I’ve been rediscovering Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories lately, as 6YO has developed a sudden enthusiasm for them. So how well have these 70 year old stories with their much-derided ‘lashings of ginger beer’ stood the test of time? And how does Enid Blyton compare with more modern authors?
I have a feeling that when I first read the Famous Five, in the late 1970s, Enid Blyton was out of fashion. I used to read my Mum’s old dog-eared childhood copies, Hodder and Stoughton hardbacks with their gorgeous Eileen Soper illustrations, dark red covers, and dust jackets long since fallen off. In those days you would never see an Enid Blyton book in your local library, much less at school. Her writing was considered repetitive, snobbish, xenophobic and full of gender stereotypes. On some level I think I must have been aware of this – although I adored George and wanted to be like her, I remember I always hated smug Julian and imagined myself talking back to him and sabotaging his plans!
And yet for all their faults, it was the Famous Five that taught me to read. At school I would mutter and stumble, with my fists clenched, reading aloud the plot-free Janet & John ‘first reader’ type books. But at home, my imagination gripped by Blyton’s simple but compelling plots, I devoured chapter after chapter. Of course, her books have a production-line repetitiveness about them. But any parent who’s seen their offspring demand the same DVD every night for two months will know that actually children do seem to learn quite a lot through repetition. And re-reading the books now I’m remembering just how many words I learned to recognise, understand and spell correctly through constant exposure to Blyton’s plodding style. Now they jump out at me like long forgotten old friends. Words like ‘curious’, ‘sickening’ ‘gleaming brilliantly’ and yes, of course, the endless ‘potted meat sandwiches and ginger beer’ almost seem to jump off the page and greet me like old friends.
Of course the bit about the Famous Five which we all remember is that Georgina, who hates playing with dolls and wearing dresses, wants to be a boy called George so that she can climb and swim and row her boat. It’s a depressing sign of the times that back in the 1970’s, six year old me could see that this was old-fashioned nonsense and knew perfectly well that girls could do all that without having to pretend to be a boy. Sadly, I get the impression that my own 6YO fully accepts George’s reasoning, because in today’s world (despite our best efforts to avoid stereotyping) girls wear dresses and like playing princesses, while boys act tough and run around. It almost seems like we’ve gone backwards in this respect.
One thing that I never noticed as a child though, which has struck me repeatedly on nightly readings over the last few months, is this: just how stupid is Uncle Quentin? I mean seriously, the man’s an idiot. In Five on a Treasure Island, he sells the map of Kirrin Island (a map on which, despite being a genius scientist, Uncle Quentin hasn’t spotted the big ‘X marks the spot’ for the gold ingots) – to someone who immediately offers to buy the entire island. The children can see instantly that this is a con, but not Uncle Q, who thinks it’s a marvellous opportunity. Barely a few months later in Five Go Adventuring Again, he employs a tutor for the children who turns out to be another confidence trickster, this time out to steal Uncle Quentin’s Important Scientific Discoveries. George works out during the course of an afternoon that it can only have been Mr Rowland who’s stolen the notebook from the study, but her imbecile father won’t be convinced until the children pop out from the secret passage way, with the missing notebook safely restored.
6YO and I are currently on book three, Five Run Away Together, in which Aunt Fanny is in hospital for a mysterious operation (I suspect this is a metaphor and she’s actually had a nervous breakdown after years of having to tie her husband’s shoelaces). Uncle Quentin cannot leave her hospital bedside (ostensibly out of concern, but more likely he’s afraid that without her, everyone will see him for the blundering incompetent he really is). Consequently George and co are left in the care of Uncle Quentin’s latest appointment – the fearsome Mrs Stick who half starves the children before turning out – of course – to be a kidnapper.
Now the distant or absent parent is a staple of children’s literature – who wants to read about a kind and sympathetic parent sorting out Voldemort or Miss Trunchbull or the White Witch? Obviously it makes for a better story if the children solve the problems themselves. But Uncle Quentin is on his own special plane of hopelessness. Enid Blyton seems to view him with contempt – what else could you make of this:
The four children stared at him and didn’t answer. They couldn’t very well say, Well, firstly you wouldn’t have believed us. Secondly you are bad tempered and unjust, and we are frightened of you. Thirdly, we didn’t trust you to do the right thing.
(Five on a Treasure Island)
All of which sounds like a fairly harsh criticism of aloof disciplinarian parenting – which is interesting as according to some accounts, Enid Blyton herself wasn’t a particularly hands-on parent.
Nevertheless, despite the dodgy gender stereotyping, repetitive storylines and the implausibility of Uncle Quentin being portrayed as one of Britain’s finest scientific minds when he clearly needs a support worker, 6YO is very much enjoying the Famous Five and can’t wait for the next chapter every night. She loves George – who, she told me proudly the other day “has a hot temper, Mummy, just like I do” and the whole idea of children having adventures by themselves seems to have her completely enthralled. And at this age, surely the fact that she’s keen to pick up a book and read it by herself, is really all that counts?