Children’s author Enid Blyton, with her daughters Gillian (left) and Imogen in 1949. Photo: Getty Images
The literati snub her, publishers modernise her, but diehard fans are loath to see the Blyton world tampered with.
AN ENTIRE literary revolution can be traced back to 1922. In that year, James Joyce’s rule-changing masterpiece Ulysses was published in Paris. In London, Virginia Woolf’s most influential stream-of-consciousness novel, Jacob’s Room, and Katherine Mansfield’s first collection of stories, The Garden Party, came out within months of each other; towards the end of the year, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was first published in book form in New York. And in the middle of all this fierce modernity, one Enid Blyton also published for the first time: a collection of poems called Child Whispers.
Blyton’s prodigious body of work – she wrote an estimated 800 books for children – has never been seen as a positive contribution to English literature, it’s true. Even in the late 1930s, when she was yet to hit her straps with boarding schools and juvenile detectives and was still retelling legends of Camelot for littlies, she was banned from the BBC on the grounds of mediocrity. More recently, Philip Pullman described her books as ”mechanically recovered”. Perhaps this is literally true, given that she would often bang out 10,000 words on her manual typewriter in a day.
A 70th anniversary edition cover.
But there is no underestimating Enid Blyton’s success or reach. To date, her worldwide sales top €500 million ($772 million) and, more than 40 years after her death, show no signs of slipping. In the first decade of this millennium, she outsold Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, in Britain. Will breathless young fans still be reading Meyer’s vampiric hits in 60, 40 or even 20 years’ time? Unlikely. And while it is true that being popular doesn’t make a bad book any better – millions of readers can, in fact, be wrong – Blyton’s books are unlike other blockbusters in that they have never fallen out of fashion. If they are garbage, they are the kind of garbage that never degrades.
In the past couple of years, however, Blyton’s publishers in Britain have endeavoured to wring yet more cream out of their cash cow by updating the texts. In 2010, they released the first 10 Famous Fives in the new ”timeless” language. According to their research, they say, the books sound so dated that they appeal more to parents’ nostalgia than to the children for whom they were written. ”These days,” said Marlene Johnson, the managing director of Hachette’s children’s books division, earlier this year, ”you don’t talk about jolly japes to kids”.
The adventures remained the same, Hachette insisted. There were no gratuitous 21st-century add-ons: no rescues achieved through the use of mobile phones, no snuggling in front of breakfast television; no question that Uncle Quentin was locking himself in his study in order to watch online porn. ”Sensitive revisions” simply replaced Mother and Father with Mum and Dad, cut out words such as ”jolly” and ”wizard”, eliminated gay fairgrounds and queer happenings where the words’ modern meanings might be distracting or shocking and – now, this is jolly queer – replacing supposedly outmoded words, such as ditching ”peculiar” for ”strange”.
There were some tweaks to fit modern sensibilities, too; Blyton’s insistence on the obligations of girls to make sandwiches has gone the way of golliwogs and the sadistic Dame Slap in the Faraway Tree, who was reduced to reprimanding children as ”Dame Snap” in an earlier round of Blyton reforms. George still wanted to be a boy – given that this is a major plot point in every Famous Five book, it would be difficult to excise – but less was made of the shortness of her hair.
Now, having acquired rights to all the Blytons apart from Noddy, Hachette is to take the scalpel to the Secret Seven and the Naughtiest Girl . The latter series is particularly strong on midnight feasts, lacrosse triumphs, emotionally combustible French teachers and the peculiarly – sorry, strangely – hothouse atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school where parents are allowed only once a term.
How it could be modernised defies the imagination, which is perhaps why they are commissioning a raft of great illustrators such as Quentin Blake to interpret the covers. That certainly worked for the Famous Five; this year, Blake asked four of his fellow illustrators to create new covers for their favourite Fives. These were released earlier this month to commemorate their 70th anniversary. The delightful results are whimsical rather than thrilling, suggesting the rather retro nature of the stories inside; these characters are children, but not as we know them.
Inevitably, the program of revisions has drawn fire from upholders of the faith – those for whom Blyton’s books are an inalienable heritage – and from parents who complain to online forums that they want their children to be able to read the ”classics” they loved themselves. ”Why does Blyton have to be so heavily altered when other authors from the same era aren’t changed at all?” demanded Tony Summerfield of the Enid Blyton Society.
”No one’s going to change E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children … Children can appreciate these books were written in a different time.”
These are, of course, exactly the sorts of people who worry the modernisers. ”Language just changes, it evolves,” said children’s author Andy Briggs when the Famous Five modernisations were announced; at the time, he was busy doing a rewrite of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books for the present generation. ”The problem is if we don’t evolve with it, then the new generation of kids is not going to have anything to relate to.” This may be true of Tarzan, that white man in the jungle who, I would suggest, probably has a few more points against him than Burroughs’ overly florid prose. But is it true of Enid Blyton?
The Famous Five books – my own favourites – still sell half a million copies a year. It is questionable whether these are all being snapped up by literary parents keen to school their children, whether they like it or not, in how to trap escaped convicts on Dartmoor. If children were not interested, they would have gone the way of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
And while it may not matter much what is done to the texts from a literary point of view, whatever her supporters say – as a writer, Blyton was clearly not Edith Nesbit’s bootlace – the designated audience doesn’t seem bothered about whether they seem old-fashioned.
By golly, those children sound awfully queer – but so what? They speak book language, just as the things that happen to them only happen in books. I would be surprised if children ever spoke in the way Blyton children do, any more than they would have been likely to go away for weeks without any adults, catch criminals and deal with the police as equal partners.
If anything, it is the background detail of the stories that is potentially alienating. Blyton died in 1968, but her most enduring series – the Famous Five, Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers and the school series Malory Towers, St Clare’s and the Naughtiest Girl – were largely written during and immediately after the ’40s. For all that Blyton is justifiably criticised for assuming both her characters and her readers are comfortably middle-class (and painfully superior with it), there are plenty of references to the black market, food shortages and a general frugality, even among the rich, that belongs to another era.
Nobody buys anything: it’s all make and mend. Inevitably, the passage of time and technology mean that the adult reader will find herself having to stop to explain why a train would have ”a fire in the engine” – of course, it’s a steam train – or why there might be spies in England. Even the endless meals can seem rather remote. But none of that has mattered to readers over the subsequent decades. On the contrary; as her supporters always point out, children who do not want to read anything else will read Enid Blyton.
My niece Stacey was a classic Blyton convert. Her elder sister, Holly, was born to read; as she neared four, she would stare intensely at any page being read to her as if willing the meaning to emerge from the strokes and twirls of print, so that once formal learning started she learned to read very quickly. She never bothered with Enid Blyton; it was a straight path through to Harry Potter. Stacey, by contrast, showed zero interest in reading for herself at all. What she liked, until she was about nine – scarily old – was to have a book read to her on someone’s knee, preferably her favourite story about the tooth fairy.
Our breakthrough into longer novels, still read on the knee, was The Magic Faraway Tree. She felt huge glee at the idea of the slide down the middle of the trunk. The lands at the top of the tree were always marvellous. She was even curious about Dame Slap, who unaccountably hit children. There was a time, I said, when that was normal. What a pity, I would add with hand raised while she giggled and wriggled, we couldn’t bring it back.
When her year 6 teacher started reading Five on a Treasure Island to the class, I wasn’t impressed; I thought they should be aiming rather higher during school hours. I still think that. But she was riveted, constructing her own Kirrin Island out of cardboard boxes; we then took out every Famous Five the library had. I read one or two, but she soon took over reading to herself, desperate to find out what happened as one chapter barrelled into the next.
Holly, who was 12 by then, would wander past during these readings saying loudly ”I SAY … oh Julian, you old silly!” on her way to the trampoline, just within earshot of the reading seat on the verandah. ”I SAY!” she would go on, bouncing. ”Jolly peculiar!” This strikes me as a sort of enjoyment, too. She liked the quaintness, even though she pretended not to. She revelled in mocking it, of course, but she was also feeling her way towards an understanding that language is always of its time, an understanding that now seems an antecedent to her later decision to study classics alongside maths.
Why shouldn’t young children be allowed to understand that people used to speak differently and, indeed, think differently? There is nothing so wonderfully precious about Blyton’s language that demands its preservation intact, apart from the fact that it exists. It is what it is.
It is also secondary to the stories themselves, of course. Blyton wrote carelessly, repetitively and at speed, with very little description; one reason the books are so readable for children now is that she deliberately loaded them with dialogue. More important than anything they say, however, is the rattling yarn set in a parallel world where children of 11 and 12 have dominion over their own lives. Even the boarding school stories are largely about what the girls do and say outside the classroom, well beyond any teacher’s purview.
Much of the time they are quite convincingly horrid to each other, to use the Blyton word. At the same time, however, they live by a code of Empire playground rules – no sneaking, no blubbing, no putting on airs, no refusing a physical challenge – that children continue to find appealingly rigid. As for the other anachronisms, they are easily – quite astonishingly easily – ignored. Stacey never questioned why nobody in the Famous Five had a phone to get help. They were on their own, which was the point and continues to be the point.
You can fiddle with the jolly old expressions all you want. For a 10-year-old safe at home from all adventures, the stories will still be absolutely smashing.