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  (Kathleen) Mary Norton (1903–1992), by unknown photographer (Kathleen) Mary Norton (1903–1992), by unknown photographer
Norton [née Pearson], (Kathleen) Mary (1903–1992), children's author, was born at 48 Mildmay Park, Highbury, London, on 10 December 1903, the only daughter of Reginald Spencer Pearson, a surgeon, and Minnie Savile, née Hughes. She had four brothers. When she was still young, the family moved to Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, to live at The Cedars, a rambling Georgian house that became the setting for Mary's most famous work, The Borrowers. She was educated at St Margaret's Convent, East Grinstead, and attended art school for a short course, before joining the Old Vic Shakespeare Company in the season for 1925–6. There she understudied for Edith Evans, and later described this period as the most memorable of her life. At this time Mary was ‘as thin as a wasp and very pale and quiet and gentle’ (The Times).

On 4 September 1926, at St Mary's, Lambeth, London, Mary Pearson married Robert Charles Norton (b. 1892/3), an engineer who came from a wealthy shipowning and trading family from Portugal. They moved to Portugal on their marriage, to a country estate several miles from Lisbon. At the outbreak of the Second World War Robert joined the navy, and Mary and their children, two boys and two girls, moved first to England, and then to New York, where Mary worked for the British Purchasing Commission. She rented a house in Connecticut, where she began to write essays, translations, and children's stories. Her first children's book, The Magic Bed-Knob, or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, was first published in America in 1943. In that same year Mary and her family returned to England, where she briefly resumed her stage career—including a part in a two-year run of The Guinea-Pig at the Criterion Theatre, London. The Magic Bed-Knob was published in England in 1945, and two years later was followed by a sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks. John Betjeman described the work as ‘quite the best modern fairy story I have read’ (Stott, 199). The two books were combined into one volume, Bed-Knob and Broomstick, in 1957. A successful Disney film, Bed Knobs and Broomsticks, a mixture of live action and animation, was released in 1971.

Once back in England, Norton had begun work on The Borrowers. Published in 1952, the work was immediately hailed as a classic of children's fiction, and won the Carnegie medal for that year. The story concerned the life and adventures of a race of tiny people tucked away under floorboards and in the crevices of houses, and living parasitically off the ‘human beans’. Part of the thrill of the book is the ingenuity with which the borrowers recycle their ‘borrowings’ into their own domestic sphere. A knight from a chess piece, sawn in half, becomes the pedestal for the dining-room table and a statue for the hall. But the wider story was equally gripping: the Clock family—Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arietty—so called because their front door is under the grandfather clock—are the last of the borrowers to survive in the old house. As the adolescent Arietty rebels against the narrow boundaries imposed on her, and makes contact with a human boy, their whole way of life is threatened. They are discovered by the adults, and at the end of the book have to flee from the house into the open fields beyond.

Norton later wrote of the origin of these characters. Short-sighted from childhood, she remembered peering close up into banks and tree roots, wondering what life would be like so close to the ground, when ordinary things became obstacles and dangers. The first book was followed by several sequels: The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), and ‘Poor Stainless’ (a short story about a borrower published in 1971). These sequels follow the Clocks as they try to find some stability in a series of hostile environments, with increasingly predatory humans on the scene.

Norton's first marriage was dissolved, and on 24 April 1970, at the Chelsea register office, London, she married the writer (Arthur) Lionel Bonsey (1911/12–1989). In 1972, encouraged by the Irish government's offer of tax concessions for writers and artists, they moved from their old Essex farmhouse to co. Cork, where they bought and restored a Queen Anne rectory in Kilcoe, Aughadown, Ballydehob. There Norton wrote Are All the Giants Dead? (1975), a dream adventure which explores what happens to the characters of fairy tales after the ends of the tales. She also wrote the last of the borrowers books, The Borrowers Avenged (1982), in which the Clock family is finally rewarded with the possibility of a stable future. The Borrowers Omnibus was published in 1990. There have been a number of television series based on The Borrowers, both American and British, and films in 1973 and 1997.

For her publisher Vanessa Hamilton, there were few authors ‘quite so charming and distinguished as Mary, so vital, and with such a marvellous sense of humour’ (The Independent). Norton died of a heart attack on 29 August 1992, at 102 West Street, Hartland, Bideford, Devon.

Eleri Larkum

Sources  

The Independent (4 Sept 1992) · The Times (7 Sept 1992) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert. · J. C. Stott, ‘Mary Norton’, British children's writers, 1914–1960, ed. D. R. Hettinga and G. D. Schmidt, DLitB, 160 (1996), 197–206 · H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford companion to children's literature (1984)

Archives  

Book Trust, London, corresp. with Diana Stanley

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, oral history interview


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, priv. coll. [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£16,052: probate, 26 Oct 1992, CGPLA Eng. & Wales