When I was a girl, I was too afraid to watch the part of the Disney movie in which Penny is lowered into the darkness in a bucket.
If I had actually read the stories on my bookshelf, I would have had great sympathy for the mice in the Prisoner’s Aid Society. They spend much of their time being afraid.
Then again, they are afraid of cats who are many times larger than they. Or jailers who’d think nothing of squashing them with a boot. Or, they fear drowning.
And not *all* of them are afraid of those things either. Bernard, for instance: he wears the Tybalt Star, For Gallantry in the face of Cats. (He defended his sister-in-law, who was nursing six baby mice at the time.)
Miss Bianca isn’t afraid of cats either. But she should be. The only reason she’s not is that she has led such a sheltered life; in the company of her Boy, she has a cat companion, who wouldn’t think to harm the resident of the Porcelain Pagoda in the Boy’s room.
When Miss Bianca is called into service to rescue a prisoner, she comes to understand that her experience of cats isn’t the norm (and a few other layers of her mouse-privilege).
However, she does still use her feminine mouse-wiles to charm the four-legged threat, who is so entertained by her behaviour that he misses his chance to gobble her up.
“I’m sure he wants to meet me again, if only from dishonourable motives. Let me engage him in conversation, and guide it into the right channels, and what may I not learn, to our advantage?”
Because Miss Bianca is quite the lady. Margery Sharp puts her female mice on centre stage. Madame Chairperson in the Prisoner’s Aid Society dares to speak out of turn, in order to have the case of a particular prisoner heard. (She is a direct-line descendant of the Three Blind Mice and has exceptional whiskers.)
And she does not hesitate to recommend Miss Bianca for the rescue of this esteemed Norwegian poet, being held captive in the Black Castle, despite the rumours of her pampered existence.
“You should be protected and cherished and loved and honoured, and I for my part ask nothing better than to lie down and let you walk on me!” exclaims Bernard, when he accepts the duty of requesting Miss Bianca’s intervention on the poet’s behalf (she has ready access to air travel which the other mice do not).
Miss Bianca has “perfect manners and unfailing savoir faire” which “would have soothed the tempers of tigers” and she does get out of the habit of fainting, only uttering the occasional “piercing shriek of dismay”.
In time, Bernard and Miss Bianca (and Nils, the Norwegian mouse-on-the-ground, so to speak) gain all the intelligence they require to enact their mission. “They began to plan in detail what had never been planned before – or, if planned, had never succeeded: the liberation of a prisoner from the Black Castle.”
In some ways, Miss Bianca is a mouse of the 1950s. She recognises that “there is nothing like housework for calming the nerves”. But in other ways, she is quite the revolutionary.
Had Margery Sharp written the story just a couple of decades earlier, she would have had Miss Bianca holding the rope while Bernard and Nils did the heavy lifting.
This is the first volume of Miss Bianca’s adventures (the second in the series, named for our heroine, is the source of more of the events in the Disney film, although the original little girl was ‘Patience’, not ‘Penny’) and there are nine books in the series.
The Rescuers has been lingering, unread, on my shelves since I was seven years old. Jane’s celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday landed the series on my stacks at long last.
Thanks, Jane. And happy birthday, Margery!