When I was nine years old, a family friend whose children had grown and moved out of the home presented me with a huge box full of books. Most of them were by Enid Blyton, books that her children had read and enjoyed, and they were now being passed on to me. I devoured them, and for years looked everywhere for Famous Five or Secret Seven books. When I grew up I kept some of them (I’m not really sure what happened to the rest).
Years later I found myself with a daughter who is about the age when voracious readers such as herself become interested in chapter books. Well, actually she seems a bit behind on that front compared to other early readers I know. I tried a while back with a Magic Treehouse book, but after reading a chapter or two she requested that we go back to the picture books we get at the library each week. Until last week, that is. I was rummaging around and found my old Enid Blyton books. I decided to give it a try with her again. I asked if we could read a chapter or two from this book (Five Go To Billycock Hill), and then we’d do one of her books.
I’m delighted to say that she immediately took to them (probably because the Famous Five include a rather clever dog) and we ended up reading several chapters that night and never got to her other books. Every night since then we’ve read chapters from the book, both she and I enjoying them to the point where I often relent to read “just one more chapter!” because I myself am caught up in the story.
These books were originally written in the 1940’s and take place in England. They are an amazing glimpse into the lifestyle of the past. The way the children speak is so quaint, with lots of “Oh, do let’s!”, “Jolly good!”, and “Rather!”. One of my favorite memories is the way Blyton described the meals the children would eat when out camping or hiking (which they did alone, by the way, the eldest being only 15 and the youngest around 10). Bought from local farmers, which were everywhere it seemed, the children dined on “creamy milk” (doubtless raw), fresh bread and home-churned butter, home-made marmalade and jam, cured hams from the farm’s own pigs, and fresh eggs. Even Daughter, who is notoriously selective in her tastes, lamented that the meals sounded so good that she wished she liked more foods!
Sandwiches were wrapped in paper, tents were canvas sheets set up with pegs and strong branches. Drinks were bought in glass bottles and doled out in cardboard cups. The total absence of plastic is hard to miss. The kids slept in “rugs” rather than sleeping bags, and each child always carried a pocket-knife.
There are some darker sides to the old ways that are also captured in these books. Corporal punishment was frequently mentioned (although generally not in a favourable light). There was rampant sexism; the girls were treated more like delicate flowers and relegated to tasks such as preparing the picnic lunch or washing up afterwards while the boys went off and did the more “manly” chores. The tom-boy George (short for Georgina) was never accorded the same privileges as the boys even though she was tough as nails. The children attended unisex boarding schools and had nannies/housekeepers at home (Daughter was quite astounded by the concept of a boarding school, wondering how any child could want to be away from home so much). There is a stereotyping of “bad guys” as being “common”, disheveled, and otherwise down on their luck. And regular glimpses of war-time attitudes towards “traitors” and “the enemy”. Some of her stories go even further: the current one we are reading involves a trip to Africa where the “savages” are described with typical Colonial-style discrimination and stereotyping. In others she paints a rather intolerant view of “Gypsies”. I don’t recall noticing these much as a child reading the stories, and I suspect the significance is largely over the head of Daughter, too. Those issues that do strike her as odd are questioned and discussed, and overall I think the benefits of this “look into the past” outweigh any political incorrectness found in the tales.
And so it was that we went to the library and decided to see if they had any Enid Blyton books. The librarian pointed them out to me, but informed me that they were “modern editions” that had been “fully revised”. She commented that the originals were “totally inappropriate” for a public library and that I would not find them in any branch. I picked one up and noted with dismay the Saturday-morning-cartoon style illustrations on the front cover.
When I opened a modern Famous Five book to sample the stories I was further dismayed. Not only was the style of writing as foreign from Enid Blyton as Douglas Coupland is from Walden, they’d actually changed the names of the children! I guess the name “Dick” would apparently elicit too much adolescent giggling to be taken seriously, while Julian’s nickname “Ju” probably rolled off the tongue in too politically-incorrect a manner. The modern prose and the complete removal of any flavour of mid-century England resulted in a book that, had I not seen her name on the cover, I would simply never have recognized as her own.
Blyton was born in 1897 and died in the same year I was born. Doubtless someone recently decided to capitalize on her immense fame as a children’s author, purchased the rights to her name and book titles, and then completely redid every element of the story. It was truly tragic, and my heart ached. I resolved then and there to hunt down as many of the old versions as I could find (I recently picked one up at the local thrift store, and I know used paperback bookstores generally have a good selection). I was also greatly saddened that the legacy of such a fine author had been obliterated by political correctness and the glaringly obvious assumption that North American children could simply never relate to their grandparents’ childhood experiences (and would never want to). I mean, how on earth could you ever solve a good mystery without a cell phone and a laptop? It’s a most despicable affront to literature, in my humble opinion. But this also provided a great topic of discussion for myself and Daughter who, I’m proud to say, is as uninterested in the modern versions as I am.
I cannot help but feel convinced that if Enid Blyton were alive today to see how her name has been prostituted she would be horrified. I hope, however, she would also take some comfort in knowing that those of us who grew up on her stories (after a previous generation had already done so), are proudly sharing them with our own children and making clear the distinction between her marvelously adventurous tales and the Scooby-Doo Gang knockoffs that prostitute her name in a blatant attempt to bolster sales. I’m truly sickened and saddened by these modern books and hope that today’s children will not be deprived of knowing her true charm, wit, and style. Not to mention, the priceless opportunity to engage our children in a bit of history.
Edited to add (July 30, 2010): It turns out I was incorrect in my understanding of the new Famous Five series. I recently learned that this series is not a re-write but a new series whose characters are the children of the original Famous Five kids. However, not only has this series been met with criticism by some Blyton fans (see this Wikipedia page for a brief discussion) but the original series has been altered by certain publishers and removed from libraries (see this Wikipedia page; scroll down to “Controversies and revisions”) as we discovered when we looked for them at our local library. Having recently bought some modern print editions of the Famous Five books from eBay, I will have to check to see if these have been “cleaned up”.