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


Blogger ThRiNiDiR said...

awww...another childhood legend turned to dust by evil Alice :). Gods, but I loved Blyton's books when I was a child.

10:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So did I - don't all kids love stories involving secret passages and outsmarting the adults? The problem is, if you re-read them as an adult they're never as good as you remember.

Apparently, Blyton based George on herself.

9:50 pm  
Blogger Eva said...

Ah, the rosy glasses of childhood... I quite forgot they were so bad. Of course, even at 10, the repetitiveness and plain bad writing got to me... but there was sea! Ruins! Explorations! Adventures! Children certainly do put up with a lot at times.

Also, knowing that Blyton based George on herself doesn't surprise me in the slightest, considering the contempt she seems to bear for anyone female.

7:12 am  
Blogger Barbara Martin said...

My great-aunt in England sent me Enid Blyton books during my childhood years. It must have been her way of making certain I read "proper" English books for young ladies. The adventure bits kept me interested as did the tomboy, because I was one. My three brothers made certain of that, and I had no interest in belonging to Brownies or Girl Guides as they did "sissy" stuff.

You might not like the labelling that went on then, but it hasn't disappeared; the names have only changed.

I've read some of your other reviews, liked them, and will be linking you on the sidebar in my blog.

9:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good heavens! What a jaded lot you are. No imagination, perhaps? I read them all as a child and I've just read them all again. Loved them both times. I wasn't in the least bit offended by the sexism. I rarely am. I think of men and women as different and don't concern myself with equality. (I'm far too superior!!)I don't think Blyton had an axe to grind. That's just how it was. My 10-year old daughter has just read them and she thought they were marvelous, too.

4:29 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

How sad. I came to this site as I was wondering why Alf turned into James and how the little room on Kirrin Island fixed itself, and all I find is a general bagging on sexist grounds.
I loved these books as a child (tatty paperbacks) and as an adult I improved the quality and filled the gaps. I still enjoy them and my daughter laps them up. I don't find them sexist, just honest. It's still happening at school now and I think Anne comes out of it very well.
I cringe more at the Quentin/Fanny relationship than at anything the children do!

12:40 pm  
Blogger em said...

Like the previous commenter, I came to this site to find out about Alf turning into James and the room on the island!!
I own all the Famous Five books, and have read them many a time. I am currently 19 and have been ill recently so decided to re-read all my books - I think they're just as good as they were when I was 7 years old!! As for the sexism, I don't actually see a problem with it! I never once took offence as a little girl to the comments in the books, and I still don't now! I think todays society has become ridiculous! You can't say this, You can't do that!! Get over it!! :)

11:52 am  
Anonymous Kiwiboots said...

I loved the Famous Five series when I was 9 & 10 - they were my favourite books. I was pretty blind to the sexism in them (although I found Anne an unbelievable, and thoroughly annoying caricature of a 'real girl').

Reading them again now at age 23 I see that they were fairly sexist, classist & racist (in how they portrayed Gypsies). As a little girl I wanted to be more like George, and I hated the thought of being a 'girly girl' like Anne. Anne really annoyed me, because she was so easily afraid, and so eager to please (by cooking or cleaning). She never really wanted to be part of adventures, and I couldn't understand that.

The contrast between Anne & George suggests (to me) that Enid Blyton couldn't find a way of making girls fun, clever & adventurous - unless they were boy-like. The girls in Secret Seven were almost as boring as Anne, and were usually left out of the more exciting & scary parts of the adventures.

Anne & George were both opposites, and were fairly stereotypical characters. George was the 'tomboy', and Anne was the 'normal, sweet girl' of the 1950s. Today girl characters in children's stories are more well-rounded. Girls can be girly, clever, cheeky & adventurous - all at the same time!

I'm trying to get my 7-year old sister interested in Enid Blyton, but she is phenomenally unimpressed! How do you get her generation interested in some old 1950s books, with old-fashioned language? Do kids even bother to read these days, with the internet & TV at their permanent entertainment disposal... ?

The tomboys in Famous Five books always fascinated me, I loved the tomboy Jo in "Five Fall into Adventure". The stories with Gypsies in them were also exciting for me when I was young, particularly "Five Go to Mystery Moor".

Did the overt sexism, classism & racism in Famous Five subtly affect me when I was a child? A bit, but not very much (sooo... Perhaps I should quit going on at my brother about how playing 'Halo' will desensitize him & turn him into a violent murderer, or something!)

2:44 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Surprised you can't get your seven year old hooked.
I had to take my five year old on a plane trip so I grabbed a Famous Five to read to her (Mystery to Solve, not one of her best IMHO)Well, didn't I start something! We've worked through nearly all the Famous Fives, the first five of the Adventure series. We've also side tracked on to Arthur Ransome, Malcome Saville and assorted others from my childhood bookshelf.
Not sure if it's doing her any harm, apparently she's in demand at school because she can always think up games. So much material to work with I suppose!

7:25 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Surprised you can't get your seven year old hooked.
I had to take my five year old on a plane trip so I grabbed a Famous Five to read to her (Mystery to Solve, not one of her best IMHO)Well, didn't I start something! We've worked through nearly all the Famous Fives, the first five of the Adventure series. We've also side tracked on to Arthur Ransome, Malcome Saville and assorted others from my childhood bookshelf.
Not sure if it's doing her any harm, apparently she's in demand at school because she can always think up games. So much material to work with I suppose!

7:25 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi guys,
Thank you so much for this wonderful article really!
If someone want to know more about famous five book set I think this is the right place for you!

12:35 pm  

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