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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Under the floorboards

When I was a little girl, my favorite toy was my dollhouse. I liked setting up tiny roomscapes filled with detailed, perfectly manageable facsimiles of the things I saw around me – spaces that I controlled with the iron rod of a dictator. (Yes, I know, Dr. Freud.)

No surprise, then, that my imagination was captured by Mary Norton’s Borrowers series, which concerns a family of tiny people living under the floorboards of an English home and furnishing their own rooms with mislaid objects from above – a pill box serving as a tabletop, a thimble used as a cooking pot, a chess piece passing as a decorative sculpture.*

How satisfying, then, to discover a heretofore unsuspected Jane Austen-Borrowers connection! Because it turns out that a 1992 BBC mini-series based on the books was filmed at Chawton House, then a semi-derelict Elizabethan mansion still waiting for Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner to buy and restore it.

I learned this delightful factoid from Chawton House itself, where a new exhibit, “The Borrowers Return to Chawton House,” opens this weekend and runs through June 19. As far as I can tell from the online description, the “exhibit” is mostly a way of persuading children to accompany their parents on a tour of the house. But stills from the TV show will be on display, along with oversized versions of everyday objects, next to which full-sized humans can imagine themselves as tiny Borrowers.

Alas, I’m unlikely to make it to Chawton House this spring, but all this Borrowers talk is giving me a hankering to break out my old dollhouse furniture and flex those dictatorial muscles. These days, I guess we could all use some easily controllable spaces.

* I did experience some confusion over the use of the term “borrower,” since it didn’t seem as if the tiny family ever intended to return any of these gleanings -- as Dr. Freud would probably point out, I had an overdeveloped superego, even then – but these moral qualms didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of Norton’s story.


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