I'm experiencing mixed feelings about the recent decision by Hachette to modernise Enid Blyton's Famous Five Series. Hachette have recently acquired the worldwide rights to the entire Blyton estate, excluding the Noddy series. 2012 marks the seventieth birthday of the Famous Five Series and Marlene Johnson, the managing director of the children's books division has announced that Hachette have "great plans for the future." But are the Blyton books in danger of losing out to the Blyton brand?
There are several good arguments in support of updating the old material. Blyton's writing has frequently been called to task for racism, sexism and classism. Revision is nothing new for the Blyton canon either. In fact, it's been happening for years. The notorious golliwogs were erased back in the eighties. Dick and Fanny from the Faraway Tree books were also reinvented as the less embarrassing Rick and Frannie. And, as attitudes towards corporal punishment changed over the years, the teacher Dame Slap gradually migrated to Dame Snap. Curiously, in the Famous Five Series, many of these issues seem to hover around the tomboy character of George.
For example, in Five Go Off to Camp George comes down a chimney and ends up "black as a nigger with soot." The widespread prejudice towards gypsies and foreigners throughout the series does little to dilute this attitude. In Five Go on a Hike Together, the ever-pompous Julian tells George, "You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you're a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of." In the first book of the 21 book series, Five on a Treasure Island, the discovery of treasure means social mobility for George as her mother tells her she can now leave the inferior village school to attend a posh boarding school with Anne: "Now that we have money, you can go to a real school!" A lot of ink has already been spilt in discussing George's desire to be a boy and how this is conveyed as aberrant in the books - I don't wish to re-cover well trodden ground in this post. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of examples of politically offensive attitudes and statements within the collection.
|First Edition, 1956|
The most extensive of the Blyton revisions to date have occurred to the Famous Five series, which have already been rewritten line-by-line in an effort to update them for the quintet's seventieth birthday this year. This was largely done by updating the language. Old-fashioned expressions such as "golly," "bother," "awfully," "rather," "wizard" have been removed. "Mother" and "Father" are now "Mum" and "Dad," while "bathing" has been replaced by "swimming." So much for "jolly japes" and "lashings and lashings of ginger beer."
Other changes are notable too. The cover art now has photographs of posing actors rather than the Eileen A. Soper's original line drawing illustrations. Ann is no longer obsessed with dolls; her new toys of choice are the more gender neutral teddies. Other subtle tweaks reflect an attempt to present the marriage of Julian, Dick and Ann's parents as a partnership of equals. The earlier, "Well, this time Daddy wants me to go to Scotland with him," said Mother. "All by ourselves!" has been changed to, "Well, this time Dad and I have planned to to Scotland," said Mum. "Just the two of us!"
The publisher's language of revision has altered radically in the last couple of years also. Whereas the 2010 revisions were said to be an attempt to bring Blyton to "a new generation" of readers and an effort to make the books "timeless, rather than 21st century," Johnson has now announced announced a plan to "catapult Enid Blyton into contemporary society." It's not just the Five who will be subject to revision. Long term plans envisage the overhaul of many of the other series too, including the Secret Seven and the Naughtiest Girl series. Johnson says "We will look at all of the works. We modernised the Famous Five last year, amid much murmuring. But these days you don't talk of jolly japes to kids."
And herein lies my issue with the changes. Because it makes me wonder when does the book end and the Blyton brand begin? It seems that these changes are less about removing offensive material than milking the proverbial cash cow for all its worth. Blyton books are a big industry. To date, her books have sold more than 600 million copies and her continuing popularity is attested to by the fact that in the decade from 2000 she was still in the top ten authors. So what we are really seeing is the tendency of publishers to back a sure-fire hit rather than risk investing in untested, emerging writers. But can we even consider these revamped editions to be the work of the author that was named Enid Blyton?
One of the purposes of studying literature is to gain an understanding of the historical, social and cultural contexts out of which an author created. I can't imagine a publishing house treating a recognised literary work in this way. For example, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has been taken to task by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for its perturbing depiction of Africa and Africans (see below), but I doubt Penguin would contemplate rewriting Conrad's novel in order to "catapult" it into the twenty-first century. It would be hard to know where to begin if we were to try and remove all the sexist, racist, classist references from literary works. It would also be patently ridiculous, an act of vandalism on a par with the "Fig Leaf Campain's" painting over Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
The obvious rejoinder to this argument is that the books of Enid Blyton are not "literature." The traditional opposition between high art and popular culture means that commercial fiction, and in particular the commercial fiction of a children's author, will never be considered sacrosanct in the way that highbrow literary fiction is. But is this not a dangerous distinction to make? Does it not matter if we fiddle with fiction and/or children's literature? I wonder how authors such as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling would react to the idea of their books being rewritten under their own names after their deaths.
By stripping the anachronistic language and politically incorrect attitudes, the Blyton books cease to reflect the time and place that considered these books publishable and suitable for children. The significance of a spy character is apparent in the writing context of WW2 but what are we to make of it in the "timeless" no place that the publishers seem to suggest? If they are no longer suitable, then maybe it is time for publishers to promote the work of new authors whose work is more appropriate to the current age?
|The Famous Five 1978 television series|
I can also understand why a parent would choose not to allow their child to read a Blyton book. Or why another might decide that their child is capable of discerning between prevailing attitudes of "then" and "now." As a child reading Blyton in the 80s, it was clear to me that the attitudes of the books belonged to an earlier time. I didn't feel compelled to agree with everything I read, even as I enjoyed the stories. I imagine it is the much the same for many children.
Ultimately, I believe that fictional works have value, even if they are not "literary" fiction. And I see children's books as valuable too; they are not merely products that are to be consumed by children. I was a fan of Enid Blyton as a child and would be sad to see her works forgotten. But I think that the books of Enid Blyton should be allowed to swim, or indeed sink, on their own merits. Even if that means drowning in lashings and lashings of ginger beer.
- Chinua Achebe's "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" is available here.