Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998) was one of the books I bought in the splendid little bookshop in Ludlow about a month ago, and it felt appropriate to read it over Christmas, given that Briggs is most famous for his festive creation The Snowman. I first heard him talk about it in a documentary that was shown a year or two ago, and determined to keep an eye out for it. For some reason, it seemed like the sort of book that one should discover serendipitously, rather than ordering online, if that makes sense.
It tells, in graphic form (not a graphic novel, of course, but I don’t know if there is a proper compound noun for graphic non-fiction) the whole of his parents’ lives together. They meet (so the pictures allege) when she was a maid waving a duster out of a window, and he a milkman who thought she was waving at him. On such premises are great marriages based. With affection and insight, Briggs charters their life as a young married couple, moving up in the world a bit, having a son – Raymond himself, of course – and coping with war.
As they get older, so does Raymond – and he begins to disappoint them a little, choosing art school over a stable career. Ethel – who has always cared deeply for propriety and improving her station – wants him to cut his hair and behave better. She also ticks off Ernest whenever he says anything she considers indecently amorous – but these qualities are offset by, say, her passionate refusal to send Raymond away as an evacuee, and sacrifice when she sees she must. (I can’t find many examples of the artwork to use, so trust me on that being in there.)
How much Briggs gets right about Ethel and Ernest is up for debate, particularly in relation to their opinion of him. The graphic form allows only snapshots from a long period of time, and no introspection at all, so we can only guess how successful Briggs was in an objective portrait (or even if this was his aim). Doubtless Ethel or Ernest would have created something completely different, yet this is a book which is filled with affection – Briggs has somehow managed to convey how dearly he loved his parents without crafting a graphic hagiography. This love is particularly evident towards the end where, of course, Ethel and Ernest die.
All is tied together with Briggs’ characteristic style as an artist- a mixture of naivety and domesticity that feels mimetic and welcoming, without being cloying. It’s not exactly charming, because it hits too hard, but it is certainly moving: an excellent tribute to two ordinary people who, to Briggs, were inevitably extraordinary.