With over 600 books to her name, children’s author Enid Blyton could bang out a classic quicker than her quintessential protagonists could down lashings of ginger beer at a dorm midnight feast. Although to many Blyton will always be associated with some of the odder aspects of middle class life in mid 20th century England – think sleeveless pullovers or naming your children ‘Dick’ or ‘Fanny’ – her books still sell at the rate of one every minute in the UK. There are still generations growing up influenced by Blyton’s depictions of jolly-hockey-sticks boarding school times and her world where, although dangerous grown ups lurk around every corner, the Famous Five are always back in time for tea.
Although aspects of her writing clearly have a timeless resonance, the news that one of her most beloved works, the trilogy The Magic Faraway Tree is to be made into a film for 2019 was met with mixed reactions. At first glance, the books are as delightfully trippy as any others of the children’s genre, with iconic figures such as Moon-Face helping the children at the tale’s core battle talking polar bears.
However, even these tales have aspects that simply do not translate to the morals of the modern day UK. For example, the presence of ‘Dame Slap’, a harridan who physically punishes her long suffering pupils feels jarring to many contemporary readers. Yet when the text was amended so she was ‘Dame Snap’, there were those who saw it as just another sign of ‘PC Britain gone mad’, arguing that it is disingenuous and wrong to edit the work of one of Britain’s bestsellers.
And, yes, whilst these people tend to be found in the comment section of the Daily Mail Online, the point they raise is valid. Should 21st century children be sheltered from books that include stances which require the context of their time period to be understood?
Or is it over-protective to try and shield them from behaviour that they will, unfortunately, undoubtedly witness in their lifetime? This seems important to discuss particularly since Blyton’s books otherwise have strong moral codes, with their child protagonists setting aside their differences to work together to solve important issues, such as uncovering international smuggling rings (why was it always smuggling?)
Blyton’s other works respond even less well to modern scrutiny. Sadly, implicit within her texts are unfortunate 1950’s stereotypes regarding gender and race. Villains in the Famous Five and Secret Seven series are consistently identifiable as evil due to their ‘swarthy’ complexions, their position as ‘queer foreigners’ or due to them being of gypsy origin.
In fact, Blyton’s curious obsession with depicting travellers as untrustworthy was questioned in her time, with MacMillan publishers turning down one of her mystery novels in 1953 due to her “curious and xenophobic obsession.” Even Noddy, still a beloved character, had an experience in Toytown that saw him pushed out of his toy cart and left for dust by five vicious golliwogs (undeniably problematic, even if your granny doesn’t understand why), a tale which has since been quietly removed.
Clearly, there is still an appetite for Blyton’s tales, and well-adjusted kids surrounded by otherwise positive influences aren’t about to become raging racists because of one questionable remark. However, when there are reams of other positive literary role models available, especially for young girls, it might be worth shelving Dick and Fanny until Dick learns that, actually, Fanny doesn’t have to do the washing up after the picnic.
Image: Laura Spence