Little People

Claude Rawson

  • The Borrowers Avenged by Mary Norton
    Kestrel, 285 pp, £5.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7226 5804 4

‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest,’ said Dr Johnson of Gulliver’s Travels. This might do for a put-down of Swift, whom Johnson disliked, perhaps from a sense of likeness. But big men and little men have old folkloric origins, so the idea in itself was not new: as more than one character says in Mary Norton’s Borrower books, ‘our ancestors spoke openly about “the little people”.’ Gulliver’s Travels bears an intriguing relation to children’s books. It is not ‘for nothing that, suitably abbreviated, it has become a classic for children’: Leavis’s oracular utterance, like Johnson’s, was intended as a put-down. And ‘suitable abbreviation’ has tended to mean the removal of Books Three and Four, which leaves ‘big men and little men’, usually stripped of the more stinging harshnesses of Books One and Two.

This involves a separation of ‘satire’ from ‘story’ which serious readers might consider deeply untrue to Gulliver’s Travels. It ‘works’, since there’s no doubt of the success of the children’s adaptations. But I suspect that the separation, which sentimentalises children, is equally untrue to the idea of what a good children’s book might be. The severity of Swift’s disenchanted wisdom is doubtless something children are unlikely to be able to grasp. Perhaps they need protecting from its full force. It’s arguable that Gulliver’s Travels might be more disturbing to a young mind than much of the insignificant twaddle that gets banned for ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’. But what seems certain is that the simple distinction implied by Leavis and by the bowdlerisers alike, and the mechanical scissors-and-paste surgery which would leave you with a story about little or big people stripped of ‘satirical’ elements, involves a misconception about what some good children’s books are like.

Mary Norton’s Borrowers are ‘little people’ and the books about them have lots of Gulliverian elements, whether ‘borrowed’ directly or absorbed as a generalised influence. Borrowers aren’t nasty like some Lilliputians, and tend to be victims rather than villains. They have their vices (petty snobberies, for example), as Lilliputians do, and home truths about them are truths about human beings, transposed. Such alternative humanoid species, whether in children’s fiction or in moral allegories, always carry a potential for satirical conversion or for stinging recognitions of likeness. Though by no means primarily satirical, the Borrower books occasionally erupt into severities that would not be out of place in the harshest satire. In The Borrowers Avenged it is said of Mr and Mrs Platter, the wicked full-sized humans who wish to capture the Borrowers and exhibit them for profit, that, as part-time undertakers by trade, they regretted that ‘people were not dying as often as they used to.’ These are the accents of Swift’s Modest Proposer, satisfied that people are ‘every Day dying, and rotting ... as fast as can be reasonably expected’. The resemblance, whether coincidental or otherwise (a similar thing is said, by the way, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), momentarily shows the Platters, not as the fairy-tale ogres they partly are, nor as cardboard villains who bring a note of menace to a nursery idyll, but as nasty specimens viewed from a knowing and sophisticated adult perspective. The fact that this sarcastic eruption seems neither unbalancing nor discordant tells us something about what children’s books can absorb without strain, and suggests that the schematic demarcations between satire and children’s classic which sometimes get into discussions of Gulliver’s Travels lack insight into children as well as into satire. If Gulliver’s Travels became a formative influence on the way children’s books treat ‘little people’, this is not confined to the use of an allegorical formula, nor necessarily a matter of mere playful fancy.

I mean ‘little people’ in the precise Lilliputian sense of one-twelfth of human height, as in the books by T.H. White or Mary Norton. Borrowers are about ‘five or six inches’. Little people can come in various other sizes, small as a thumb or smaller (Andersen’s Thumbelina fits into a walnut-shell), or, in the case of full-sized dwarfs or midgets, two or three feet, which is the usual range in real life. Bruno Bettelheim, whose book on fairy-tales reads like the work of a Laputan philosopher, says dwarfs symbolise a phallic existence. It’s lucky that he didn’t take in Lilliputians, whose size is actually that of a human phallus, for he would have been less amusing about the implications than Swift was, and a good deal less brief. Children’s books about Lilliputians aren’t explicit about such things, and if a darker theme attaches to their dimensions, it has more to do with fears of extinction than with subterranean sexuality. They are easily crushed underfoot and otherwise at the mercy of forces which to humans are unmenacing features of daily life. The sustained pathos of the Borrower books comes largely from this.

In this special sense of ‘little people’, ordinary dwarfs don’t count, nor that Tom Thumb who (we are told in The Borrowers), being ‘nearly two feet high, would seem a giant to a Borrower’: this may refer to some real-life dwarf to whom the name was attached, like the famous Charles Stratton, ‘General Tom Thumb’, for the Tom Thumb of early ballad or folk-tradition was sometimes literally ‘but an inch in height’. It’s essential for little people not to be ‘real-life’, though fully ‘human’ within their alternative world. Dwarfs are within the range of quotidian experience, while Lilliputians and Borrowers are totally outside it. Where dwarfs are merely unnaturally small, and can be called freaks, the others are a separate form of life. The philosophers of Brobdingnag (where Gulliver himself is a ‘Lilliputian’) come in for scorn when they solemnly opine that Gulliver is a lusus naturae, though they rightly ‘would not allow me to be a Dwarf, because my Littleness was beyond all Degrees of Comparison’. As if to make the point, Swift gives us a Brobdingnagian dwarf who, like Tom Thumb to Borrowers, is a giant to Gulliver. One of the themes of ‘little people’ books, especially prominent in The Borrowers Avenged, is the exceptional wrongness of displaying such creatures in circuses and shows, as men do with dwarfs. Lilliputians and Borrowers are, on their terms, ‘normal’: it’s important that they are never misshapen or misproportioned as dwarfs are often supposed to be, but perfect replicas of human form and psyche, on an alternative scale. They are at once totally like us, ‘as like to humans as makes no matter’, and totally other. That otherness is so absolute that it argues impossibility. The greater the human likeness and the more ‘realistic’ the portrayal, the greater the disbelief we are invited (or challenged) to suspend. Teasing uncertainties about their existence, even within the stories in which they are principal actors, as it were given, attend upon their appearances. It is never fully clear whether they have been really ‘seen’. The curious play of affirmation and doubt which so often surrounds their presentation exemplifies some of the ploys and defences with which fiction (not just in children’s books and allegorical fantasies) manipulates our credulity, and acknowledges or half-admits the limits on its power to do so.

The freak-show theme turns up with some insistence. In the first two books of Gulliver’s Travels it is prominent but in a sense desultory. It provides some narrative interest without being very strongly integrated into the satire, beyond sparking off a number of reflections on the natural malignity of man. Swift knew quite a bit about the shows. Plenty of dwarfs were exhibited in his day, but no Lilliputians. Fiction’s explanation of the lack is that Gulliver was forbidden by the Emperor of Blefuscu to bring any away, though he took with him some tiny sheep and cattle, which he was able to show to ‘many Persons of Quality’ for ‘a considerable Profit’, as well as to sell and breed successfully in England. That these were therefore ‘seen’ is part of the authenticating tease (‘real life’ got its own back when later circus-masters developed a habit of giving to ordinary dwarfs the name of Lilliputians). Captain John Biddel, who brought Gulliver back from Lilliput in his ship, was apparently not so scrupulous as Gulliver. According to T.H. White, he brought away quantities of Blefuscan and Lilliputian people for exhibition ‘among the Fair Grounds of the Kingdom’, but they escaped from his drunken custody and settled on a small island in the grounds of the Palace of Malplaquet in Northamptonshire known as Mistress Masham’s Repose, where their descendants are living to this day.

Mistress Masham’s Repose came out in 1947, and tells of a dastardly plot by the wicked Miss Brown and the Reverend Hater to get rich by capturing and exhibiting them for profit, as Captain Biddel did with their ancestors. They are protected by the young ducal heiress Maria, who is a giantess to them, as Gulliver is cared for by the young giantess Glumdalclitch (though he doesn’t escape the freak shows). T.H. White’s book appeared five years before The Borrowers and is a kind of intermediary between Gulliver’s Travels and the Borrower series: The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961) and now, after 21 years, The Borrowers Avenged. Borrowers live in small family groups, mostly ‘under the floors and behind the wainscots’ of old houses, and subsist on scraps of food and equipment ‘borrowed’ from the human occupants. The threat of capture for profit occasionally raises its head in the earlier volumes, but first becomes prominent in The Borrowers Aloft, where the wicked Platters abduct little Pod and his family in order to exhibit them. They escape through the air in a basket attached to a balloon, as Gulliver in his box was flown out of Brobdingnag by a large bird, a standard folk-tale or tall-tale adventure also experienced by Tom Thumb and Cyrano de Bergerac.

In The Borrowers Avenged, a fresh attempt by the Platters to capture and exhibit the Borrowers becomes the main concern of the plot, as in Mistress Masham’s Repose, and they are similarly foiled in a bustling and eventful climax. The role of Maria/Glumdalclitch is played by the kindly Miss Menzies, who, like Gulliver’s giant protectress, makes clothes for them and provides them with the comforts of a doll’s house. Miss Menzies has ‘Gulliver-like strides’, and the perspective of the Borrower books is largely Lilliputian, unlike that of Mistress Masham’s Repose or Swift’s Lilliput, where things are seen through the giant eyes of Maria or Gulliver. But it is Brobdingnag which is closer to Mary Norton’s story, and it is in Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is the only little person, that the angle of vision is Borrower-like, both because it’s the small person’s and because of Gulliver’s solitary vulnerability.

In T.H. White, as in Swift, the Lilliputians are populous communities, advanced nations: ‘the Lilliputians were not toys. They were grown up ... and they were civilised. Lilliput and Blefuscu had been countries of high civilisation.’ The Borrowers are a few scattered families, not nations. There is no original Borrowerland where everything is to scale, no Borrower-sized sheep or cattle, only an alien ‘human’ environment: Arrietty reflects ‘how many millions of human beings there were in the world, and how few borrowers’. We see them in tiny groups, struggling to survive, with an extraordinary loneliness about them. The predicament of Gulliver in the giant grass, or confronting a Brobdingnagian rat, is closer to them in spirit than the elaborate imperial concerns of the Lilliputians, whose dimensions they share in actual as distinct from relative arithmetic. Their survival is correspondingly more precarious. In novel after novel, Pod and his family have to uproot just because some apparently harmless sighting has occurred. No story about them is ever finally resolved, with the tidy closure we might expect from children’s stories. Some event remains unexplained, someone’s fate uncertain or their whereabouts untraced. Villains remain unpunished and menacing. The titles (Afield, Afloat, Aloft) suggest thrusting movement and an open end. The new book is unusual in the participial finality of its Avenged, which suggests both closure and poetic justice. The Platters seem at last to have been caught and brought to book. But, in fact, ‘the Borrowers never discovered exactly’ what happened to them. Arrietty longs to let Miss Menzies know the Borrowers are safe, but Peagreen, ‘smiling his quizzical, one-sided smile’, says: ‘Are we? Ever?’ I hope this means there’ll be more Borrower books, but it’s likely that none will end happily ever after.

Extinction is a more urgent fear than that ‘Indignity ... to be exposed for Money as a publick Spectacle’ which afflicts Gulliver. Protestations that they’re grown-up, civilised, ‘not toys’, are less to the fore. They would, in fact, like nothing better than a doll’s-house existence, and the one Miss Menzies strives to give them in good Mr Pott’s model village would be a dream, or at least an Ideal Homes Exhibition, come true. For Borrowers the main thing wrong with exhibition is not the indignity but the fact that it’s a public and formalised extension of being ‘seen’, and, as Miss Menzies tells Mr Pomfret the policeman: ‘to be seen by a human being might be the death of their race.’ He says she says she has seen them and she replies: ‘I have been very privileged.’

The term comes over with a quasi-technical flavour, an inadvertent whiff of litcritspeak. It evokes a special grace or magical access within the strict rules of a fictional game. Only a few very special children are privileged, and one or two grown-ups like Miss Menzies, a ‘kind of overgrown schoolgirl’, who believes in fairies. The rules serve to explain why you’re not going to see them. Borrowers don’t, for example, stay ‘where there are careless people, unruly children’, so if you aren’t privileged it’s probably because you don’t live up to certain standards: a species of realistic cover which exploits that mild guilt-inducing element on which children’s books thrive. But there’s a sort of reverse magic, the obverse of ‘privilege’, by which a few deep villains, like the Platters, can see and even touch a Borrower, as though the mystery were accessible only to the very innocent or the very vicious.

Non-privileged persons who ‘see’ Borrowers, like gipsy Mild Eye and Mrs Whitlace, who believed in fairies, can’t confirm it or are never really sure. Great Aunt Sophy speaks to Pod nightly but only after her third glass of madeira, because after that she ‘never believed in anything she saw’. She looks forward to these talks, which she believes to be fictive, and Pod consents to take part only because she’ll never think they’re for real. Arrietty once complained that it’s sad ‘to belong to a race that no sane person believes in’, but that’s a maverick view since the Borrowers know they wouldn’t survive if people knew about them. The words are also a doubt-defying ploy, and it’s a condition of the story that doubts should both be conceded or humoured and cunningly allayed. On the one hand, the narration is hearsay and often at two or three removes from the speaker: privileged narrators like Tom Goodenough are known liars; Mrs May, who is the main narrator, ‘never saw’ a Borrower and says her brother told her the story or ‘made it up. If it was made up.’ On the other hand, there are moments of what seems to be authorial reassurance. And there’s ‘objective’ evidence like that of Arrietty’s notebook, ‘not quite’ conclusive, but tending that way, all those missing small objects, the slightly diminished stock of tea or sugar, which can only be accounted for by ‘borrowing’. And Borrowers are good at doing things which look like something else, open to the ‘natural cause’ explanation akin to what an older litcritspeak called the supernaturel expliqué. Pod chips out some footholes which ‘for years after ... were considered by naturalists to be the work of the greater spotted woodpecker’, a fact which may remind us of the explanations of the Gulliver phenomenon by the scientists of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.

The toing and froing between ‘it’s true’ and ‘it’s only a story’ is essential to the more ‘incredible’ kind of story, and perhaps to all fiction. ‘Ce livre est vrai et c’est une blague’: Genet’s words resemble the oscillations of Mrs May, and the refusal to distinguish in his novels between what ‘really happened’ and what happened only in the mind are in one sense a self-conscious replay of the same narrative impulse, remote as these novels are from the gentle world of Arrietty and Pod. The Gulliverian tall story similarly oscillates between a cheeky flaunting of improbability and protestations of veracity backed by ‘objective’ evidence. And it ‘worked’, sometimes better than Swift meant, since the satire depends on your not taking the book straight. Some readers took out their map, or claimed to know Gulliver. But the prize gull was the Irish bishop who thought ‘the Book was full of improbable lies and ... hardly believed a word of it’ – taken in precisely as he preened himself on not having been.

The Borrowers, like other ‘improbable’fictions, thrive on the same curious bid to keep disbelief in suspension at the very moment when it most invites that disbelief. The danger of being ‘seen’ menaces not only the Borrowers’ existence but also the story’s. They depend on an odd fictional contract which ensures that we ‘believe’ in them only as long as we are allowed to doubt them. If there were no rules preventing our world from seeing theirs, their existence would be either disproved or demystified: the tale would then have no truth, or else no strangeness worth the telling. After his return from Houyhnhnmland, Gulliver considers his ‘Duty as a Subject of England’ to report its location ‘to a Secretary of State’. He decides not to, because any attempt to take over the Houyhnhnms as a Crown colony would simply make them destroy us. One lesson of this is anti-imperialist. The other is that when an ‘alternative’fictional world is fully exposed to ours, it seems that one or the other must die: if all of us could see the Borrowers, they would be exterminated, as we should be if we saw the Houyhnhnms. The secrecy which protects the survival of both sides is the one which protects the fiction. If everybody saw the Lilliputians, or the Houyhnhnms, or the Borrowers, it would be the same as if nobody did, so we may as well leave such sightings to Gulliver, and Maria, and Tom Goodenough, and take their word for it.