Disjointed thoughts on Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”



* This is all about the initial book. I have seen the 1997 and 2011 live action films, but not read the sequels or seen “Arrietty.”

* I am about to go read Subramanian on this, I just wanted to collate these notes I took while reading first. I’m only thinking about Borrowers in that context at all because Aishwarya Subramanian told me to.

* The cover of the edition I read, pictured above, is ideal. It takes the viewer a while to figure out that they aren’t looking down on human-sized people from an attic. It looks like an invasion. This is the perfect introduction to a book that consistently asks questions about property, appropriation and work (along class and colonial lines), which frequently plays with its power relationships rather than straightforwardly assigning colonizer/colonized positions to its two ‘races’. Though ultimately, the power the humans have to hurt the Borrowers and the lack of commensurate power on the Borrowers’ part does solidify those dynamics to a degree.

* “Mrs. May lived in two rooms in Kate’s parents’ house in London; she was, I think, some kind of relation.” There’s an arrogance to the authorial voice’s not knowing the relationship of obligation here–‘some kind of relation’. The human world has its own layers of dependence: child and adult, servant and invalid, monied and nonworking vs unmonied and working. These complicate the Borrowers’ position in interesting ways.

* Why does the book emphasize India, and that the frame-narrator has since died young?

* “Mrs. May was old, her joints were stiff, and she was-not strict exactly, but she had that inner certainty which does instead. Kate was never “wild” with Mrs. May, nor untidy, nor self-willed; and Mrs. May taught her many things besides crochet: how to wind wool into an egg-shaped ball; how to run-and-fell and plan a darn; how to tidy a drawer and to lay, like a blessing, above the contents, a sheet of rustling tissue against the dust.” ok how gorgeous is this language though?

* “Oh dear,” exclaimed Mrs. May lightly, “don’t say they’re in this house too!” “That what are?” asked Kate.
“The Borrowers,” said Mrs. May, and in the half light she seemed to smile. again, nice

* “Even Uncle Hendreary’s and Eggletina’s. Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all. Nothing. In spite of this, my brother said, they were touchy and conceited, and thought they owned the world.” So, is this a valid description? It’s so LOADED, a lot to unpick here. Names, for one.

* “They thought human beings were just invented to do the dirty work-great slaves put there for them to use. At least, that’s what they told each other. But my brother said that, underneath, he thought they were frightened. It was because they were frightened, he thought, that they had grown so small. Each generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden. In the olden days, it seems, and in some parts of England, our ancestors talked quite openly about the ‘little people.'” Again, who’s the colonizer? Does this indicate that these essentially-Fae creatures lived off the land before human encroachment, and that they learned and adapted to human economic patterns and became dependent on them? This would be another layer of appropriation. Or perhaps they came with these humans to the area, perhaps they exist as ‘parasitic’ organisms.

* I am being reminded a lot of that paper I wrote on inhumanity and enchantment, and how DEPENDENT the fae are on humanity, how parasitic at every level.

* It’s interesting that the borrowers are ALLOWED to be something other than ideal, pastoral, endlessly-nice.

* meat safe
noun: meat safe; plural noun: meat safes
1 a cupboard or cover of wire gauze or a similar material, used for storing meat.

(new term for me)

* “hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl” participation in the structure of empire–see also the cigar boxes? I wonder if the Borrowers feel themselves British.

* The frame narratives are fascinating, but at times the question of how people know things just dissolves. Are the frames necessary? Not from a writerly perspective, but from a critical one they’re tricky and potentially rich.

* “It shocked her to be right. Parents were right, not children. Children could say anything, Arrietty knew, and enjoy saying it— knowing always they were safe and wrong.”

* “Arrietty, half dozing, gazed up at her painted ceiling. “FLOR DE HAVANA,” proclaimed the banners proudly. “Garantizados… Superiores… Non Plus Ultra… Esquisitos…” and the lovely gauzy ladies blew their trumpets, silently, triumphantly, on soundless notes of glee…”

* “Arrietty felt warm tears behind her eyelids and a sudden swelling pride: so this, at last, was The Clock! Their clock… after which her family was named! For two hundred years it had stood here, deep-voiced and patient, guarding their threshold, and measuring their time.” Nice writing, but alos–possession, ownership, identity stuff here.

* “and she saw, in a glory of sunlight—like a dreamed- of gateway to fairyland—the open front door. Beyond she saw grass and, against the clear, bright sky, a waving frond of green.” The enchantment of the mundane.

* “Arrietty saw him scurry across the sunlit floor. Swiftly he ran—as a mouse runs or a blown dry leaf—and suddenly she saw him as “small.”” I’m reminded of the reframing in this poem:

Shailja Patel’s “Dreaming in Gujarati” (full poem here http://parasmaalde.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/dreaming-in-gujarati.html):

my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
rosewater fountains
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi
suave and melodic
earthy Punjabi
salty rich as saag paneer
coastal Kiswahili
laced with Arabic,
he speaks Gujarati
solid ancestral pride.
Five languages
five different worlds
yet English
before white men

* “the awful space above and around her!” the colonial subject in a world build for the colonizer

* “But we are Borrowers,” she explained, “like you’re a—a human bean or whatever it’s called. We’re part of the house. You might as well say that the fire grate steals the coal from the coal scuttle.” part of the environment

*” His face became even redder. “Of course not,” he said angrily; “I’m not a fairy!” “Well, nor am I,” said Arrietty, “nor is anybody. I don’t believe in them.”
He looked at her strangely. “You don’t believe in them?”
”No,” said Arrietty; “do you?”
”Of course not!”” The way the borrowers resist being made into the supernatural other.

* “‘Oh,” said the boy again. He seemed to find it a safe sound, as lawyers do. “Are there many people like you?”
“No,” said Arrietty. “None. We’re all different.”” o snap. Again, a refusal of being–a representative of the Other, rather than herself, and part of an array of people.

* “That’s why my father says it’s a good thing they’re dying out… just a few, my father says, that’s all we need” Humans as problematic: too big, too needing, too capable of violence by virtue of their bodily power. Also, this country house, this upper class way of life, IS dying out here. There aren’t enough people and material goods and activity during which stuff can go missed easily, anymore, to sustain all these Dorrower families.

* “Human beans are for Borrowers—like bread’s for butter!” interesting inversion of dependency’s power-relations.

* ‘”Listen!” he said. And he told her about railway stations and football matches and racecourses and royal processions and Albert Hall concerts. He told her about India and China and North America and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales. “Not hundreds,” he said, “but thousands and millions and billions and trillions of great, big, enormous people. Now do you believe me?”
Arrietty stared up at him with frightened eyes: it gave her a crick in the neck. “I don’t know,” she whispered.
“As for you,” he went on, leaning closer again, “I don’t believe that there are any more Borrowers anywhere in the world. I believe you’re the last three,” he said.
Arrietty dropped her face into the primrose. “We’re not. There’s Aunt Lupy and Uncle Hendreary and all the cousins.”
“I bet they’re dead,” said the boy. “And what’s more,” he went on, “no one will ever believe I’ve seen you. And you’ll be the very last because you’re the youngest. One day,” he told her, smiling triumphantly, “you’ll be the only Borrower left in the world!”
He sat still, waiting, but she did not look up. “Now you’re crying,” he remarked after a moment.’

The imperial content of the recitation there at the beginning, but also, where but in children’s books do you get such poignant moments and rich explorations of cruelty? It’s like, this and better BDSM fic, but even that often fails to really invoke the power and vulnerability and nastiness and intense emotional response children’s books can get at.

And again, here we have the inversions of ‘who’s going extinct?’ A troubled, open question.

* “She stared at him for a moment as though she did not recognize him; how round his face was, how kind, how familiar!” Arrietty looking at her father (one of the two people of her kind she has ever met) after an encounter with the human boy.

* “The line which read: “… it would be so charming if—” If what? Arrietty always wondered” GREAT

* “Another world above,” she thought, “world on world…” and shivered slightly.” the terrifying idea of being one layer in an infinite series of worlds–of being relatively defined, relatively important, relatively real.

* “name-tape” What is this?

EDIT: @legionseagle : “Name tape” is tape on which one’s name is either woven or (in inferior versions) written in indelible ink. The tape is then sewn into school uniform items to identify them when people take them off for games & of course essential at boarding school. It was a rite of passage going to secondary school having to choose your font & colour from Cashs for your nametapes. I went for red & blackletter as opposed to blue & cursive which was more usual & got a dire “You’ll regret it” from Mum. I think she thought it was Showing Off. Anyway, if you want to tie it into themes, it’s about asserting identity in a very regimented area.

* This bit about spring taking Arrietty, followed by ‘have to see that boy’–there are a couple weirdly erotically charged moments in the book. Not FULL ON, but strange undercurrents that are def def there–it’s hard to imagine this story with flipped genders.

* “She did not want to lose these, she realized suddenly, lying there straight and still in bed, but to have all the other things as well, adventure and safety mixed—that’s what she wanted. And that (the restless hangings and whisperings told her) is just what you couldn’t do.” There’s a lot of angles to look at this through, but gender’s one.

* Are adaptations interested in the FEAR of this? How curtailed their lives are by the presence and threat of the humans? That’s so–racial and colonial.

* Pod rolled over and sat up. They both stared at the ceiling: the whole surface was on a steep slant and one side of it had come right away from the wall—this was what had caused the draught—and down into the room, to within an inch of the foot of the bed, protruded a curious object: a huge bar of gray steel with a flattened, shining edge.” He could have killed them!

* The act of telling their story–because this is all, presumably, the little boy’s POV–seems really presumptuous, in an important way.

* “She was made to realize once and for all that this earth on which they lived turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people. “Nor for big people either,” she reminded the boy when she saw his secret smile.” Good that this doesn’t collapse into just prestiging the humans.

* “I’m not a thief,” cried the boy, his lips trembling, “I’m a borrower.” What does this sort of appropriative identity claim do and mean? It’s more than just about his action in this moment.

* Borrowers turn to MAKING, once in the wild. How different is that from their house-life, were we always see the mother at work, though? Is there some comment here about the relative goodness and authenticity of their lives in the house vs the woods?

* “But Borrowers are Borrowers; not killers. I think,” said Mrs. May, “that if a stoat, say, killed a partridge they would borrow a leg!”
“And if a fox killed a rabbit they’d use the fur?” on the one hand this is a statement of their nonviolence–on the other, it’s a statement about their willingness to benefit from others’ violence. Where does this situate them in an imperial context?

One thought on “Disjointed thoughts on Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”

  1. […] Some disconnected notes on the 2011 BBC adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (first published in 1952–the dates are important). Since the book is a) good and b) relevant to my interests (academic and otherwise) I decided drag Erin into watching it with me (and reading the book and thinking about empire–she has some really good stuff about the book here). […]

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