Obituary: Mary Norton
Friday 04 September 1992
MARY NORTON was one of the outstanding post-war children's-book writers. The 'Borrowers' quartet, with its astonishingly convincing mythology, has become, as Gillian Avery wrote, part of English folklore.
Born Mary Pearson in 1903, she spent much of her childhood in an idyllic Georgian house at Leighton Buzzard, in Buckinghamshire, the setting for several of her books. She was educated at a convent school, after which she briefly joined Lilian Baylis's Old Vic Company as an actress. In 1927 she married Robert Norton, accompanying him to Portugal where his family business was based.
Twelve years later, on the outbreak of war, Robert Norton joined the navy, while Mary and the four children went to America. It was there, in 1943, that Mary Norton's first children's book, The Magic Bed-knob, was published. She and her family then moved to England, where the UK edition of The Magic Bed-knob was published, in 1945, followed by Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) - later to be combined in one volume as Bed-knob and Broomstick (1957).
But it was The Borrowers, published in 1952, that established Norton as a children's writer, and for which she was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal. This was followed by The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), Poor Stainless (1971), Are All The Giants Dead? (1975), and eventually, in 1982, The Borrowers Avenged.
Mine was that fortunate generation in the Fifties which first grew up on The Borrowers and the minuscule race of people who lived beneath the floorboards, or in out-of-the-way crannies in old houses, 'borrowing' what they needed from the humans of the real world.
Norton's genius in creating characters such as Pod, Homily and their teenage daughter Arrietty lay in making them utterly convincing as personalities. These tiny people were not fairies: they were practical and quizzical, pursuing their never-ending - and most human - quest for some form of stability in an essentially alarming world.
Writing to a friend in 1966, a letter which was used as an introduction to The Borrowers Omnibus (1990), Norton explained in enchanting detail what led her first to think about the Borrowers. As a very shortsighted child, she became an inveterate 'gazer into banks and hedgerows . . . a rapt investigator of shallow pools'; not for her, unlike her brothers, the 'swift recognition of a rare bird on the wing'.
What, the young Mary wondered, would it be like to live, human to all intents and purposes, among creatures as vulnerable as a small toad? Buzzards, she realised, would be the enemies of her little people. From there she began to speculate on how her Borrowers might get through a gate. They would go underneath, of course - 'but, suddenly, she saw through their eyes the great lavalike lakes of cattle dung, the pock-like craters in the mud - chasms to them . . . And then she thought how wickedly sharp, how dizzily high and rustling those thistle plants would seem] And suppose one of these creatures (Were they a little family? She thought perhaps they might be) called out as her brothers had just done, 'Look, there's a buzzard]' What a different intonation in the voice and a different implication in the fact. How still they would lie . . . except for their beating hearts]'
Norton explains, too, how she invented for these tiny people assault courses, feats they were able to achieve by using any material assistance they could lay their hands on. Gradually she realised that there was no place they could not reach - 'given time, privacy and patience'. Her letter ends on a typically sensible, yet poignant, note: 'these are meant to be very practical books. Pod's balloon does work. I wonder if anyone has tried it?'
As one of those children, nurtured and stimulated by the first four Borrowers titles, it was all the more gratifying to find myself Norton's publisher in the early Seventies. But it was only when her last novel with Dent was published, Are All The Giants Dead? (a dryly humorous story about the ancient heroes of classic fairy stories, living in retirement), that I first met her.
Few authors I have known were quite so charming and distinguished as Mary, so vital, and with such a marvellous sense of humour. She was always tremendous fun - whether one waslunching with her at her club, or accompanying her to signing sessions and school visits. She was easily amused, and her deep and throaty laugh was evidence of her remarkably charming nature. Norton's sense of humour, too, pervades her writing. There is a delightful example from chapter 10 in The Borrowers in which Arrietty explains that, after her first three glasses of Madeira wine, bed-ridden Great-Aunt Sophy never believed in anything she saw. ' 'She thinks my father comes out of the decanter . . . and one day when I'm older he's going to take me there and she'll think I come out of the decanter too.' '
For so original and imaginative a writer, Mary was exceptionally modest and undemanding. I much enjoyed visiting her and her second husband, Lionel Bonsey, at their elegant house in Ireland where they retreated for several years in the Seventies to take advantage of the government's enlightened tax concessions to writers and artists. It was there that I begged her to consider writing another novel - and she admitted, shyly, to having outlined a fifth Borrowers book (eventually to appear as The Borrowers Avenged). But she seemed a little frustrated, believing herself to be tied in some way to the fascinating race of small people she had invented so many years before.
Her long-standing American publisher, Margaret McElderry, said recently of Mary Norton: 'She has always been and will always continue to be one of the high-points of my personal and professional life.' This echoes not only my own feelings, but undoubtedly those of all who knew her. We salute Mary with love and admiration.
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