Following on from some of our other more unusual transport methods - castle and time slip - this month we will be exploring the very important and well known method of getting around, the kettle.

Draft cover of Borrowers afloat by Diana Stanley, DS/02/03/01/07 © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books]

The Borrowers Afloat (J.M. Dent, 1959), the third title in Mary Norton's Borrowers series, sees the intrepid Clock family setting out to find 'Little Fordham'. This possibly mythical model village would be just the right size for them. Once their quest begins and home is behind them the Clocks set up camp in a nearby kettle; they fix up the rust holes with cork to make it secure from frogs and beetles, conveniently this also makes the kettle watertight... 


'We're afloat,' cried Pod, 'and spinning.' And Arietty, beside the kettle's spin, was aware of a dipping and a swaying. 'We've come adrift. We're in the current,' he went on, 'and going downstream fast...' (Extract from The Borrowers Afloat)


The kettle, and the family trapped inside are washed away down stream - the whole family are pretty startled. Sadly, their adventure down the stream doesn't end well when the kettle subsides:

But even as she spoke the next throw caught the cork in the rust-hole... Their island subsided again and, unclasping each other, they moved apart, listening wide-eyed to the rhythmic gurgle of water filling the kettle. (Extract from The Borrowers Afloat)


It turns out that kettle's aren't necessarily the best way of getting around, even for those that can fit inside!

Copies of The Borrowers Afloat from our Puffin book Collection show the popularity of the book with covers from between 1970 and 1997. © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books]

In The Borrowers familiar objects - like kettles - take on an air of possibility and can become the catalyst for adventure. Norton's stories interweave ordinary objects with extraordinary uses. To help bring these stories to life, Borrowers' illustrator, Diana Stanley, perfectly captured the tiniest detail of Norton's miniature world. 


Here at Seven Stories we have some original illustrations, notes and correspondence in our Diana Stanley collection.  Our holdings show Stanley's working process from notes and sketches to tracings. The collection also gives an insight into how Stanley worked with Norton's manuscripts to develop her illustrations. 

It’s in Stanley's initial notes that we can see how she plans out her illustrations for each chapter, developing these to decide on the size and content of each. Chapter notes for The Borrowers Afloat by Diana Stanley, DS/02/03/01/01-03 © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books]


Included in Stanley's notes is a set of typescript chapter summaries annotated with further descriptions of the Borrower's world. For example, at the end of Chapter sixteen, Stanley has added:

‘and to cover them another groundsheet above a piece of red blanket. snug in deep protected from rain + dew + invisible from bank.

Waterlogged shoe. Laces useful. Between sticks near rusted wire.

(Twig of hawthorn to cat[ch] with – egg + banana.)' 

Diana Stanley Collection, DS/02/03/01/04/09 © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books

Stanley's thorough attentiveness to Norton's text is also evident in her sketches; as well as showing development and re-workings of different images the draft sketches include handwritten extracts and notes from the text.  For example on one page she writes 'ladder made of matchsticks, neatly glued and spliced to 2 lengths of split cane such as florists use to support potted plants' (From Diana Stanley Collection, DS/02/03/01/08-09). 

Rough drafts, DS/02/03/01/08 and 19 © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books

Rough drafts, DS/02/03/01/42, 44 and 45 © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books


So, what did Mary Norton think of Stanley’s work?


‘Their English-ness, their unaffectedness, their curious “story-book” quality.  They are somehow mysterious but intrinsically so, not one feels by deliberate design.’ (Mary Norton to Diana Stanley, DS/02/06/02)

Selection of correspondence from Mary Norton to Diana Stanley in the Diana Stanley Collection, DS/02/06/01-09 © Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books

Also included in our Diana Stanley collection is a file of correspondence from Mary Norton.  In one of these letters Norton refers to the 'ghastly' model village Be[k]onscot in Beaconsfield as '"ersatz" and urban in conception.  All for show - and this, poor dears, They will find out after the first flush of seeming luxury' (Mary Norton to Diana Stanley, DS/02/06/03 f.3). Its difficult to be certain with only one side of the correspondence whether these 'poor dears' are the Borrowers, and whether this vision of Bekonscot aligns with 'Little Fordham', the model village the Borrowers have set out to find in The Borrowers Afloat. 


Though the correspondence is one sided it does give us an interesting insight into Norton’s working process ‘to plough in regardless and get the whole story roughly down, trusting to one’s angel’ (Mary Norton to Diana Stanley, DS/02/06/01 f.2).


The letters demonstrate a mutual understanding of the artistic process and reveals a mutual hesitance in embarking on new projects:


‘I could not understand more about that curious feeling of panic an artist always gets before starting work.  The whole reason the book is late is due, in my case, to an intense feeling of “stage fright”’ (Mary Norton to Diana Stanley, DS/02/06/01 f.1). 

Whether stage fright is akin to the fear of being washed away in a kettle I can't say, but a kettle is not to be recommended as a safe mode of transport.


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