In the process of building a bibliography for my Family History Writing Course I discovered this Raymond Briggs graphic novel. What a find.
Beautifully drawn, gently humorous, it hooked me from the first picture. Should I have said cartoon? The story of Ethel and Ernest begins, as such a title should, with the meeting of the couple, on a Monday in 1928.
How about this for an opening?
This story of a working-class couple covers most of the twentieth century. Each frame concentrates on Ethel & Ernest, and shows us how one family faces and embraces change.
I like the way it keeps its focus, and includes social and political history as part of the plot. For instance, in one of the 1930s domestic-evening frames, Ethel is doing the ironing as Ernest reads out from his paper: “It says ‘The average family needs £6 a week to keep it above the poverty line…”
Ethel says, “What’s the poverty line?”
“Dunno,’ says Ernest. “I just wish I earned £6 a week.”
There is an elegant economy about the way Briggs tells his story that we prose writers can learn from. It says no more than it needs to, and trusts us readers to fill in the rest.
Look again at those first two pages, and what you see is a young woman in a black dress, apron and cap dusting a table. Her role is clear. The house is implied by the richness of the curtains, and her feelings by the colour that comes and goes on her cheeks. We can imagine the rest. The young man is crouched over his handlebars, glances back, and waves his cap. The street is no more than a shadowy outline of prosperity. What matters is his wide grin and the cigarette clenched between his teeth.