The Virago edition feature a cover
with the painting La Table de Fruits
a l’atelier 1946 by Henri Manguin
Mary Norton is most famed for her children’s stories about the Borrowers – the tiny race of people who ‘borrow’ things that we lose or discard. You know, all those little objects that inexplicably go missing: teaspoons, nail scissors, safety pins, oddments of wool, stamps...
But throughout the 1940s and 50s she wrote what she called ‘The Bread and Butter Stories’ for women’s magazines, mainly in America: short tales which brought in the cash she needed to feed her family. Many have been lost, but more than a dozen have been gathered together in a book of the same name, with an introduction by her daughter Ann Brunsden. The stories are a mix of fact and fiction, drawing heavily on Norton’s own life – and what a life it was. Born in 1903, she was brought up in a Georgian manor house in Leighton Buzzard (renamed Firbank Hall, it featured as the big house in ‘The Borrowers’), spent a year in France, and became a student at the Old Vic.
She married Robert Charles Norton, and moved to his family estate in Portugal where her four children enjoyed a magical period, until the family was hit by the financial meltdown of the late 1920s and early 30s. Their shipping company failed, and they lost everything, but stayed on in Portugal, living in a small cottage. Norton’s friends included great names from the world of the theatre, like Lilian Baylis and Margaret Rutherford, as well as poets Stephen Spender and WH Auden, and writer Christopher Isherwood, who had all fled to Portugal from Nazi Germany.
In 1939 Norton travelled to London with three of her children (she needed an operation), while her husband and elder son remained in Portugal, but the outbreak of war meant she was unable to return home. However, the following year she took her children to America, where she remained until 1943, and it was there that she began to write, to eke out the money she earned working for the war office. She continued writing after moving to London, and also acted, on stage and on radio – and she was caught in a bomb blast, suffered a detached retina and underwent what was then risky surgery to save her sight.
During the last years of the war, and in the period which followed, the family seem to have lived from hand to mouth. Even when Walt Disney bought the rights to Norton’s first book, ‘The Magic Bedknob’, and its follow-up, ‘Bonfires and Broomsticks’ things didn’t improve, for there was little money involved in the deal. They lived in Cornwall for a time, and the success of ‘The Borrowers’ seems to have made life easier – in her introduction Ann gives a fascinating account of the way it was written, including the creation of a model of Clocks’ home beneath the floorboards. Eventually, at the age of 60, Norton got divorced, remarried and moved to Cork. In her 80s she discovered some of her old ‘Bread and Butter’ stories in a box, and was keen to have them republished. She died in 1992.
Her experiences are woven into many of her short stories, and the tone of her work is very different to the short stores of Dorothy Whipple or Mollie Panter-Downes, both of whom I have reviewed on this blog. Norton doesn’t keep life – and love – at a distance, and she’s never a detached, disinterested observer. She feels for her characters, which is, perhaps, to be expected since she put so much of herself and her life into some of these stories. Her people look to be leading normal lives, but they act in unexpected ways, or reveal shocking secrets.
In ‘The Girl in the Corner’, a simple train journey becomes more complex as a mother and daughter offer a kitten to a fellow passenger who turns out to be blind, and it seems Norton used the trauma of recovery from her own eye operation (when she could only peer at the world through pinholes in dark glasses) to craft a touching tale about love and independence.
And I loved the poor down-trodden mum in ‘Beauty Bar’ face made over for free at a beauty demonstration, then blows some of the housekeeping money on a hat – a reckless act that’s somehow rekindles her love for her husband, and his for her, and even makes it possible for her to feel compassion for her to feel compassion for his shrewish sister.
In Pauline and Bertha a married woman reveals how she met a man, held his hand, fell in love – and continued with her life. ‘A House in Portugal’ and ‘Mr Sequeria’ both draw on Norton’s time in Portungal, while in ‘Talking of Television’ she gives humorous account of the way a TV drama is put together based, presumably, on her days in the theatre.
I really enjoyed the stories, but my favourite, is ‘Take of Wormwood Seven Scruples’, a light-hearted look at the advice on offer in ‘A Shilling’s Worth of Practical Receipts’, published at the end of the 19th century. If this wonderful really exists, it must be very similar to my 1903 edition of ‘Enquire Within’. Norton writes:
Thanks to this modestly priced volume, I have suddenly become the possessor of many new and startling accomplishments: I can dye kid gloves purple, manufacture Daffys Elixirand Sympathetic Ink, manufcure the French method of embalming, prevent cold feet bedtime, cure cholera, and ventilate a ship.
The instructions for English sherry urge her to ‘macerate, rack and rummage’, while the recipe for cyder says she must ‘make it work kindly’. Best of all is the recipe for Eau de Cologne (70 gallons of the stuff), which includes the direction to ‘agitate for twelve days’ and then one must allow it to rest for a week... it could be a recipe for life!