The year was 1995, and I was glued to Richmal Crompton’s Just William. Nothing, I was convinced at age eight going on nine, could ever top William Brown and the Outlaws, not even the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, books which I had been sternly forbidden to read till I reached my teens, and thus was overly curious about. Then, I got my first Famous Five.
The book was Five Go to Smuggler’s Top, and Julian, Dick, George, Anne, Timmy the dog and their friend, Sooty, changed my world. I had been reading Enid Blyton’s other works for a while already, but the Famous Five opened up for me a whole new world of exhilarating, grown-up escapades where the real grown-ups were nowhere to be seen. Unlike the Five Find-Outers or the Secret Seven, the Famous Five managed to move around quite a bit — they found themselves in the countryside, the moors and a few Cornish villages.
Exploring scary caves along with the five, growing up with friends in boarding school like the girls in the St Clare’s and Malory Towers series, and the excitement of midnight feasts, complete with tongue sandwiches, drop-scones, ginger beer and clotted cream, among other things, kept me hooked. It was only much later that the problems in Blyton’s writing became apparent to me, although certain things — such as Julian telling George, in Five Go on a Hike Together, “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And... girls have got to be taken care of” — rankled with me even earlier.
Adults have found Blyton’s books sloppy and lacking in originality; then there are all the accusations of sexism, xenophobia and elitism that have been hurled at her for decades. For instance, George was not concerned with equality for girls, she just wanted to be a boy. She was happiest when she was mistaken for one, or was deemed “as good as a boy”. Often, it did not strike us how privileged the kids were — George even had her own island in Kirrin Bay. Cosmetic changes were made to Blyton’s works over the decades — for example, in the late 1980s, the golliwogs in Amelia Jane were done away with — but in recent years, the Famous Five have undergone their most extensive changes at the hands of editors.
In Five on a Treasure Island, for instance, Julian, Dick and Anne’s parents’ relationship suddenly sounds like a marriage of equals. The lines, “‘Well, this time Daddy wants me to go to Scotland with him,’ said Mother. ‘All by ourselves!’” have now become, “‘Well, this time Dad and I have planned to go to Scotland,’ said Mum. ‘Just the two of us!’” George’s parents’ marriage, however, is still the same: Uncle Quentin remains grouchy and holed up in his study, Aunt Fanny sees to the house. George remains a tomboy — how could that change? — yet there have been little snips and stitches to neutralize the text. So, George’s “very short curly hair” is no longer “almost as short as a boy’s”. And Anne’s love of dolls has now become a fondess for teddy bears; in book two, a reference to her present, “a new doll...! I shall call her Betsy-May”, has been erased. Have girls — and boys, too — ceased to play with dolls?
It is true that the original stories speak of a world that ceased to be long ago. If the quest undertaken by Blyton’s editors were to reach its intended conclusion, there would be precious little left of her books. But Blyton in the original still continues to enchant children — the only ones she cared for anyway. Updating the language might make the stories easier for children today to understand, but surely a world where pre-teens are blithely allowed by an aunt — who is supposed to take care of them — to scamper around a (rather deserted) countryside, or to sail on their own to an island sans life jackets and disappear for days on end is not one that any child today would relate to. Kids know very well that the story is set in the past; to suggest otherwise may very well be an insult to their intelligence.
As a good friend very pithily said, “Blyton’s golliwogs should remain golliwogs, Tintin in the Congo should remain racist and the Oompa Loompas the thinly veiled xenophobic allegories that they are; kids should read these books and know that the times were different and people were weird. If kids get a wholesome education, these things should hardly matter.” I doubt I could have put it better, or more pithily, myself.