There are a great many books I remember fondly from my childhood – the rest of the Rip’d from the Pages of My Childhood series is testament to that – but there is one series in particular that I adore to this day because I fell in love with a character and the impossibly romantic world she inhabited.
Miss Bianca, of Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers – the first book, simply titled The Rescuers came out in 1959, followed by eight others with Bernard into Battle (1978) finishing things off – is an ineffably lovely white mouse, an aristocratic lady of distinction who belongs to the ambassador’s son and lives in a porcelain pagoda in the embassy’s classroom where she writes poetry and eats cream cheese.
Her ivory tower life stands in stark contrast to Bernard, a brave, resourceful mouse who lives in the embassy’s pantry – think working class to Miss Bianca’s more upmarket digs – but thanks to a call from the Prisoners’ Aid Society, a mousian group dedicated to keeping prisoners company and brightening their lives, she and Bernard find themselves on a thoroughly unexpected journey to liberate a beleaguered Norwegian poet from the Black Castle.
“‘Miss Bianca!’ he called softly…’Don’t be afraid, Miss Bianca!…I’m not burglars, I am Bernard from the Pantry with a most important message.’
He waited again. One of the golden bells, as though a moth had flown past, tinkled faintly. Then again there was a rustling, and at last Miss Bianca came out.”
The first book in particular, and those that follow, were full of swashbuckling daring and adventure as the ultimate rodent odd couple not only found resources deep within themselves but discovered they rather liked each other’s company as well.
If you were to judge The Rescuers on the basis of that expansive narrative alone, it would carry a romantic cachet of epic proportions; but Margery Sharp, an English writer of rare wit and cleverness, goes further, giving us two utterly beguiling characters, but most especially of course, the delightful Miss Bianca, who not only rise to the occasion but go way out of their comfort zone to help others, growing in immeasurable ways in the process.
As a young boy growing up in rural northern New South Wales, Australia, the idea of a world as exotic as that inhabited by Miss Bianca was impossibly alluring; it became even more so with Sharp describing it in the loveliest, most wonderful ways possible, so lushly and perfectly that I honestly felt as I was along for the ride on Miss Bianca and Bernard’s adventures.
The books themselves were rather slight in length, but as Mari Ness points out in Spy Mice: Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers, they were jam-packed with all kinds of engaging goings-on that captured the imagination of a young boy who expected life could be every bit as big and exciting as Sharp made it out to be:
“For such a short book, it’s very crowded with both incident and realistic depictions of long, slow tedious periods of waiting for something to happen, or being unsure of what to do next. Miss Bianca often tidies up, which serves both as distraction and a stress reduction technique. Sometimes she makes flowers out of sugar, bits of paper, or cheese, both to pass the time and keep up everyone’s spirits. Nils and Bernard explore the Black Castle when they can, although the presence of a dangerous cat does put a bit of a damper on this. There’s also happier moments—rides on carts filled with plenty of crumbs for mice to nibble on, watching the river, an exciting boat ride, a touch—just a touch—of light flirtation and growing love between the elegant Miss Bianca and working-class Bernard …”
It was that heady mix of bravery and derring-do and sweetly intimate character moments that made the entire The Rescuers series such rewarding reading.
If the object of any book is to take us to places far beyond our own with characters we love being with, and I did and do love Miss Bianca and Bernard, then The Rescuers succeeded brilliantly.
So entranced was I with the tales of small mice charging into situations where the odds were most definitely stacked against them – as the writer of Books that Changed My Life: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp beautifully explains, this was an insightful introduction for children to the world of adults, as foreign a place as any when you are small and vulnerable, just like mice – that I hung onto every word that Sharp wrote about these extraordinary rodents.
In fact, so enamoured of Sharp’s creations was I that I spent valuable pocket money – my family weren’t rich (nor were we necessarily poor either) so I wasn’t exactly flush with funds – buying six of the nine books at the Dymocks bookstore in Lismore.
Whereas many of the books I read were sourced from the local community library, which was really well stocked for a town of 5000 people, occupying space in the recreation hall of the community centre, or were given as presents, The Rescuers were accorded the rare privilege of being bought.
It spoke to how highly I valued these marvellous books, rich with emotional resonance, delicious romanticism and exotic otherness (not to mention the sweet love between Miss Bianca and Bernard), that I bought as many of these books as I could, with every one of them, 40 years later, almost as pristine as the day they were bought.
What has stayed with me all these years later is how much I fell in love with the world these characters promised could be mine.
I had grown up with inquisitive, adventurous parents who had a decade on and off working in Bangladesh in the ‘60s until political upheaval sent them back to Sydney, who always encouraged me to dream big, look far and see where life could take me.
It was all the impetus this city-boy-in-a-country-boy’s body needed, and while I didn’t exactly end up rescuing Norwegian poets trapped in a bleak castles – though if they’d been cute and prone to quoting sensuous iambic pentameter to me I would surely have it a go, especially if Miss Bianca and Bernard were along to help me – I did leave my small country town, travel alone to Sydney to live, go to the USA and Canada solo on multiple trips and take all kinds of chances that I might not otherwise have taken.
While I can’t sheet the responsibility for all of that willingness to jump into yawning void of the unknown to Margery Sharp’s and her plucky creations, they must have had an influence.
They taught me that no matter where you’ve come from or what you think your circumstances will allow you to do, that it’s possible to go forth and do all kinds of things you might have once thought beyond you.
It’s inspiring stuff and explains why I, possessed of inexhaustible curiosity and unwilling to live a small “l” life, was so impelled to follow their example many years later when the books, locked away temporarily for safekeeping, sallied forth to see if, like Miss Bianca and Bernard, what might happen if I dared to take a chance.
I haven’t looked back since.