Mary Queen of Plots

The writing of Mary Stewart (1916-2014)

The Little Broomstick

The Little Broomstick Hodder 1st edn 1971. Illustrator: Shirley Hughes

Mary Stewart’s first published book for children is called The Little Broomstick. Published in 1971, the book features beautiful illustrations by Shirley Hughes, the award-winning illustrator and writer.

The book begins with the words

Even her name was plain. Mary Smith. Nothing could have been more depressing, she thought; to be plain, to be ten, and to be alone, staring out of her bedroom window on a grey autumn day, and to be called Mary Smith.

Mary, we discover, has missed out on staying with cousins while her parents are abroad, and instead must stay with elderly, deaf Great-Aunt Charlotte in rural Shropshire, a fate which causes Mary to lament that

Nothing, thought Mary, nothing could ever happen here

(which is deliciously reminiscent of Camilla’s opening line in My Brother Michael).

Lonely Mary’s melancholy is echoed by nature: ‘Everywhere was damp, and decay, and the end of summer’; but then a small black green-eyed cat appears, and adventure and magic begin.

The cat leads Mary to a clump of unusual purple flowers that she shows to Zebedee the gardener at Red Manor, who names both the cat (Tib) and the blooms (fly-by-night). Zebedee also tells Mary of the folklore surrounding the flower , including:

And ’tis said that in the olden days the witches sought her [the flower] from the corners of the Black Mountains, and from the place where the old city was and there’s now naught but a pool o’ water.

The writer effortlessly builds up an atmosphere of magic and suspense, creating an expectation of magic that is fulfilled soon afterwards.

While sweeping up leaves with a small broom, Mary accidentally smears the broom in the juice of a fly-by-night flower. Immediately, ‘the little broomstick gave a leap, a violent twist, a kick like the kick of a pony’ and Mary and Tib are transported by flying broomstick to Endor College, school of witchcraft. Endor is no Hogwarts: Madam Mumblechook believes that Mary has come to enrol at the school to learn skills such as ‘Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry’. The ill-wishing of the spells is underlined by the sourness of the rhymes used in the spells: nursery-rhymes that ‘slipped somehow, so that the result was not ordinary, or even nice at all.’

The story is not unremittingly bleak or scary for young readers: there is humour in places, for example the Harrods Helibroom, and the way in which everything Mary says is misinterpreted or misunderstood so that it is believed that her parents are powerful Gormbridge witches rather than Cambridge scientists; and  broomstick-flying and invisibility are shown to be exciting and wondrous.

But then Mary makes a sinister discovery about animals that have been ‘transformed’ and begins to wonder if she will be allowed to leave Endor. She does manage to return to Red Manor, only to find that the cat Tib has been kept captive at the College.

True to the spirit of a Mary Stewart heroine, Mary decides to go back to rescue Tib, which leads to further adventure and dangers as Mary releases all of the animals, breaks the transformation spell and flees Endor College. She is pursued and, rather like the brilliant car chase in Madam, Will You Talk? there is a thrilling power in the chase scene:

She was on them. Her grabbing hand brushed Mary’s hair. The little broomstick stopped dead, sat back on its bristles for one bone-rattling moment, then switched clear round like a horse turning on its haunches, and sped away at right angles over the meadow.

I don’t want to give away anything more, and risk spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read it. If  you want to know what else happens, to discover that Mary succeeds where an adult failed, how Peter the vicar’s son is involved, what happens to Tib (and fellow cat Gib), and how the story is resolved, you’ll need to read the book!

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and I do wish I’d discovered it as a child. The Little Broomstick is a compelling read, full of  tensions and terrors, and is beautifully written with lyrical descriptions of setting (whether countryside or laboratory) and season. The boredom and the sense of being ‘in the way’ as a ten year old child is also conveyed very well, as is Mary’s attachment to Tib the cat.

As a child, I would have sided very firmly with the animals in the story – just as I do now – but I was ignorant that there are those who mistreat animals out of a sort of malevolent curiosity; nor had I any knowledge of vivisection for cosmetics. As an adult, I can see this theme of the book more clearly, the danger of power in the wrong hands – a very dark theme for a children’s book but then, the same can be said of fairy-tales and nursery rhymes.

Which brings me to something else I can see more clearly as an adult – the abundance of literary allusion in the story and the use of nursery rhymes. I love this and I feel it enriches the story. Every chapter is headed with a line from a nursery rhyme that is relevant to the action that follows, and while many of the nursery rhymes are obscure – to me, at any rate –  it is simple and enjoyable to look these up thanks to the internet. The spells too are distortions of nursery rhymes.

There are countless allusions within the story itself, with references to Faust (who made a pact with the devil), Endor (1 Samuel 28, when Saul consults a medium or witch at Endor), Dousterswivel (the charlatan ‘scientist’ in Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary), the Black Mountains (in Wales, west of Shropshire, an area containing The Witches Pool, and which  “lends itself towards myth and magic”) and the Harz Mountains (again, associated with Goethe – see this Telegraph article).

In short, then, I feel that The Little Broomstick is a wonderful, magical children’s book, with much for an adult to enjoy. The story is recognisably by Mary Stewart, being written beautifully, full of suspense and with a brave young heroine who stands up for what she believes to be right. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

See also: my blog post More about The Little Broomstick and for quotes from the book see here and here. For news about the film Mary and the Witch’s Flower see, for example, here and here.

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