Ethel and Ernest: A True Story


Poignant, funny, and utterly original, Ethel & Ernest is Raymond Briggs's loving depiction of his parents' lives from their chance first encounter in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s.

Ethel and Ernest were solid members of the English working class, part of the generation that lived through the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. They met during the Depression--she working as a maid, he as a milkman--and we follow them as they court and marry, make a ...

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Poignant, funny, and utterly original, Ethel & Ernest is Raymond Briggs's loving depiction of his parents' lives from their chance first encounter in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s.

Ethel and Ernest were solid members of the English working class, part of the generation that lived through the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. They met during the Depression--she working as a maid, he as a milkman--and we follow them as they court and marry, make a home, raise their son, and cope with the dark days of World War II. Briggs's portrayal of how his parents succeeded, or failed, in coming to terms with the events of their rapidly shifting world--the advent of radio, television, and telephones; the development of the atomic bomb; the moon landing; the social and political turmoil of the sixties--is irresistibly engaging, full of sympathy and affection, yet clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Briggs's illustrations are small masterpieces; coupled with the wonderfully candid dialogue, they evoke the exhilaration and sorrow, excitement and bewilderment, of experiencing such enormous changes. As much a social history as a personal account, Ethel & Ernest is a moving tribute to ordinary people living in an extraordinary time.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A best seller in Britain, this winsome little book is one family’s twentieth century, told as a comic strip that fast-forwards through the decades. Briggs’s artful rendering of his parents’ striving captures the English working class, and as the tale progresses, you find yourself slowly sucked into their daily patter, amused by their cooing voices, impressed by their bravery. At the end,you’re hardly prepared for the emotional wallop.” —Time

“In the details of Briggs’s sparkling cartoons, the characters become richly specific and endearing . . . both pathetic and heroic in the face of overwhelmingevents. [They are] what make you read through Ethel & Ernest over again.” —Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times

Ethel & Ernest works brilliantly and artfully as an archetype. It is the author’s willingness to frame his love and anguish so piercingly that makes it such a singular piece of work. We should be grateful that Briggs is so brilliantly equipped to remind us of what we u sed to be, and why.” —Nick Hornby, New York Times Book Review

Charles Taylor

Every few years -- usually after the release of a film version of some classic novel -- a well-respected fiction writer will take to the arts pages to proclaim that movies can never capture the nuances of the printed word. That's nonsense. Images can be as carefully chosen and as delicately nuanced as fiction -- and they certainly are in Raymond Briggs' Ethel & Ernest, a graphic memoir of the author/artist's parents from their marriage in 1930 to their deaths within a few months of each other in 1971.

In purely technical terms, Ethel & Ernest is a small marvel of meaning rendered in color and perspective. Several times Briggs returns to a full-page illustration of the semi-detached house the newlyweds buy in 1930, always with variations. The iron gate that seems so posh when they move in goes for scrap iron during the war. By the time the house is on the market in 1971, the modest green marble pillar by the front door has blackened with age, and bushes have sprung up to the top of the fence. Likewise, the couple's bedroom, unthinkably large to them when they first move in, is rendered to look smaller and smaller, until the ceiling seems to hang just a few feet over their heads. The warm, increasingly worn greens and browns and floral patterns of these rooms find a cruel contrast in the cold starkness of the hospital mortuary where Briggs and his father view Ethel's corpse. A writer could tell us that Ernest, at the end of his 37 years as a milkman, pointedly hangs his certificate of retirement next to his son's diplomas on the sitting-room wall; but showing him putting it there (over his wife's objections) conveys his class pride with beautiful subtlety.

Of course, only very dull people read novels for their technical achievements. All of these subtleties register emotionally. If you're lucky enough to have had the kind of loving mismatch that is Ethel and Ernest's marriage in your own family, you'll recognize their deep attachment instantly. (My grandparents were such a pair. My grandfather died suddenly of heart failure after my grandmother had been bedridden for almost a year, and no one will ever convince me that in some way he didn't will it: Better to die of a stopped heart than a broken one.)

Ethel, a housemaid when Ernest meets her, is a working-class Tory whose greatest fear is being labeled common. Ernest is a proud socialist, Labor to the teeth, from a much rougher background than she can imagine. At times their marriage seems to consist of the succession of the squabbles that ensue when he reads her some item from his evening paper. But they draw together in disappointment when Briggs announces that he intends to go to art school -- an affectionate but, I'm sure, still painful recollection for the artist. Whatever their political differences, they're one in their desire to see him do better than they have.

Ethel can be a snob, as she is when Ernest's stepmother shows up bearing a present of coal and some bottles of stout to see the new baby. But their differences suggest a greater comfort and reassurance. Ethel isn't about to take Ernest's suggestion that they try out their new mattress "in broad daylight," as she says, but she's doubtless flattered by the attention. And while she's forever upbraiding him for some word or phrase she finds too rough, the wink in his delivery suggests he knows that the sweetness inside the roughness is one of the things she loves about him. And Ernest is faithful. In a neat twist on all the old jokes about milkmen, during his rounds a friend offers him a go at the wife whose sexual demands he can no longer handle; Ernest turns down the offer, with no hard feelings on either side. And he knows he can rely on Ethel to be strong when he needs her to be -- as when, serving as a volunteer fireman during the war, Ernest comes home from a harsh night spent pulling dead children out of bombed buildings and breaks down.

Briggs has absented himself from most of the story. During the war he's sent to live in the country (as many of London's children were), and later on he's off doing his military service or at art school. At times that absence is jarring. In one scene, Raymond tells his mother that his wife's schizophrenia will prevent her from ever having children, and we don't know enough about Ethel and Ernest's daughter-in-law to really take the information in. But by concentrating on his parents, Briggs can bring focus to the changes in life that all of Ethel and Ernest's working-class contemporaries experienced. His rendering of the couple's enthusiasms over refrigerators and old-age pensions may seem sentimental, but Britons of Ethel and Ernest's generation simply accepted the hardships of working-class life. For them, the now almost universal phenomenon of retirement was something unthinkable.

Ethel & Ernest imparts, as the best novels do, the sense of lived lives. It's not too much to say you come to love these people, and that as you go along you want not to notice such details as Ernest's new eyeglasses, the deepening lines in the couple's faces, their slackening pace and growing frailty. But because these are details we experience during our own day-to-day lives, during countless meals and evenings by the fire, quarrels and reconciliations, small victories and not so small losses, Briggs' book earns our tears. Ethel & Ernest is a just about perfect miniature: small in scale, not in spirit.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This wonderful book by noted children's author/illustrator Briggs The Snowman is something quite new: the story of his parents' quiet lives, played out against the stirring events of the century, done as a comic strip. Ethel was a rather timid ladies' maid, Ernest a dashing milkman, when they first saw each other in 1928. He swept her off in a whirlwind courtship, and they bought the little London row house where they were to live the rest of their days. In pictures exquisitely attuned to the niceties of English domestic architecture and period clothes, Briggs takes Ethel and Ernest fondly through the decades. He is born, a source of great joy, but it's a difficult birth and Ethel is told she can't have any more children. World War II approaches, and little Raymond is sent off to the country as an evacuee. After the war, Ernest, an ardent Socialist, believes that utopia has arrived, while the more cautious and conservative Ethel keeps bringing him back to earth. Then come the wonders of their first car, the advent of television, Raymond's eventual marriage in the swinging '60s and the aging couple's gradual decline into senility, floowed by their deaths within weeks of each other. The dialogue is heartbreakingly accurate, the pictures cinematic in their conveyance of delight and drama; the whole book is not only a deeply moving testament to "ordinary" folk but a precious piece of social history--the essence of a lower-middle-class English life over seven decades. This was deservedly a bestseller in England and warrants no less here. Oct. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Briggs (The Snowman, When the Wind Blows) is possibly the premier cartoonist publishing exclusively with a major publishing house, and any new work of his deserves a very careful look. Here, we are presented with a story for adults, the cartoon version of Briggs's parents' lives. What comes across is a social history of Britain from the years prior to World War II to the death of both parents in 1971, as they and their son are caught up in larger political events. Because of the brevity of the narrative, we are only allowed glimpses of what Briggs's parents were like; unfortunately, they are cast too neatly as opposites, with one rigid and the other more spontaneous. There is also a bit of sentimentality in the presentation of struggling young artist Raymond Briggs. The artwork is sure, easygoing, and playful; clearly, Briggs is on top of his artistic and storytelling abilities. The question is whether his medium is subtle enough to carry his message. This book will interest Briggs's many fans as well as readers interested in modern British history.--Stephen Weiner, Maynard P.L., MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-An engrossing and revelatory picture story. After a brief courtship, Ethel, a ladies' maid, and Ernest, a milkman, married and bought a house. Much bemused at the size and amenities of this dwelling, they settled in to make a home. After some years, their only child, Raymond, was born and the small family moved through the world of working-class England before, during, and after World War II. Ernest's strong socialist bent contrasted with Ethel's admiration of the vanishing aristocracy. The Depression years, Raymond's evacuation during the war, the Blitz and the extended rationing, and the new socialistic government policies and the relative security of the `50s are realistically portrayed in both colored pictures and text. While presenting this story in a comic-strip format, Briggs doesn't flinch at revealing personal details; at the end, readers see his mother's disease-ravaged corpse and his father's inability to carry on. This is a vivid chronicle of a time and place not very far past and the life story of an average, but loved and loving couple. As a memoir, as a graphic novel, as an invitation to participate in someone else's memories, it is most successful. A quick but haunting read that's sure to involve anyone who picks it up.-Susan H. Woodcock, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Carmen Scheidel
Leave it to a children's book illustrator to pen and paint the year's most creative and affecting memoir. In the same way The Simpsons broke conventions in the world of televised cartoons, this 104-page adult comic book shatters expectations for the storybook... The result is an emotionally complex, deeply moving social history with a resonating subtext about a son whose artistic nature sets him apart from his nurturing parents... The love, the humor, the admiration he expresses are genuine, the effect is dazzling- and unbelievably sad.
— Time Out: New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375714474
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 104
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.89 (h) x 0.35 (d)

Meet the Author

Raymond Briggs was born in London in 1934. One of the most innovative and popular author-illustrators in the world, he has won numerous awards for his work. His children's books, including the classics The Snowman and Father Christmas, have sold millions of copies worldwide. He lives in England.

From the Hardcover edition.

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