Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Ethel & ErnestEthel & 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.)

Ethel and Ernest 1

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.

16 thoughts on “Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs

    • January 5, 2016 at 9:01 pm
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      It is lovely!

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  • January 5, 2016 at 1:33 pm
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    I’ve never read this or known someone who has! You really are all about the graphic … um … these days, aren’t you!

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    • January 5, 2016 at 9:01 pm
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      It seems so! This was one of my four last year, but I’ll definitely be reading at least one in 2016, as Brecht Evens’ latest is translated.

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  • January 5, 2016 at 3:21 pm
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    You make a good point. I think Maus and Maus II are labeled graphic novels even though they are about the author’s father’s experiences during World War II. And same for Persephone, which is about the author’s experiences growing up in Iran. I don’t think there is a term for graphic nonfiction yet. Maybe the idea is that they are based on facts, but novelized.

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    • January 5, 2016 at 9:02 pm
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      Intriguing! I didn’t do ANY research, so I’m glad that there wasn’t an obvious answer out there.

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  • January 5, 2016 at 3:22 pm
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    Anyway, this looks absolutely charming.

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    • January 5, 2016 at 9:02 pm
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      It certainly is :)

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  • January 5, 2016 at 4:15 pm
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    I’m so glad you liked this book. I was moved to tears at the end by how much he could convey of certain emotions. But it was also wryly funny in parts. Most of all, the love shone through, as you note. This one sits with The Snowman and the Father Christmas books, part of my much loved Briggs collection.

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    • January 5, 2016 at 9:03 pm
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      The end is deeply moving, isn’t it? I should explore his work more thoroughly – The Snowman is the only other of his I’ve actually read.

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    • January 5, 2016 at 9:03 pm
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      I can definitely see why!

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    • January 5, 2016 at 9:04 pm
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      It’s definitely one I’ll revisit, I feel sure.

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  • January 6, 2016 at 1:17 am
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    I’ve loved the animated film version of The Snowman since I was five or six. I hadn’t heard of this book by him, or really many other books by him, but it sounds definitely worthwhile.

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  • January 6, 2016 at 2:18 am
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    I have this book, and dearly love it. I read it before anyone used the term ‘graphic’ – I just thought it was beautifully done. Oh, and because I read Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant – I looked up the proper name for such books, and it is ‘graphic nonfiction.’

    Reply

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