Published in 1952, The Borrowers by Mary Norton was a children’s book about a race of tiny people who live undetected among normal human beings. They are known as “borrowers” because they survive, in part, by taking, or borrowing, everyday objects from the human world and adapting them for their own use. The novel was critically acclaimed, and was followed by a series of sequels over the next thirty years. Its success completely overshadowed a similar series of books, written during the same period, by Flossie Bint. The first of these, also appearing in 1952, introduced us to the Snivellers.
The Snivellers tells the story of a race of more-or-less human-sized beings who live, for the most part undetected, among normal people. They are known as “snivellers” because they go around snivelling, without handkerchiefs. Sometimes they even whimper. They snivel in a quite unselfconscious and morbidly annoying manner, day in day out, in all sorts of circumstances. Much of the fun of the books – well, not fun exactly, let us instead call it mild diversion – is that the normal humans seldom recognise the Snivellers for what they are, a parallel race of super-snivelly handkerchiefless beings consumed with self-pity.
The first book introduces us to a little family of Snivellers, the couple Pob and Hoobety and their spirited teenage daughter Agamemnonette. They snivel through over four hundred pages, in houses and barns and bungalows and sheds and shacks and chalets, upon pavements and thoroughfares, on the sea-battered strand and in fields and hills and frozen steppes, on weekdays and public holidays, in the cold and the rain or on hot cloudless summer days. Snivel, snivel, snivel, they go, with a whimper here and there to vary the tone.
Undeterred by her debut being comprehensively outsold by The Borrowers, Flossie Bint followed up with a sequel in 1955. Alas, The Snivellers In A Sump was published in the very same week as Mary Norton’s own second book, The Borrowers Afield. Though once again overlooked by all but a few, it marks a huge development, for now the Snivellers are joined by a gaggle of anthropomorphic animals akin to those in the tales written by Beatrix Potter. We meet Geoffrey the Beaver, Bob the Snail, Cynthia the Horse, and Dagobert the Puff Adder. As this jolly quartet scurry and slither and canter and creep through the book, the Snivellers snivel, sometimes rather noisily. It is a tour de force.
Several other Snivellers books followed, barely selling enough to break even, and as she aged Flossie Bint became rancorous and sour and difficult. She eventually died in a clapped-out boarding house at a ruined seaside resort, snivelling like one of her timeless characters, without even a handkerchief to her name.