Enid Blyton is Rolling in her Grave

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”.

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Categories: the Three R's | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “Enid Blyton is Rolling in her Grave

  1. These books sound really interesting. My kids aren’t yet ready for chapter books but I’ve been perusing them at the library just because they are so much more exciting to read than our short, picture books. I came across the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series by Arthur Ransome, from a friend who had read them and re-enacted them in England in her childhood 50 odd years ago. The kids are also really adventurous and spend time away from the parents. Also the sexism is the same. I really loved them and hope that my kids love them too. I found them at my library quite easily:) It’s astounding that someone could re-write Enid’s work and water / dumb it down like that.

    How is the house / property hunting going?

  2. Cath in Ottawa

    Lovely post – my mum is english and we read *all* the Enid Blyton books we could find. I just had a similar reaction from our librarian while looking for Noddy books – the only thing they carry is sanitized annoying tv programs. On one level, I understand why — little Tubby Bear gets spanked regularly, there are often thieves in the night, and there are Golliwogs which are clearly a carry-over from an earlier time. But still, she has such a beautiful style; it’s sad to think we won’t be able to find them in their original form.

  3. Stephen Isabirye

    It is my profound love for Enid Blyton and her books that I decided to write a book on her titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com).

    Stephen Isabirye

  4. Pingback: Good Days and Bad Days « FreeLearning

  5. georgina lamb

    Enid Blyton was a horrid woman and if you watch the recent programme “Enid” you will see what she was really like. Yes, her books are good and will always appeal to children but she herself was a nasty woman.

  6. jc

    i was known to be a bookworm when i was younger, definitely because of reading Enid and Roald Dahl’s books. My faves of Enid Blyton are still the faraway tree collection and wishing chair. Noddy as well… But now I want to buy the original ‘unchanged’ versions, and have no idea where I might be able to buy them. Even just to collect… I hope the publishers will think about ‘unrevising’ them… Thank u for this blog post… after reading this I wish I had kept my copies of them as a child….

    • They have several copies at an antique centre in Uppingham, Rutland, at about £6-£10 each. I saw them last week.

  7. Kat

    I borrowed the Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton from the library aged around 5-6. I loved the book so much and I cried when I finished it. Then a few days later I came home from school and found “The Faraway Tree Stories” collection on my bed. My dear mother had bought me it and it wasn’t even my birthday. I read every single story over and over before I began to expand my Enid Blyton knowledge. I have read many of her books but I would really love to read the originals but you can’t find them in the shops. I was absolutely disgusted when I watched the Famous 5 cartoon TV show. Why can’t they stick to the original story lines and names. Why does everything have to be so modern and “cool” as children say. I also love the old illustrations but they are also replaced with modern drawings.

  8. CAROL BOARDMAN

    I OWE MISS BLYTON SO MU CH. I FIRST READ HER BOOKS
    IN 1961. MY MOM WON THE FIRST FULBRIGHT TEACHERS
    EXCHANGE BETEEN THE US AND AUS. WE SPENT A YEAR IN
    TASMANIA WHILE SHE WAS AT HOBART HIGH. I WAS BORN
    WITH TWO LEARNING DISABLITYS, BUT, THE FIRST TIME
    I PICKED UP A ENID BLYTON BOOK I WAS HOOKED. BEFORE,
    I COULD HARDLY READ, STILL CAN’T SPELL, BUT I,LL
    TAKE WHAT I CAN. BUT I READ AT A GRAD LEVEL. AND I
    HAVE A 85% RETENSION. THANK YOU, MISS BLYTON FOR A
    MUCH BETTER LIFE

  9. MK

    I’m from India and read your post with a lot of interest. I grew up on Enid Blyton starting with “Rainy Day Stories” when i was six years old and I’m a writer today largely due to Blyton’s early influence. Most of my classmates in school
    read her books too. I’m horrified to hear American editions are rewriting the books. That is just tragic. I’m shocked at the current book cover. Just can’t imagine Julian, Dick, George and Anne using laptops and mobile phones and acting “cool”. If someone thinks the originals are not politically correct, they should write something else, not deface the legacy that Blyton left behind. This is a form of plagiarism by someone without the originality to come up with their own bestseller. Isn’t there something Enid Blyton fans can do to protest this?

  10. ruralaspirations

    Ah, MK, I wish it were that simple. But obviously the “new edition” publishers have bought the rights. The fault truly lies with whatever estate manager sold those rights and allowed this to happen.

    Anyways, it’s been really nice to read all the comments and find others who appreciate her stories the way I do. Thanks, everyone!

  11. Wow, I no idea this had happened. I really don’t understand librarians in particular with that attitude. Most of the librarians I know strongly oppose censorship (and that is exactly what it is when the original stories are “cleansed” in this way). I was surprised to find that our public library carries two versions of Helen Bannerman’s book, The Story of Little Black Sambo, and more than one copy of each. I read this book as a child, and remembered it even then as being quite, shall we say, dated? It’s hard to believe poor Enid Blyton did not make the cut given that there are clearly other books in the library that have an equally likely potential to offend someone’s sensibilities. Are children harmed by reading this type of book? Certainly not! You put it exactly right when you said:

    “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.”

    I am in complete agreement. However, I think that for many parents, it is just to much work, and perhaps to “complicated” for them to “go there” with their kids. That is the real loss – the lost chance for shared discussion and growth between parents and children.

  12. Nancy Opdyke

    My 13 year old daughter is currently writing an irate letter to Hodder Childrens Books about the rewrite of the Enid Blyton Books. It’s a wonderfully written letter and that must in part be due to having read so many of the books! I bought them at garage sales and second-hand shops, and they were devoured. In fact she won’t let me get rid of them. And now I probably never will: the few ragged duplicates I put on Ebay recently (before I heard about the rewrites) were snapped up, and I’ll bet they were bought by people who really wanted the original language. What next, change ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ so that it is totally PC?… oh wait, then there would be no point in reading it… oops….

  13. ruralaspirations

    I actually recently purchased some old Blyton books from eBay. I wanted to be careful not to get the new, modernized versions and in the course of ensuring this I learned that the new series is not, in fact, a re-write of the old series but instead stars the hypothetical offspring of the original Famous Five. I suppose this is better than what I originally believed to be the case and I’ll be adding an addendum to the main post to correct the information. On the other hand, I still think it’s sad that our libraries won’t maintain books such as these – perhaps a special category such as “historical children’s fiction” could be included so that parents who don’t go for this sort of thing can choose not to read them (sad). I also object to the blatant sellout of the Enid Blyton name to something so antithetical to her own writing style.

  14. ruralaspirations

    I’ve added an addendum to my post since discovering that the new series is not a rewrite of the original but a new series whose characters are the children of the original Famous Five kids. The controversies remain.

  15. TJ

    As an avid Enid Blyton fan, words were beyond expressing the emotions that overcame me when I found out about this horrific exploitation of one of the world’s most well-loved authors. It truly saddens me how Americanized, materialist “pop-culture” is taking over the world and I feel further pity for the children of not only today, but the future. By the age of 7, 8 at the latest, I must have read and re-read every Enid Blyton book that had ever been written – the Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, Five Find Outers, Famous Five, Secret Seven, Cherry Tree Farm – just to name a few series. My childhood revolved soley around Enid Blyton and ingrained within me a love not only for literature, but also a thirst for “the olden days”. I marvelled at the expeditions, the food and the sheer sense of adventure that was such an integral part of these books. I wanted so much to experiene it, be a part of my own group and have adventures at the age of 10, fraught with danger and smugglers. I remember when I finished the last of The Children of Cherry Tree Farm I was crying to myself. I felt that with closing the book I was losing a piece of myself – I was losing Benjy and Tammylan and Rory and Sheila and Penny – and to this day I still remember the pain that this caused me! Today, although I am still in my teens, I am critical of this consumerist society children are being exposed to. To even so much as think of bringing a mobile phone and laptop anywhere near an Enid Blyton book, let alone incorporate them into the story itself, to me, shows the degradation of society. Slowly but surely we are killing ourselves, our culture and any possible literate future. In ten, twenty years time Jane Eyre will have diminished; in fifty years, well, it will probably be time to say goodbye to Shakespeare. This is humanity at its lowest point.

  16. Wow! I devoured these books as a child….and I recently found some of the old versions of the books at a used book sale….My boys aren’t quite into them yet (4, 7 and 8) but they will be soon and I want as may available as possible…..I am flabbergasted at the “updates”……You mention areas that could be “rewritten” that you yourself noted, but it sounds like they scalped them….mensch!

  17. Lila

    I think it’s simply dreadful that they had made Enid Blyton’s superb books politically correct. That’s like changing The Bible, and getting rid of any bits that people don’t like. That’s like changing Little Women, and getting rid of their poverty and the war. I suppose, in 50 years, Enid Blyton books will be hard to come by, and it’ll be Jean Ure and Jacqueline Wilson’s books that are being ‘cleansed’ (yep, on one website I saw the term ‘cleansed’.).
    I am eleven years old, and have grown up with the politically correct versions. But when I was about eight, I bought some first edition copies of Malory Towers, Famous Five and Secret Seven and I enjoyed them so much more because they were true to when they were written.
    Thankfully, I did grow up with the correct (or should it be ‘incorrect’) versions of The Cherry Tree Farm, The Golliwogs and The Adventurous Four. Zoe and Pippa? I don’t know anyone called Zoe and Pippa! I know someone called Jill, though, and someone called Mary.
    I am irate that they would do that to books as wonderful and traditional as Enid’s. Yes, she may not have been a nice woman, but her books don’t deserve to be blemished by today’s society. It disgusts me that they are eliminating all Corporal Punishment references, all references to Golliwogs (in recent editions, they are teddy bears or dogs), all ‘old fashioned’ names and anything else that a bunch of snobby publishers dislike.

    Gosh. That’s rather a rant I’ve just written. Sorry if it is rather to long for anyone’s liking (perhaps it’ll be shortened by the publishers!).

    Lila

  18. posiesandpippa

    I totally hear what you’re saying about the dilution of Enid Blyton’s books to make them more politically correct! I love her Famous Five books but also have a special place in my heart for the Magic Faraway Tree series. The characters in that series are Jo, Dick, Fanny and Bessie. Imagine my disappointment when I purchased a new copy (published in the US) where the children were renamed Joe, Rick, Frannie and Beth. So wrong!

  19. sonu

    i love Enid Blyton! Her way of story telling is incredible ! She is a very sweet woman!

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