Miss Bianca by Margery Sharp ~ 1962. Original title: Miss Bianca: A Fantasy. This edition: Fontana 1977. Paperback. Grand illustrations by Garth Williams. ISBN: 0-00-67-1235-5. 124 pages.
My rating: 7/10. The excellent illustrations raised it a few points.
I have a lot of good things to say about Margery Sharp, and her adult novels are among my most treasured books, but I must admit I have never previously read her once-popular children’s series about the little white mouse, Miss Bianca. The first two stories in the series were the inspiration behind the well-known Disney animated film The Rescuers (voiced, for those of you interested in such trivia, by Eva Gabor in the role of Miss Bianca and Bob Newhart as her partner Bernard) and its sequel. The paperback edition of Miss Bianca I have before me is the movie tie-in edition, with a cover still from the movie and this telling note on the title page:
Featuring characters from the Disney film suggested by the books by Margery Sharp, The Rescuers and Miss Bianca, published by William Collins & Co Ltd.
Don’t you just love that “suggested by” comment? So true! For the record, I am not a fan of the Disney bowdlerizations of otherwise excellent books. Several generations of children have now grown up with the Disney imagery of classic stories such as The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, and, heaven help us – The Hunchback of Notre Dame! – firmly in their heads versus the authors’ intended word-pictures.
So my beloved Margery Sharp is among the ranks of Disney’s “suggested” inspirations! I hope she got a generous settlement! It has just occurred to me that many of their take-off-of-classic stories authors were already dead at the time of the movie-making; Margery Sharp was very much alive in 1977, though I remember reading a quotation by her about not really being too interested in what happened during filming of her works (several of her adult novels were made into popular films); that her job was to write and that filmmakers were fine on their own without her input.
Back to the book at hand. A little way in I realized that Miss Bianca has a back story; so many references to what has “just happened” made me scratch my head until I realized that this is the *second* story in the series. The Rescuers is the first. I am thinking I need to get my hands on that one to fill in the gaps, and luckily that shouldn’t be a problem. New York Review Books has just re-issued The Rescuers in hardcover, after its being out-of-print for ten years; I have several of their other beautifully rendered re-issues and I highly recommend them. Here’s the link: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/childrens/the-rescuers/
So – Miss Bianca, Chairwoman of the Prisoners’ Aid Society (a charitable mousey organization dedicated to the comfort of incarcerated humans), has a new project to suggest. The last daring adventure, the rescue of a Norwegian poet from the infamous Black Castle (pause for ominous music) was obviously a great ego boost to the mice, and they are consequently quite boisterous and full of themselves. Miss Bianca, waiting for the Society’s latest meeting to come to order, muses that
“…their common adventure had given mice an unfortunate taste for flamboyance in welfare work. Not one, now, thought anything of sitting up to beg a prisoner’s crumb – in the long run one of the most useful acts a mouse can perform. Crumb-begging, like waltzing in circles (even with a jailer outside the door), was regarded as mere National Service stuff, barely worth reporting on one’s return from the regulation three weeks’ duty…”
The new mission is the rescue of a little girl who is being held in an abusive situation by the wicked Grand Duchess in the magnificent but icy-cold Diamond Palace. Miss Bianca appeals to the Ladies Guild of the Society to assist her in the daring rescue, and of course things do not go as planned. Miss Bianca is left behind in the general rout of the rest of the mice when the Duchess’ ladies-in-waiting, far from being tender creatures terrified of mice, turn out to be much more “hardened” than planned for!
This is a playful book; Margery Sharp indulged herself with a full flow of flowery and elaborate language, rather a challenge for young readers (but not necessarily a drawback), and the references are aimed rather at their elders over the heads of the child-audience; perhaps this was a book meant to be read aloud, with a nod to the parent as well as the child?
The villains in this little saga are properly villainous; the Duchess’ black-hearted Major-Domo, Mandrake, has committed “…a very wicked crime, of which only the Duchess now had evidence…” and he is her willing (though cringingly obsequious) partner in crime. Even her two unkempt carriage horses “…had criminal records; each having once kicked a man to death…” And so on.
If the story has a flaw (and it does have a few, being a slight work in every sense of the word) it is that the parody and melodrama are a bit too “over the top” for perfect comfort. The wee prisoner, the aptly named Patience, is the latest in a long line of small children the Duchess has enslaved and apparently killed (!) – though most children will shiver deliciously at the peril their two heroines find themselves in, my motherly brain says “Killed! Was that really necessary, dear author?!” And I don’t think we ever do get the full story on how the Duchess obtained Patience in the first place.
Ah, well. To sum up: a diverting little parody of an adventure story. I think it should definitely follow The Rescuers to make more sense to the reader; it has a very sequel-ish feel to it, though it could stand alone if need be. Quite nicely written in a very flamboyant voice (to use Miss Bianca’s own word); definitely not dumbed down to a younger audience vocabulary or style-wise.
This book #2 in a series, the first four of which are illustrated by the incomparable Garth Williams. I believe all except the newly re-released The Rescuers (New York Review Books, 2011) are out-of-print. Some are very easy to find second-hand, but the more obscure later titles may require some serious online sleuthing.
- The Rescuers (1959)
- Miss Bianca (1962)
- The Turret (1963)
- Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines (1966)
- Miss Bianca in the Orient (1970)
- Miss Bianca in the Antarctic (1971)
- Miss Bianca and the Bridesmaid (1972)
- Bernard the Brave (1977)
- Bernard into Battle (1978)
Read-Aloud: I think so. Ages 6 and up, perhaps? The prisoner Patience is eight; much is made of her sad life and deceased predecessors and bleeding fingers, but the tone is optimistic – this is, after all, why the child very much needs a heroic rescue! Neatly tied up happy ending, with the mice going off to their next adventure.
Read-Alone: Hmmm. Maybe 8 and up? Or a very strong younger reader. Definitely can be appreciated by an older readership (including adults); Margery Sharp was an accomplished social satirist and this story is full of her wry observations, though they often escalate into full-blown parody much more so than in her adult novels.
Read Full Post »