I'd never heard of Mary Norton before, but she is someone I came across while book browsing online. Although I'm not quite as willing to buy a book by an unknown-to-me author as I once used to be, if the book is a Virago it pretty much is a shoe-in. I can't remember now what it was I was actually looking for--perhaps just out Virago-buying (occasionally I like to just add to my collection so will order a few interesting-sounding titles), but I suspect the attractive cover caught my eye and the fact that this is a short story collection sealed the deal. Then when the book arrived I only meant to do a little perusing but started reading instead and decided I might as well keep going since she hooked me on the first story.
While you might not recognize the title, The Bread and Butter Stories, I bet you'll have come across her children's book The Borrowers about a diminutive family living in the walls and under the floorboards of a British family in a country house, from whom the tiny people "borrow" items to furnish their living quarters. I read The Borrowers (and no doubt some of the subsequent sequels) when I was a child, so I was thrilled to discover Norton also wrote stories for adults.
Mary Norton referred to her short stories as "the bread and butter stories" as like so many other women have had to do--she wrote in order to help provide for her family. She actually began her career in the theater but then married and moved to Quinta das Aguas Livres (Free Waters) in Portugal, the "family seat of her husband". There they raised four children until the economic downturn of the 1920s and 30s sent them back to England. During the war years she lived with her children in America where she worked for the war office. They returned in 1943 just in time for the "little blitz".
Norton's stories literally were for her family's bread and butter. After her husband was de-mobbed he took care of the house and cooking while Mary wrote. Her stories were written mainly for the American magazine, Women's Day, which paid a thousand dollars for each story, which was apparently far more than she could have earned in the UK at the time. (Mollie Panter-Downes was another British author who was writing stories for the American market and wrote a column for the New Yorker at this time--some of which had never been published in the UK until just recently!).
The stories were written in the 1940s and 50s and were reissued in a Virago Modern Classics edition in 1998. It's Norton's daughter who writes the introduction, which makes for fascinating reading. Mary Norton had thought to write an autobiography at one time and I only wish she had done so. She had won a certain acclaim for her children's books. They had won awards and been adapted to film (it was Walt Disney himself who called to ask permission to film The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks--later turned into Bedknobs and Broomsticks). According to her daughter Mary Norton didn't want to be thought of only as a children's writer but also a storyteller.
"But she did want it understood that she was writing for a specific American market in the 1950s."
"She did begin to update the stories but then decided they should be left as they were. The strength of them lies in the women characters' reactions to events, rather than the settings, and those emotions are universal, and timeless. I personally find something very touching about the stories because I can see her own little thread of inadequacy that ran through her life, borne of the cruelty she suffered at her convent boarding school. Even in old age she would have nightmares and wake up crying. 'Please mummy and daddy--come and take me away.' I think the collection shows Mary's acute perception of human frailty and, how with a dash of humour, even a trifling incident can be turned into a good story."
If anyone is writing from life and experience, it is Mary Norton. I may not have recalled the name when I came across it browsing, but her daughter's introduction gives a fairly vivid, if succinct, picture of what she was like. Now looking back over the stories I've read (and I have read them over the course of a couple of months, so I won't try and summarize them all now), I can see that thread. The stories vary in locale and situation. She writes about working for the BBC (as did Norton) during the war, living and traveling in Portugal, a woman dealing with the loss of vision (Norton's own eyes were operated on), an actress of some fame who prefers to travel in anonymity, affairs of the heart as experienced by women both young and old. There are a few works in the collection that are more akin to essays or character studies as well.
I think Norton's daughter was spot-on when she said these are stories about women's reactions to events (small and large) and that the emotions are universal and timeless. So many years after they were written they still have an appeal and speak to contemporary sensibilities. Reading them was a real treat and a great find for me. This is a collection that I look forward to revisiting.
I've got several more short story collections in progress (sort of being read behind the scenes so to speak), but I should be back to my regularly scheduled Persephone story next weekend.