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Monday, August 22, 2016

Mary Norton

Although she was one of our foremost children's writers—she wrote the six novels of The Borrowers series and two early novels upon which Bedknobs and Broomsticks was based—I'm surprised to note how little seems to be known about Mary Norton's life.

The reason I became interested was a mention that Norton had lived in Wivenhoe, where I now reside. Surely it should be easy to discover more about where and when...? "No," is the short answer. Norton was a private person and the long gaps between novels meant, I'm sure, that some believed her long gone. As she once said, "I am always beginning things and putting them away. Everybody wanted another Borrowers, but I thought I had done enough of that. It seems an effort to get away and start writing, because when I am writing I don't seem to think of anything else."

Born in Islington, London, on 10 December 1903, Kathleen Mary Pearson grew up in a Georgian manor house in Leighton Buzzard with her parents, Reginald Spencer Pearson, a physician and surgeon, and Mary (Minnie) Savile (nee Hughes), and four brothers. She was educated at two convent schools—one being St. Margaret's Convent School, East Grinstead, Sussex—before returning to live with her parents, now in Lambeth.

Struggling to find a suitable job, she attended St James's Secretarial College, but was soon fired from her first job as a secretary. It was here that she suggested to a dinner-guest, actor-impressario Arthur Rose, that she wished to become an actress, and she went on the understudy at the Old Vic during the 1925-26 season.She married Robert Charles Norton on 4 September 1926 (not 1927 as most sources give), an engineer with his wealthy family's shipowning and trading company. The young couple moved to the Norton family's estate near Lisbon, Portugal, where she began raising four children: Anne Mary Norton (1927- ), Robert George Norton (1929-2001), Guy Norton (c.1931- ) and Caroline (1937- ), although she returned to England for the birth of three of them, staying with her mother, Minnie Pearson, at 16 The Oval, Kennington, London—her father having died in 1928.

Although life in Portugal was lavish at first, her ex-pat in-laws owning large estates, the shipping industry was hit badly by the Wall Street crash in 1929 and during the Depression, they were forced to slowly sell off assets, which allowed them to live in Portugal until the beginning of the Second World War.

While Robert Norton served in the Royal Navy, his wife returned to England and joined the British War Office in London, which led, in August 1940, to Mary Norton taking herself and three of her children to New York where she was employed by the British Purchasing Commission. It was during this early war period that she began writing essays, translations and children's stories, culminating in the completion of her novel The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, published by Hyperion Press in New York in 1943 with illustrations by Waldo Pierce.

Norton returned to London in 1943, and worked as an actress, including a sixteen month engagement in The Guinea Pig at the Criterion in 1946-47. She continued to write, publishing a sequel to her first novel, which had appeared in the UK in 1945. The sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks, was published in London in 1947, but was not published in the USA for another ten years, when it appeared in revised form combined with the first novel as Bed-Knob and Broomsticks in 1957.

In the meantime, she had written The Borrowers (1952), which won the British Library Association's Carnegie Medal for the year's best children's novel. Sequels followed: The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959) and The Borrowers Aloft (1961).

It was during this latter period that Mary Norton moved to Wivenhoe. It is thought that the third and fourth Borrowers books were written at her home in West Street, a house later occupied by Steve Roberts who directed the eccentric Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980) and wrote Max Headroom (1985). (See imdb for his many other credits.)

The fourteen-year gap between the fourth and fifth Borrowers novel coincides with a period when Norton was living in Alresford, a village only a mile from Wivenhoe. She lived at Fanman's Farm, Alresford, which became a grade II listed building in 1987. It was whilst living here, on 24 April 1970 (and following the dissolution of her first marriage), that she married author and playwright Alfred Lionel Bonsey (1912-1989), shortly after which she published Poor Stainless (1971) a short Borrowers tale, based on a short story that appeared in the BBC Children's Hour Annual in 1954, later expanded for inclusion in an anthology for Eleanor Farjeon.

The Bonsey's moved to Ireland in 1972 and a new Borrowers novel, Are All the Giants Dead?, appeared in 1975. Her last Borrowers novel appeared as The Borrowers Avenged in 1982.

Kathleen Mary Bonsey lived out her later years in Devonshire, where she died following a stroke in Hartland on 29 August 1992. Lionel had predeceased her, dying in Barnstable in 1989, but she was survived by her four children and some twelve grandchildren.

The Bread and Butter Stories, a collection of fifteen stories from the 1940s and 1950s, was published by Virago in 1998.


Norman Boyd said...

How incredible that we know so little about such a famous author. Well done once again Steve! I remember reading all of the Borrowers in my late 20s and finding my wife hated them and found them creepy. But then she didn't watch Land of the Giants either!

Steve said...

I haven't read the books for many, many years, but I do recommend the Studio Ghibli adaptation Arrietty if you get a chance to see it. The story is relocated to Japan, but its an absolute delight.

Joanna Guthrie said...

I used to live 2 minutes up the road from Fanmans Farm - beautiful house and gardens

Joanna Guthrie said...

YES Arrietty is a lovely film 😊