Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Famous Five series - Enid Blyton

Five on a Treasure Island
Five Go Adventuring Again
Five Run Away Together
Five go to Smuggler's Top
Five go Off in a Caravan
Five on Kirrin Island Again
Five go Off to Camp
Five Fall into Adventure
Five on a Hike Together
Five have a Wonderful Time
Five go Down to the Sea
Five go to Mystery Moor
Five have Plenty of Fun
Five on a Secret Trail
Five go to Billycock Hill
Five get into a Fix
Five on Finniston Farm
Five have a Mystery to Solve
Five are Together Again

The in-laws have just been having a clearout, which means not only have we gained some hand-me-down furniture, we've also had back a few boxes of Ben's old stuff. Gloriously, this included an (almost) complete set of the Famous Five books, and the rainy Easter break gave me a great opportunity to read them all again*. I grew up on Enid Blyton, but most of my Five experience happened in the school library, so it's been a good many years since I've been near the actual books - obviously, the stereotypes are well established in popular culture, but that's no substitute for a good re-read, and I wanted to see how well they still stood up. I was in for a bit of a shock.

Now, everyone knows it's sexist. Tomboy George gets to have short hair and adventures, girly Anne prefers dolls and housekeeping, yeah yeah. I'd prepared myself for this, but was still taken by surprise by the real thing, and how bad it actually was. George doesn't just want to do the fun things permitted to boys, she actively hates girls and constantly tries to distance herself from them. Whenever she does anything brave, or sensible, or mature, the praise she longs to receive is "You're almost as good as a boy!"; at no point does anyone think "Oh yes, girls are also capable of being brave/sensible/mature, these are not exclusively male traits". She is also the most overt proponent of sexist behaviour roles, for example when she tells Anne "You can't drive the wagon, that's a man's job!"; in addition, she's the most tetchy and unpleasant character among the children, no doubt related to her terribly-unnatural gender confusion.

Anne, on the other hand, is much less annoying than I remembered. In the first book or two, she's rather a pathetic crybaby, but once past that, she becomes probably the series' main character, and the one whose viewpoint we most often have. I ended up feeling very sorry for Anne. Unlike George, she was proud to be a girl, and occasionally even spoke out against the frequent assertion that negative personality traits (for example, being scared or being nasty) were just something that girls did. While she was also quite happy to do all the cooking and cleaning like a good little housewife, her contributions to the adventure were generally minimised and even gently mocked by the others, despite the fact that without her they wouldn't have had any food. It's quite heartbreaking to imagine her in some subsequent decade, frantically cleaning and baking to please some unappreciative husband, and yet this is clearly a future that Blyton is trying to advocate.

You may say it's not fair to harp on about the sexism of books that were written in such a sexist age, but the fact is, Blyton clearly had a large axe to grind about gender roles and they are very much to the fore among the Five. Less deliberate but just as insidious is her portrayal of the lower classes. Usually, working-class folk turn up as coarse, unwashed villains, or kindly but rather stupid farmers and servants, all easily outwitted by our noble upper-class heroes; even the saintly Julian, paragon of British manhood, turns his nose up at the filthy commoners. The least snobbish of the five actually turns out to be Dick, when a personality is belatedly bestowed upon him in around book 6; he, at least, does not automatically reject potential allies based on their class. Blyton's obvious contempt for the lower orders is made amusingly clear by her inability to even keep their names straight - Alf the Fisher Boy soon morphs into James the Fisher Boy, and Joanna the Cook loses a couple of letters to become Joan. Given that there are only about 5 minor recurring characters in the entire series, that's quite an impressive lack of continuity.

So, all the sociological baggage aside, how do the stories stand up? Well, they all follow the same formula, more or less: the Famous Five are left without adult supervision in one country location or another, and spot some Mysterious Going On. This involves either a hoard of ancient or stolen treasure, or a kidnapping plot involving scientists and foreign spies who want to steal their secrets. If any non-villainous adults are present, they will generally be too stupid to believe the kids' stories, so they have to solve the problems on their own. As an adult, the many plot-holes and inconsistencies are all too evident, but that's missing the point; as a kid, this was all kinds of awesome. Who doesn't want to run around on their own private island, no grown-ups involved, thwarting baddies and finding pirate gold? Blyton's world is a glorious technicolour adventure playground, full of secret passages, soft bracken and convenient caves, and is nice to revisit for a while.

I'm in several minds about this series. On one hand, the dated attitudes are absolutely appalling and I'd be reluctant to let them anywhere near an impressionable child... but on the other hand, they never did me any harm </retired colonel>. I didn't particularly enjoy the reread, other than from an anthropological perspective, and the later books seem very tired and repetitive... but I loved them as a kid, and kids have no taste anyway... but there are so many better books out there for kids now... it's a tough call. Ultimately, I'm putting nostalgia aside and coming down on the anti- side, simply because of Blyton's pernicious views. Kirrin Island might be fun to visit, but I certainly wouldn't want to live there.


*this just shows you how long this review's taken me to write

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Normal service will be resumed shortly

Ho hum, a month since my last review, I can only apologise. However, in my defence, I've only just got back from my honeymoon, and before that I had the small matter of a wedding to organise, so I had just a few other things on my plate... now all that's out of the way and I'm a respectable married woman, I should have plenty more time to get catching up.

Reviews under construction:
The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins
The Famous Five series - Enid Blyton

Reviews pending:
The Orphan's Tales duology - Catherynne M Valente
The Queen of Bedlam - Robert McCammon
A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter S Miller

On the stack:
Flood - Stephen Baxter
Superpowers - David J Schwartz
Mr Baggins - John D Rateliff
The Gone-away World - Nick Harkaway
Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson

I'll be as quick as I can!