans are so unpractically large that they are dying out, but really Borrowers are very scared of humans and only live in quiet old houses where there are minimal humans and little disturbance with no children or pets. They are very particular about their borrowing, insisting on not breaking things, they view this borrowing as different from stealing as stealing would be if one Borrower took something that another Borrower had borrowed, but borrowing from humans isn’t stealing as ‘human beans are for Borrowers, like bread’s for butter’. They live their lives based on routine, knowing which rooms in the house are commonly used and when, and so avoiding contact with humans. The entrance to the Clocks’ underground home is via a hole under the grandfather clock in the hall, and then through various passageways with doors and gates to protect them from cats, to their home. Only Pod ever goes through the passageways to the clock and out into the house, Homily and Arrietty never leave their home, the gates also being there to keep Arrietty in, though Arrietty can look through a grate into part of the garden of the house. Homily is a worrier and never desires to leave their home which she is proud of, she is also proud of Arrietty’s ability to read and write while her cousins couldn’t. Arrietty feels constrained and trapped by her existence and wishes they could emigrate to somewhere new, or that she could go out borrowing, or that she could mix with other Borrowers. They used to be considered rich and had lots of grand belongings in their home, but then the boiler burst in the house kitchen which flooded the Clocks’ home and all their possessions were damaged or destroyed. The humans in this house are Great Aunt Sophy who is bedridden, the cook Mrs Driver, and the gardener Crampfurl. Pod regularly appears infront of Great Aunt Sophy, even walking on her quilt and talking to her, as she is given a decanter of madeira at 6pm every day and has drank the whole of it by midnight so she never then believes anything she sees, Pod even took Homily to meet Great Aunt Sophy once which delighted Sophy, and Pod was pleased to give her pleasure in her restricted life. 

I wondered when this was set, ie the time of the story when Mrs May’s brother was at the house. Pod says there has been no company at the house for 10-12 years. The Harpsichords moved to the harpsichord in 1837. Homily says Uncle Hendreary was seen on 23rd April 1892, they waited a year after Eggletina disappeared for her to come back before they left, but I wonder how long it was between Hendreary being seen and Eggletina going exploring? The postage stamps show Queen Victoria, and she reigned from 1837 to 1901, although the Clocks could have had the stamps some years. I’m not sure what all this information gives me! Arrietty is 14, so she was either not born or very young for her not to remember Eggletina herself. Perhaps Arrietty was born about 1890 (so she was too young to remember Eggletina if we think Eggletina may have gone exploring in 1893-ish), which would then make the story set in 1904 when Arrietty was aged 14? Mrs May’s brother was killed in the War (I’m presuming this is the First World War 1914-1918?), he was 10 when he was at the house, so if he went to war aged 20 then that means he was born in 1894 which would make it about 1904 when he was at the house when the story was set when he was aged 10? So after spending far too much time (!) on this, I am wondering if it’s set in about 1904? 

The story begins with Mrs May telling Kate about her young brother, then aged 10, arriving at the house but being confined to bed, so the Borrowers seemed unaware of his arrival. Pod is then seen by the boy, as he couldn’t quickly hide as he was halfway down a curtain holding onto a doll’s teacup he had just borrowed. The boy had watched his progress down the kitchen for 10 minutes, and then helped Pod down by taking the teacup so he could climb down the curtain better and then handing him the teacup again when Pod was down. Although worried when Pod tells her this, Homily is determined they won’t emigrate. They decide it’s best to warn Arrietty what has happened in case the family get a cat, but Arrietty surprises them by immediately hoping they will emigrate and being keen to do this so she can see the outside world and other Borrowers. Homily reflects and decides that, rather than them having to emigrate, Pod will take Arrietty borrowing with him one time when it seems safe to do so, as Homily believes the family won’t get a cat this time and she hopes this will then satisfy Arrietty’s hankering for a change and also ensure Arrietty knows how to borrow in case anything happens to her mother and father, Homily points out that Pod would teach a son borrowing but as they have no son then Arrietty should be taught. Pod is reluctant to do this, but Homily is firm. 

Arrietty’s first trip out from under the clock is described so well, Arrietty’s excitement really comes through and the borrowing rules she is advised to follow by her father are fascinating, such as only climb down or up something that is fixed as if once you’ve climbed it and the family move it then you are stuck, always take an extra borrowing bag with you in case you see something extra to borrow, always leave the passage gates open on your way out so you can get back swiftly if needed, and always put your borrowings immediately into your borrowing bag so you don’t leave them behind in case you have to run quickly. I am constantly impressed at the level of well-thought out detail in this book. Arrietty’s first reaction at finally seeing the clock after which her family is named is sudden swelling pride and almost tearfulness. I also like how the clock is described as safe in its monotonous ticking and chiming and calm in its age and patience and stability. Arrietty suddenly views her father as small and vulnerable when she watches him run out from under the clock and across the hall floor towards the front door and the mat, and seeing the stairs mounting up “Another world above”, she thought, “world on world”, and shivered slightly’. Then he signals for her to join him and she runs out, dazzled by both the wonderful feeling of sunshine on her and being able to run, and the awful feeling of the space above and around her. It’s so beautifully described that you can almost feel what Arrietty is feeling, especially her overwhelming joy at being outside and free when she goes out the front door and along to see her mother through the grating by their home, ‘her toes danced on the green moss’ outside their grating and she realises this green moss grows there by the grating because they throw their water out there, I just love this detail. She ventures into the lawn with the grass blades waist-height, and sees a beetle and an ant and two birds and a woodlouse, and looks at ‘the cracks and furrows of the primrose leaves (with) crystal beads of dew (that) rolled like marbles’ when she pressed them, and when she picks a primrose ‘the pink stem felt tender and living in her hands and was covered with silvery hairs, and when she held the flower, like a parasol, between her eyes and the sky, she saw the sun’s pale light through the veined petals’. The wonder of it all, especially nature, is so beautiful to read. 

While out in the garden, Arrietty comes face to face with the boy, it’s then all short sentences so effectively used to describe the shock of it. ‘Something had glittered. It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the colour of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye. And the eye blinked’. However, the boy seems almost as scared of Arrietty as she is of him, and they actually become quite competitive trying to impress the other with their reading ability and knowledge. Arrietty enjoys telling him proudly of the finer details of the borrowing life and the difficulties and dangers of it and how they’ve achieved a good life, and how the Borrowers outnumber the humans. He then tells her of the millions and billions of human beings there are, the different countries they live in and the different activities they do, and questions if there are any Borrowers left but the Clocks, which scares and upsets Arrietty greatly, she becomes worried about the other Borrowers and that they are the only ones left and will die out under the floor in the dark. How authentic this is, two young children meeting in amazing circumstances but their instinct is to compete and triumph in trying to outdo and scare each other. The boy then regrets upsetting Arrietty, also because he’d hoped she’d read a book to him from the schoolroom as he has admitted he’s not a good reader and she has stated she is, he therefore offers to take a letter from her to Uncle Hendreary in his badger set beyond the spinney in Parkin’s Beck field, and she agrees to leave this letter under the front door mat. She doesn’t tell her parents about being seen and talking with the boy. She eventually manages to leave her letter under the mat, and then hears Crampfurl telling Mrs Driver that he’s seen the boy looking down rabbit holes a couple of fields away, so she knows that the boy has got her letter and has tried to deliver it.

That evening her father is upstairs talking to Great Aunt Sophy, so Arrietty determines to find the boy in bed and ask him for the results of the letter. She makes it up to the nursery where he sleeps, he gives her the reply that Uncle Hendreary has written back and asks her to send Aunt Lupy back, implying that Aunt Lupy must have attempted to visit the Clocks some time ago but has presumably been injured or caught as she hasn’t arrived. Pod hears Arrietty’s voice talking to the boy as he leaves Great Aunt Sophy, and is very angry to see Arrietty there. She then tells all to her parents who are extremely frightened, saying Arrietty has put them in grave danger giving the boy enough clues as to where exactly they live in the house, and also telling the boy where Uncle Hendreary lives, thus putting his family in danger also. Pod says Borrowers have been seen before and maybe caught before but never has a human known where any Borrower lived. Pod says they will have to leave the next day, although they have nowhere to go. Arrietty maintains humans aren’t that bad, but Pod says “They’re bad and they’re good…they’re honest and they’re artful – it’s just as it takes them at the moment…steer clear of them – that’s what I’ve always been told. No matter what they promise you”. That night, they wake to their ceiling being prised open and it’s the boy. I love the humour, as even throughout Homily’s terror she is aware of her standards, determining not to get out of bed as she has an old patched nightgown on, and she’s distressed at the recollection that she didn’t wash the supper dishes that night before bed so the kitchen looks untidy. The boy has brought them items from the dollhouse, such as a dresser complete with crockery and a Victorian velvet chair, which Homily is secretly delighted with, and he offers to bring them more such as carpets and rugs and beds with mattresses and a table and cooking pots and a sofa. The boy later takes items from the glass cabinet in the drawing room, such as jewelled snuff boxes and filigree vanity cases and Dresden figurines, which all delight Homily but which is eventually noticed by Mrs Driver who straightaway suspects someone is stealing the items in order to frame her, she suspects Great Aunt Sophy or the boy, and determines to catch them. She sets an alarm for midnight, and then sees a light under the kitchen floor and an item from the drawing room cabinet beside a loose floorboard, she pulls up the floorboard and sees the Clocks. She is very scared, and can’t think what they are and describes them to Crampfurl as mice dressed up, though she knows they are people, not mice. She and Crampfurl pick items out of the Clocks’ home, destroying the home in the process, and discover many things they have long missed. She determines to call the police and the fire brigade and the sanitary inspector and the rat catcher, and to get a cat. The boy has heard all this and sneaks down later to help the Clocks, he offers to hide them somewhere in the house that night and then take them to Uncle Hendreary’s badger set the following day, but as they are discussing this Mrs Driver again appears, she accuses the boy of being a thief and of being in league with them, and in his eagerness to defend them he tries to explain they and he are Borrowers. Mrs Driver tells him the Borrowers will be dealt with by the rat catcher. The boy is then told that a place on a boat to India has become available so he is to travel back there to be with his family, he is to leave in three days’ time and Mrs Driver locks him in his room all of that time so he can’t help the Borrowers. No-one takes Mrs Driver’s claims seriously and she is suspected of drinking, resulting in Great Aunt Sophy removing the madeira from the kitchen into her bedroom. The rat catcher pulls out the clock and blocks up the hole and then pours smoke down under the floorboards, expecting the Borrowers to have to then run out to where he has his terriers waiting to catch them. The boy is brought down into the kitchen to watch this while he waits for his taxi to the station, but he manages to sneak away to the grating with one of the rat catcher’s tools and knocks the grating out in the hope the Borrowers can escape through that way, although he doesn’t actually see them leave and never actually sees them again. 

Mrs May says she went to the house herself a year later, she didn’t see any Borrowers but she went to the badger set and called down the holes and found an oak-apple which could have been their teapot though the spout was missing, and she smelt hotpot. She left a pillowcase of supplies by the badger set, and it was gone the next morning so she hoped this meant that the Clocks reached the badger set safely and took the supplies. Mrs May reluctantly admits to Kate that she gained all this information about the Borrowers by finding and reading Arrietty’s diary three weeks after that, although she also then says the writing in the diary was very similar to her brother’s writing, so she has never been sure if the Borrowers did exist or if all of it was made up by him. 

This is such a wonderful book, I absolutely loved it. As I said, I do admire the way there is doubt implied regarding the existence of the Borrowers, but then I did find myself frustrated and wishing at the end for definite confirmation that they had existed! I was sad that it was Arrietty’s exuberance and enthusiasm for life and adventure that caused such danger to the family and made them have to leave, I almost wish it’d been due to something else unconnected with her, it is a shame to think of her spirits crushed after her very first adventure and her feeling guilty for everything that happened. We don’t find out what happened to Aunt Lupy in her attempt to reach the Clocks, or what happened to Eggletina and whether she was killed, though maybe the next books explain these things. I wasn’t sure how Mrs May found Arrietty’s diary, was it at the house or by the badger’s set, and did she mean she actually discovered everything solely from the diary and not from her brother telling her? And where is the diary now? I can’t imagine Mrs May destroying it. And I was puzzled a little about Mrs May’s manner at the end of the book, she spoke ‘hastily’ and ‘hurriedly’ and ‘hesitated’ and was ‘drawing back’, and Kate ‘stared at her suspiciously’. Why does Mrs May seem evasive? Is it just because she read Arrietty’s diary and is slightly ashamed of this? Or does she wish she hadn’t told the story and encouraged Kate to believe in the Borrowers, that she doesn’t want Kate distressed at the end with there being no happy ending as such? Or is it all just a made-up tale, and she didn’t imagine Kate would believe it so thoroughly and now wants to let her down gently? But she then seems to relent and says she ‘just knows’ that the Borrowers escaped and says the end could be ‘the beginning’ and offers possible answers to Kate’s questions, such as they found their way to the badger set by following the gas pipe, and had time to grab essentials before leaving, and of the wonderful life they’d have had at the badger’s set, and the food they’d eat, and getting to know the habits of the animals so as to live safely, and suggesting they used the badger’s set for storage and actually lived in the gaspipe and bored holes so they could use and control the gas for cooking. Or is it just me looking for any confirmation that the Borrowers exist because I so desperately want them to?!  I can’t wait to go back into the Borrowers’ world with the rest of the books.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton available on Amazon
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 Paperback  Audiobook

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