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The mystery of Enid Blyton's revival

Famous Five

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News

Golliwogs, goblins and girls - definitely not boys - doing the washing-up. It's easy to see why Enid Blyton's books went out of fashion. But now her work is enjoying a surprise comeback.

"Crikey, another adventure for us, that's super! Better than beastly school. Hurrah for summer! Now, let's find those horrid kidnappers."

"Yes, let's, old brick!"

After a 45-year hiatus The Famous Five's Survival Guide marks a reunion of sorts for the four young sleuths and Timmy the dog. Just as James Bond has successfully outlived the death of his creator, Ian Fleming, so Enid Blyton's gang of tenacious, school-age detectives has been resurrected by an author writing in homage to Blyton.

With this and 19 more "in the style of" Blyton books - breathing new life into the Mallory Towers and Faraway Tree series - it seems that after years of bad press, the author who endured a McCarthy-ite blacklisting by the politically correct brigade, is back in fashion.

ENID BLYTON
Enid Blyton in 1949
Born in East Dulwich, south London, in 1897
Became a teacher, married a book editor and first published in 1922
First Famous Five book in 1942 and 20 more followed in 21 years
She wrote 5,000 short stories and 150 full-length novels
Blyton is the sixth most popular author worldwide, especially loved in India, Japan and Germany
400 million copies sold in 90 languages

She was recently named Britain's best-loved author in a poll for the Costa Book award and earlier this year Disney UK unveiled its Famous 5: On the Case animation, in which the imagined offspring of the original five follow in their parents' intrepid footsteps. It's no wonder then that Blyton's estate, Chorion, says the last 12 months has seen a marked increase in interest, with £7.5m in annual retail sales.

So why is there a renaissance for an author whose writing has long been accused of being too simple or even poor in style, bossy and sexist?

The latest Famous Five book interweaves the new mystery with practical tips like how to pack a rucksack or find a secret passage. In this way it capitalises on a renewed appetite for children to connect with the outdoors, says Jeff Norton of Chorion, hot on the heels of Conn Iggulden's bestseller, Dangerous Book for Boys.

"On one level a sense of adventure in literature in this country never left, because of the Famous Five," says Mr Norton.

"But the Dangerous Book for Boys captured the ethos already in the public consciousness in fiction and did it in non-fiction.

"What we're doing with Famous Five's survival guide is merging a narrative with survival tips for adventure in the real world."

'Xenophobia'

In response to allegations of sexism and racism, Chorion began heavily editing Blyton's works in the 1990s, removing phrases and words that could be deemed offensive.

Philip Pullman
The characters are two-dimensional and the stories are mechanically recovered, like mechanically recovered meat
Philip Pullman

Concerns that Blyton's work could offend audiences were first raised as far back as 1960, when a publisher questioned her "old-fashioned xenophobia" in explaining the motives of thieves simply with the fact they were foreign.

Come the 1980s, there were wider misgivings about gender and race, plus criticisms of her rather bland style, and Blyton-bashing became more fashionable.

The mischief-making golliwogs who stole Noddy's car and bedevilled Toytown were erased, years before Chorion took over the estate and set about more rigorous sub-editing.

Tony Summerfield, organiser of the Enid Blyton Society, thinks some changes were necessary but many were overzealous.

There were 100 in one Famous Five book, he says, and in The Adventurous Four, the names of the twins Jill and Mary were changed to Zoe and Pippa, and 13-year-old fisherboy Andy became a schoolboy.

KEY CRITICISMS
Trouble-makers were golliwogs or foreigners
Boys led, girls followed and were often excluded from more active roles
In The Little Black Doll (1937), a doll wants a pink face
Blyton was lampooned by Channel 4's Comic Strip team in Five Go Mad In Dorset in 1982, coining the phrase 'lashings of ginger beer'

"Why is it necessary to change Blyton? You don't change Nesbit [Blyton contemporary E Nesbit]. You don't have a Virgin Express rushing past the Railway Children because the age of steam is over.

"I can understand if something is offensive. Certain words that were acceptable in the 40s are not acceptable now. But we don't want to ruin the charm of something that was written in a particular setting."

Blyton was born in 1897 and the Edwardian values of the time shaped her writing, he says.

"If she was writing today she would be much more sensitive to certain issues but I don't think there's any point in saying you can't have only girls washing up in Famous Five books, you must have boys too. That's the way it was then - washing up was women's work."

Mr Summerfield senses a turning of the tide now, back in Blyton's favour, but celebrated authors continue to disagree over her literary merits.

'Bossy voice'

Children's laureate Michael Rosen says he read very little of her as a child but now appreciates her skill.

"She was very clever at several veins of thought that appeal very much to children. They escape from their parents into a world where they can perform superhuman feats, or certainly beyond the capacity of children, in The Famous Five and Secret Seven.

Noddy
During the 1980s, the Noddy stories were heavily edited

In her stories about girls, like Amelia Jane and Mallory Towers, she explores the rivalries and jealousies of children and the ways in which they can be quite unpleasant to each other, he says.

"Thirdly, she was very good at capturing the fantasy world of Noddy and the Faraway Tree, very good at creating an unreal world of goblins and fairies."

Some critics dislike the way she allows a narrator's voice to intervene to make a blunt, moral point like "That served him right" but Rosen thinks this can be reassuring.

"That's where the real division about Enid Blyton lies. Some think it's a bossy voice but others say that's part of the appeal - hand-holding. She was trying to tell you who is good and who is bad."

Famous Five book cover
The Famous Five are back

Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, recalls reading the first Noddy story as a child but says most adults would find Blyton's work "rubbish".

"The characters are two-dimensional and the stories are mechanically recovered, like mechanically recovered meat. There's no lasting quality in it whatsoever.

"Take Swallows and Amazons or Tom's Midnight Garden and you can read them for the pleasure in the style. There's no pleasure in reading Enid Blyton's style. There's no sense of delight or joy in the language.

"But any objections are irrelevant because people read them to find out what happens next, at a stage in their lives when that's the most important thing for them."

As Blyton always maintained, maybe the only opinion that matters is that of a child.


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