Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Lashings of ginger beer and happy endings

By Aussiegirl

As a young child growing up in Australia I was in love with all the Enid Blyton books. I read every single one in our local library before we left to come to America. My particular favorites were the Secret Seven series, although I was so young when I read them that all I remember now is that it involved a club of seven children who got involved in exciting adventures and solved mysteries. One particular favorite had something to do with a cave that was explored. Shivers of delight always accompanied the reading of this tale.

Incidentally, the word "lashings" in the title of this article means an abundance, as in heaping helpings of food. And the part of the article that deals with the uncomfortable side of many children's authors brings James Barry to mind as well. Be that as it may, the stories were and are wonderful, and it's delightful to think that children are enjoying them once again.

Lashings of ginger beer and happy endings

As the Telegraph launches a series of Famous Five audio books, Cassandra Jardine reflects on Enid Blyton's enduring appeal

When I was seven, I wanted to change my name to George. I told my mother it was because her father, who had that name, sounded such fun (he had a pet bear) - but I doubt she was taken in.

My real reason was because I was passionately absorbed by Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories and, as anyone who has read them will know, George - the cross, daring, combative girl who wants to do everything better than boys, and who won't answer to "Georgina" - is by far the most interesting character (with the possible exception of Tim the dog, George's beloved brown mongrel). By contrast, Julian and Dick are straightforwardly boyish and Anne is a wishy-washy creature who plays with dolls and does housework.

Not only does George have what we would now call "attitude", she is also the only character capable of saying and doing what adults want, while privately pursuing her own agenda, so naturally I loved her best.

My devotion to Blyton began when I was even younger, with the Mr Pinkwhistle and Faraway Tree series - I was particularly addicted to the Topsy-Turvy Land - but it was when I graduated to her adventure stories, especially The Famous Five, that the obsession took hold. Through them I entered a world of secret passageways, torches, penknives and rubber-soled shoes, rope ladders, trapdoors, panelling that moved to reveal hiding places, treasure maps, spooky castles and adults whose dastardly plans were foiled by children (and dog) who were far braver than I would ever have been.

I was fortunate in having parents who didn't subscribe to the pompous orthodoxy that Blyton was a blight. They could see that she used a limited vocabulary and had a narrow world view of upper middle-class England, but they were happy that I was quiet for hours on end, reading and rereading her stories.

In time, of course, I graduated to other less than highbrow, but equally gripping, reading - Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie - but I have never again so completely entered a fictional world as I did with that of George and her cousins.

During the years between my own childhood and my children's, Blyton has had a bad press. The literary police tell parents that she is too basic, too unironic for a sophisticated child - not to mention elitist, racist, sexist and even homoerotic (remember the fuss over Noddy and Big Ears sharing a bed?).

Instead, the child's fictional world has been ruled by the savage wit of Roald Dahl, the gritty realism of Jacqueline Wilson, the dark magic of Harry Potter and all those other admired authors such as Michael Morpurgo and Anne Fine who introduce children to problematic people and places that extend their understanding of the world. Those writers all have great merits, but none - I find - have the simple storytelling skills that hold a child in thrall as Blyton does.

Enid Blyton: two million copies of her books are sold every year in Britain
Meanwhile, Blyton herself has been revealed as not quite the jolly hockeysticks character she once appeared.

Her younger daughter, Imogen Smallwood, in her 1989 autobiography, described her as "emotionally crippled", a cold creature who ignored her children, severed relations with her own mother and didn't attend her father's funeral.

The impression of ruthlessness was reinforced more recently when Ida Pollock, the second wife of Blyton's first husband, described how appallingly the author had treated him. She dumped him for another man, then tried to prevent him seeing his children.

I was not altogether surprised. Most good writers, especially those who write for children, have something uncomfortable in their make-up as well as a talent for story-telling.

Blyton was no more an exception than E Nesbit or Lewis Carroll. In her case, the central trauma that may have encouraged her enthusiasm for fantasy was her father's departure with another woman when she was 13, a shameful secret that Blyton kept silent about. She wrote for adults and worked as a teacher for 20 years before she began on the 700 books that made her the most successful children's author of the 20th century.

Once she started, she couldn't stop. Her first full-length adventure, The Secret Island, came out in 1938 and, when she got into her stride, she wrote as many as 10,000 words a day, polishing off books in a week, and continued to do so until a few years before her death, aged 71, in 1968. Her imagination, she said, needed no encouragement: the stories came pouring out.

The worlds she created were not entirely idyllic - there was always trouble afoot, which had to be sorted out by the central characters. But this was never the stuff of nightmares because, invariably, everything turned out well, with villains vanquished and a slap-up tea at the end of the day. No wonder children, with their literal minds and love of order, loved them.

Despite all the criticism, Blyton has carried on selling. Even now, two million copies of her books are sold every year in Britain, Australia and India alone - the latter somewhat mitigating the idea that her narrow, all-white world is accessible only to others who come from Fifties Britain. She remains in the top 10 of most borrowed authors, which suggests that, when children choose for themselves from libraries, they pick Blyton.

Her elder daughter, Gillian Baverstock, is not surprised: "She learnt how to write for children through teaching. The children told her what they liked and didn't like. They don't like stories clogged up with details that bore them. She knew exactly what vocabulary, grammar and length would suit a child of a particular age."

Now, the Telegraph is making the Famous Five available as audio books. As little is more depressing than returning to childhood loves to find them dull and tawdry, I approached the first of these recordings, Five on a Treasure Island, with trepidation.

The audio books, which carry the old, familiar illustrations on the covers, have been only lightly abridged. Lashings of ginger beer and piles of ham sandwiches have been consigned to the scrapheap of rationing-induced food fantasies, but characters such as Dick and Aunt Fanny have not been renamed to avoid knowing sniggers. I found myself completely gripped once more. Tightly plotted, they leave enough unsaid to stir the imagination.

As a parent, I also like the way they encourage good behaviour. The children struggle with concepts such as honesty and loyalty. And they believe in having a good night's sleep followed by a hearty breakfast before starting an adventure.

I will now look forward to playing them in the car when it is filled with our brown mongrel dog and my five children - especially my seven-year-old who is called, not entirely coincidentally, George.


At 7:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How much engrossing fun you must have had reading these great adventures! I think that your love of reading prepared you for writing your blog, since you cover almost every topic under the sun!In reading this I was reminded of the various books that I read all those long years ago when adult responsibilities were still in the future, and you could read and read to your heart's content. I remember reading a great number of The Hardy Boys adventure stories (it turns out that The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Stories were written by the same man). But the two favorite books from my youth were Wind in the Willows and Mistress Masham's Repose. The former is of course that wonderful, hypnotic tale of Rat and Mole and their cozy adventures on the river (but let's not forget the boastful Toad). The latter, less well known, is about a little girl, an orphan, who lives in a vast palace with her mean guardians, but also a kindly old scholar who is always searching for a Latin manuscript. Now it turns out that many years earlier Gulliver, of Gulliver's Travels, had returned to England with several Lilliputians, who had escaped and set up residence on this estate. I found it to be a fascinating story, full of excitement, and also moral lessons that the little girl learns in her dealings with these tiny people. (There was also a finely detailed map of the estate whereon I spent much time tracing the comings and goings of the characters.) There's a happy ending -- the little girl is the actual owner of the giant estate, and the professor finds that he had been sitting on his manuscript all along.

At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never read the Blyton books although I loved many of the classic English children's books like Grahame's Wind in the Willows, Barrie's Peter Pan, and the E Nesbit books.
My only familiarity with the 'Famous Five' series was via a parody on the British 'Comic Strip' series back in the late 80s. They did a hilarious (but obviously affectionate) parody of the Five with an episode called 'Five Go Mad in Dorset' Wonderful stuff, but I would love to read the original Blyton books.
BTW, aussiegirl, I continue to be in awe of the wide range of subjects you cover here.


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