After a twenty year gap, something—quite possibly the eager requests from children—drove author Mary Norton back to her popular series about the Borrowers, those tiny people who live in walls, generally (and preferably) unseen by humans, responsible for “borrowing” all of those things you put right there and then lost. It was a familiar world she found easy enough to slip back into in The Borrowers Avenged: if I hadn’t checked the publication dates, I would not have known about the gap. It is almost as if nothing had changed in those twenty years. Almost.
The Borrowers Avenged opens more or less where the last book left off, with Miss Menzies attempting to report the kidnapping of the Borrowers to the police. This goes over as well as you might expect—especially given that the Borrowers are no longer kidnapped—but does serve as a way for Norton to provide some background information for any readers new to the series. Meanwhile, the people responsible for kidnapping the Borrowers, the Platters, have just realized that their victims have flown away. Or is it ballooned away? I never know the right term. Unlike Miss Menzies, however, the Platters are in no position to turn to the police, not just because they are aware that the police will not be overly inclined to listen to stories about little people living in walls, but also because doing so would force them to admit that they had committed multiple felonies and at the very least trapped the little people in a cage. They decide that their only option is to go after the Borrowers directly.
With all of this going on with the Big People—and I’m not even mentioning the stuff about the local church and the issues between high and low church services and tourists and the caretakers in the Old Rectory—it not surprisingly takes a few chapters to get back to the supposed main characters, Pod, Homily, and Arietty. They have returned back to Mr. Pott’s model village—since the old mill didn’t work out—but still find themselves in need of a new home, like, immediately.
So, with a lot of effort, they head to the next home that Spiller has found for them (really, for a wanderer who hates being inside, he almost has a gift for this sort of thing; he should probably consider a career as a Borrower Real Estate Agent): the almost deserted Old Rectory, now inhabited by only two humans, with plenty of space for Borrowers to have a home. Bonus: some of their family (minus Eggletina, still not eaten by a cat, and two brothers, in a failed attempt by Norton to control the number of characters) have moved into the church next door. A home, the ability to socialize with family and friends, improved food, wild gardens to explore and play in—and a new neighbor in the form of Peregrine Overmantel, called Peagreen, a young disabled poet and painter. Peagreen offers the three his old home, since he is building a new one, and Arietty thinks she has finally found happiness at last.
But, since this is a Borrower book, that happiness can only be temporary. The Platters are still after them. (Norton remembers to remind us of their existence every once in awhile.) Miss Menzies is still worried about them. All three remember Lady Mullings, a faith healer with the ability to “find” things. And all three have items that once belonged to the Borrowers, to help Lady Mullings in her search.
The Borrowers Avenged certainly has the same tone as the previous four books in the series, and, like the previous books, has the usual untidy ending with many unanswered questions. But the book also has some significant differences. Arguably the most obvious is the entrance of magic—at least in the very minor form by Lady Mullings (who explains that she can’t explain how she does it, or why, just that it happens). And other supernatural forces, including ghosts. This is particularly odd given that the previous books had mostly argued against the existence of fairies, and the three Borrowers had spent their entire lives in an old house that should have been filled with ghosts without seeing a single one. Maybe ghosts just prefer to live near churches. I don’t know. But their sudden and very real—well, real by ghost standards—appearance in this book is a distinct change.
The second change is the appearance of religion, treated with an odd blend of respect and humor. Prior to this book, the Borrowers, with the possible exception of Pod, had not seemed to know or care much about religion—it served as part of their overall ignorance of humanity. But Lupy and Hendreary just happen to arrive at the church just as a rather significant and meaningful bit of Scripture—to them—is read out loud, converting Lupy, at least, into a devoted Christian. The conversion also changes her personality significantly for the better. Arietty, meanwhile, finds herself greatly moved by the art in the church. The other characters, however, remain mostly indifferent, and Norton adds in some amusing dialogue about Anglican services. (Warning: Lupy’s conversation about this may make as little sense to readers unfamiliar with the Anglican church as it did to Homily.)
More importantly, Arietty finally asks herself why she feels the need to talk to humans, especially given that this always gets her into trouble. For a reader, the answer is obvious: loneliness. Even with the addition of Spiller, she often has no one other than her parents to talk to, since Spiller is often absent. And Pod, too, is often off Borrowing, leaving her still more isolated. But Arietty, who has no real context of what a not-lonely existence would be like, even after meeting Spiller, Peagreen, and her extended family, has a different answer: the Borrowers may once have been human beings, so dialogue between the two groups is almost natural, no matter how much it may be forbidden by Borrowers. This in turn leads again to the thought that the Borrowers are dying out. It’s the first time this has been mentioned since the first book, and it’s a chilling idea.
Chilling in part because having seemingly paired Arietty off with Spiller in the last book, complete with interest on both sides and parental approval (well, from Pod, at least), Norton seems to backstep in this book, offering Peagreen to Arietty as an alternative. Peagreen may not know the family as well as Spiller, and he certainly has not saved their lives as often, but he shares a love of books and beauty with Arietty. And with Peagreen, she can remain indoors.
That might seem an odd choice after several books, including this one, emphasizing just how much Arietty likes being outdoors, what with flowers, birds, insects, sledding, swinging through trees, and so on. But Norton also recognized that Arietty and Spiller started falling in love with each other not just because they both love the outdoors, but because neither really had anyone else to fall in love with; it is nice to feel that Arietty has some sort of choice. Norton also emphasizes how much the Old Rectory, where Peagreen and now the others live, feels like home: secure, safe, comfortable and above all, happy. Arietty and Peagreen are instant friends, despite the way he occasionally condescends to her and disapproves of her English, and the way she often forgets his disability (he was injured as his family was attempting to flee the Rectory, and left behind) is a strength.
And as an indoor Borrower, he is better able to understand the family’s needs than Spiller is; after all, the home that Peagreen supplies is the first home the three have enjoyed in the entire series, and Arietty’s contentment and joy after they move in penetrates many pages of the book. They’ve had to flee every home Spiller found. For all Arietty’s original attachment to Spiller, and the book’s ongoing acknowledgement that Spiller will do anything for her, the book ends with Spiller leaving abruptly and Peagreen talking to Arietty.
The story of the young girl caught between the wild lover and the more scholarly, refined gentleman is of course a common trope in English literature (hi, Wuthering Heights). Norton does not give an answer here, which allows me the slender hope that Arietty will retain her love for adventure and head off with Spiller. Or, perhaps for the sake of Peagreen, who, after all, has no other options (unless the not-entirely-with-it-but-still-not-eaten-by-a-cat Eggletina makes a languid appearance). Arietty might end up with both, although I freely admit that’s just me and nowhere in the text.
But I suspect, at the end, Arietty will end up with Peagreen, with Spiller either continuing to live alone, or pairing up with Eggletina who, like Spiller, lacks many “normal” social instincts. After all, by this point, Arietty no longer wants to wander, content to stay in the Old Rectory. It helps, of course, that she has the companionship of Spiller, Peagreen and Timmus (the first time in her life that she has really had friends), and that she is now able to do Borrowing and be a full member of her community.
Anyway. Other things happen beyond Arietty’s potential love life and self-introspection, including a wild chase through the church, the frantic efforts of the Platters to catch a Borrower (with hints of their financial desperation, as well as the inability of most humans to be particularly observant), and building and decorating the Borrower house. Perhaps that, and the extensive time spent on the activities of the Big People, helps explain the somewhat disjointed feeling of the book.
The book, by the way, also gives us the first definitive date for the Borrowers: 1911, which somewhat surprised me. The events of the first four books supposedly happened during the childhoods of Mrs. May and Tom Wouldbegood, both in their 70s and 80s in what I had assumed was the 1950s, if not later, which suggests that the story of the Borrowers had happened right before or just around the turn of the century, with the model train of the fourth book suggesting the latest outside date for this. To really add to the confusion, the text says that the definitely grown up Miss Menzies had been a girl guide (girl scout in the American edition), a movement that only started in the 1900s in Britain. Making the issue even more tricky, Kate is an adult in the beginning of the second book, suggesting that the conversations between her and Mrs. May happened at the end of the 1940s, if not earlier, which in turn convinces me that timing is not this series’ strong point and the date should just have been left out.
For all its length—this is the longest of the Borrower books, by several pages—the book ends abruptly, on the usual note of uncertainty, as Peagreen reminds Arietty that all happiness is transitory and Borrowers are never really safe. After this—and Spiller’s sudden furious departure—the book ends, with only a brief (one paragraph) and unsatisfactory epilogue mostly focused on the activities of the humans. I say unsatisfactory, since even the epilogue admits that the Borrowers never did find out what really happened to all the humans. And frankly, that’s the least of the many questions left at the end, most notably, did Spiller listen to Arietty, and, as she requested, tell Miss Menzies that Arietty and her parents are alive and well? Did Miss Menzies and Kitty ever speak to Kate? Did any of the Borrowers emigrate to Australia? Did the Borrowers really settle in the Old Rectory, or was Peagreen’s final statement a warning that they would soon be moving again?
The abruptness of the ending suggests that even after finally granting Pod, Homily, and Arietty a permanent home, Norton planned to write yet another Borrowers book. After all, as Peagreen gently notes, the Borrowers were never safe, which suggests that they would have still more stories. By this time, however, Norton was nearly 80, and the last book was never written.
Far more than Norton’s other works, The Borrowers became a deeply influential work: its inspiration can be most obviously seen in The Wombles, but can also be traced in parts of Harry Potter. Among its readers: Lloyd Alexander, coming up next.
(Ok, that was a terrible segue. But I was trying to find something.)
Mari Ness has, indeed, been reading your emails, which is why Lloyd Alexander is coming up next, if, er, some time after the request. She lives in central Florida.