May 4, 2009

Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs

In Ethel and Ernest: A True Story, Raymond Briggs tells the story of his parents’ marriage. Married in 1928, the two were together until 1971, the year when they both passed away only a few months apart.

What makes Ethel and Ernest so interesting is the fact that in addition to being a tender love story, it’s a story about how two people born at the turn of the century reacted and adapted to all the changes they saw in their lifetime. So what we have here is a social history of twentieth-century England told in a very personal way. Ethel and Ernest live through WW2, see electrical appliances become widespread, watch the advent of television, and are well into their middle-age when they ride a car for the very first time.

These technological changes, of course, bring with them changes of customs, values, and ways of living. Ethel is initially disappointed when Raymond goes to art school – her dream was for her son to get a nice, respectable office job. But as to everything else, she adapts.

Ethel and Ernest’s relationship is portrayed in a very sweet way. Ethel is more conservative than Ernest, and they often tease each other about what “their” respective governments do (or fail to do). But always in an intimate and playful way. The book is full of humorous bits of dialogue. Take this, for example:
Here Et, listen. It says we’ve got to be hip.
Groovy, babe. And Real Cool.
Just talk sense, Ernest.
We’ve got to Hang Loose with the Cats.
Yeah, man!
Ernest! Go to bed. You’re overtired. I’ll make the cocoa.
You’re a square, baby.
Oh, Ernest…when will you grow up?
Or this:
Man on the moon, Et!
Fantastic, eh?
What’s he doing there?
Well, just walking about a bit.
Then what?
Well…come back, I suppose…
Perhaps they’ll have a picnic. That would be nice.
I think the tea would blow away when it came out of the thermos.
Why? Is it windy up there?
No, it’s gravity, dear.
Oh, I see.
Look! He’s going to pick up some pebbles…to take home.
Just like kiddies at the seaside. Turn it off, will you?
And the art! I haven’t mentioned how lovely the art is. Well, see for yourselves:

If Ethel and Ernest has a flaw, it’s the fact that it’s so short. There were moments when I really wished we could have some more detail. But in the end, being left wanting more isn’t always a bad thing.

A sidenote: I first heard of Ernest and Ethel via this Telegraph article about how “comics are not just for nerds.” I tend to have mixed feelings about articles of this kind, mostly because they tend to take things that have been true for, oh, a decade or two, and present them as Breaking News or The New Hip Trend. Anyway, in this case I actually did like the article. Not only because it led me to this lovely book, but also because of these paragraphs:
The central misconception around comics is the idea that they’re a genre, not a medium. The roots of 20th-century popular comics may well be in genre fiction: we’re all familiar with the zap-pow-whoppery of early superhero comics, whose campy cadences were deftly caught in the old Adam West television adaptations of Batman, and with the use of “comic-book” as an adjective synonymous with primary-coloured morality and cartoon violence. But although superhero stories are still as active a part of the comics medium as its other ancestor, the “funny papers” strip cartoon, many creators and artists have devoted years of energy and talent to guiding the medium out of its generic constraints.

What Scott McCloud, the critic and cartoonist, attempted to categorise in Understanding Comics – perhaps the medium’s best work of literary criticism, and itself a comic – as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response”, now comprehends a rainbow of genres: history, criticism, biography, crime, sci-fi, romance, memoir, the classics, literary fiction, blogging, pornography and more. All in words and pictures.
Yes! This can’t be shouted from enough rooftops. I'll leave you with more art:

Reviewed at:
Books of Mee
The Book Zombie
Lakeside Musings
Historical Tapestry

(Have you posted about this book too? If so, leave me your link and I’ll be happy to include it here.)


  1. Aw - great review! I really like the excerpts you've posted. I have got to read Scott McCloud's book about comics!

  2. Well, I'm glad you read that article, or I probably never would have heard of this book. And it sounds positively delightful. Those excerpts of dialogue left me with a smile on my face, reminding me greatly of my greatly of my grandparents. And I'm with Jenny...I really want to read that Scott McCloud book! It's been on my wish list ever since your review...oh why, oh why can't I just get more read?!!

  3. Sounds like a very sweet book. Thanks for the review.

  4. what a sweet sounding book!

  5. I grew up with the Raymond Briggs books. My mother is obsessed by the Snowman. This sounds like a lovely read,which I will have to search out.

  6. I read this last month but don't seem to have posted a review. I enjoyed it a lot, the pictures reminded me of being little and curled up with The Snowman

  7. What a beautiful book. My TBR list is growing :)

  8. That looks lovely. :)
    Have you read When the Wind Blows by Briggs? Haunting.

  9. What a lovely book. I have always liked all types of comics, and I very much like the pages you showed from this book. The artwork in general is often quite stunning but never gets enough respect.

  10. Jenny: You do! And this is very much an aw sort of book - so sweet.

    Debi: Because days don't have 48 hours, unfortunately! But don't worry, you'll get to it.

    Bermudaonionn and Lena: It's really very sweet :)

    Scrap Girl: I actually hadn't heard of him before! But I'd love to pick up more of his work. What do you recommend?

    Katrina: When I was looking for other posts I saw the mention on your blog. Will you review it still? It always makes me sad not to find any links to include! Anyway...another mention of The Snowman! Will have to check it out.

    Christina: I most definitely recommend this :)

    Maree: I haven't, no, but I actually added it to my wishlist just the other day!

    Jaimie: So true! Though that seems to be starting to change somewhat.

  11. Nymeth - btw...I just now found out via Chris's vlog that I too have been pronouncing your name incorrectly. I'm gonna try to break the Ny-meth habit and work on the Nye-meth one.

    Where is your name from anyways???

  12. Thanks for the lovely review, Nymeth! This sounds like a lovely read and I thought the illustrations are adorable (in a good way)! :)

  13. I love those dialogue bits you posted! I can't believe I had this one from the library at one point but I had to return it back unread! Eep. I will have to look for it again. The artwork is lovely isn't it?

  14. Oh you beat me! I have this review on my draft right now :)

  15. This jumped onto my wishlist (via Nancy Pearl? I can't remember!) back when I was really getting into graphic novels. Then my focus shifted...but I still want to read it. Thanks for the review.

  16. Oh, that looks sweet and adorable. I wonder if my library has it...

  17. This is a cool sounding book! I will have to look and see if I can get a copy. :)

  18. Christina: I don't know why Chris keeps saying that; I've told him it's not wrong :P "Nymeth" was the name of a character in an embarrassingly bad fantasy novels I wrote when I was like 18, and it stuck as an online nickname since then. Basically, someone commented when Chris did his first vlog saying that they'd pronounce it "Nye-meth" in their heads, and I said that's how I said it in my head too. But until Chris' vlog I had never heard it being said aloud, and since a) it's a made up name and b) I'm REALLY not someone who should be trusted on pronunciation, I'm more than happy with however people say it. So don't worry :P

    Melody: Is there such a thing as adorable in a bad way? :P It really is a lovely book :)

    Iliana: Definitely look for it again! That just can't be helped with library books sometimes, but this is a quick and worthwhile read.

    Mee: I can't wait to read yours!

    Bybee: You're welcome! I really hope you enjoy it.

    Miss D: Let's hope so!

    Kailana: It is cool! Both historical and personal, which is something I love.

  19. Oh I love Raymond Briggs ever since I first saw The Snowman as a little kid. This looks like a charming story and it's a shame you found it way too short.

  20. Okay, definitly going on my TBRpile. I love the idea that through this couple's relationship you get to see the progression of time/culture/tech. Very cool review!

  21. There is something very touching about the artwork in this book. I might have to check this one out, though I normally don't read comics and cartoons, it seems as though I might like this one. Thanks for posting this!

  22. Rhinoa: I actually had never heard of The Snowman until you all mentioned it! Even being so short it was a very satisfying little book.

    Joanne: Isn't it a fabulous idea? And he makes it work so well.

    Zibilee: Yes, the artwork itself definitely adds to the book's emotional power. I look forward to your thoughts on it!

  23. another great review, I like those quotes you posted.
    the art does look sweet.

  24. I loved Ethel and Ernest, and also like Briggs' The Man, a picture book for kids that's also v. much for adults. I'm also reminded of Ethel and Ernest when I read Janet and Allen Ahlberg's Peekaboo to my kids; the style and times are similar to me.

  25. This sounds lovely Nymeth, thanks!


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