Happy Jubilee week everybody! Jubilations, actually, I suppose, isn’t it? Props to her maj anyway, as I believe the young folk probably aren’t quite saying these days.
But – without wishing to detract in any way from Elizabeth Twoth’s great achievement, we must not forget a quieter but equally pleasing and almost as terribly British anniversary. For it was 70 years ago that the first Famous Five book was published. I wish I had to look up the title, but I can still recite all 21 of the eventual series in order, so firmly were they engraved on my eight-year-old mind – it’s Five On A Treasure Island. If unswerving Britishness is the theme of the day, then we can hardly do better than doff a cap in the direction of Enid Blyton’s sterling work.
All of a very particular band of human life is here, and in the other 800 or so books she published in her lifetime by dint of writing between 6,000 and 10,000 words a day for over 40 years. There was Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny; four children – alpha male Julian, dickless Dick - little Anne, proto-feminist/Sapphic role model George – and Timmy the dog; solid yeoman stock who doled out victuals from their farmhouse kitchens and a nation of shopkeepers who dispensed lashings of ginger beer; Kirrin Island, a mini-British empire complete with castle, rabbits and bracken for beds (even old colonials need their sleep); and there were villains – thwarted of course, at the last. As one critic famously put it: “What hope have a band of desperate men against four children?”
Therein, of course, lies the secret of Blyton’s lasting appeal. Her books were simple, formulaic and comforting. You knew – even before you had read them for the second, third, 100th or 200th time – what you were going to get. It’s hard not to see her as holding the hands of thousands of post-war children literally and metaphorically dislocated by their experiences. And in microcosm her books have allowed individual children to bridge the scary gap between young children’s books and full-length fiction ever since.
The Famous Five reflect how the country has changed
They have done this over the years in the face of increasing criticism, most damningly of racism. As with CS Lewis’ Narnia, Blyton’s world is never a good one in which to be dark of skin, ‘swarthy’ or gypsyish of mien. It does generally mean you are a baddie. Sexism too abounds. Anne is forever cooking and staying behind to remake those bracken beds – with George, whenever Julian’s insistence that his brilliant cousin curb her irrational desire for independence of thought, movement or smugglercatching – while others have adventures. She doesn’t even get a medal for managing repeatedly to make breakfast for five on a portable oil stove without burning down half of Dorset.
The most overtly racist references and offensively dated language – I think the golliwog who has his blackness washed away by ‘magic rain’ in one of the books for younger readers has now been erased in his entirety – have largely been removed from the books now, though it has proved impossible to do the same so swingeingly with the sexism and leave them recognisably the same stories.
But that’s what makes them still so British. They reflect what the country was and how it has changed. We did once speak and think more blinkeredly, ignorantly, narrowly, stupidly about race; we did once unthinkingly confine our girls and boys to rigid roles and curtail girls’ freedom and ambitions. But we’ve got better, over the years. Not perfect, nowhere near, but better. In the 60 years that the Queen has ruled and the 70 that the Famous Five have roamed Kirrin Island, we have improved. And we have tried to reflect this changing British mood and degree of enlightenment, through the literature we give our children and by treading a careful middle ground.
We haven’t destroyed the books to appease extreme sensitivities or insisted that they stay untouched, so that they upset and alienate younger generations. They have been changed piecemeal, when and if the harm they seem likely to do outweighs the virtue of retaining the author’s original words. In those ongoing discussions and compromises made by publishers I like to think that they are now books that show, if not the best of British, then at least that the British do, by and large, try to do their best.
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