My Enid Bly­ton cen­sor­ship hell

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - NEWS -

Re­cently, when I fin­ished read­ing the Naugh­ti­est Girl tril­ogy to my five-year-old daugh­ter, I went on­line to buy an­other Enid Bly­ton book. Quickly, I found what I was look­ing for — The En­chanted Wood — and was just about to click to buy it when I no­ticed its piti­ful read­ers’ star rat­ing and a long list of dis­grun­tled buy­ers who had been peeved to dis­cover that this was a new and im­proved ver­sion. Their chief com­plaint, it turned out, was that the names of the child pro­tag­o­nists had been changed. Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick, you see, are now Joe, Beth, Fran­nie and Rick.

Now, even the most ma­ture of you will have snig­gered at the fact that they were once Fanny and Dick. Im­ma­ture, sure, but so what? What harm? And what on earth are we pro­tect­ing our chil­dren from by mod­i­fy­ing their names? We won’t let them be ex­posed to Fanny and Dick as five-year-olds, but, presently, par­ents seem to be pow­er­less to stop kids only eight or nine years older from tex­ting and email­ing im­ages of their own fan­nies and dicks to one an­other.

In the Sev­en­ties, when I was a child, the writ­ings of Enid Bly­ton were al­ready 30 or 40 years old and, in many ways, en­tirely out of step. Still, we loved her sto­ries of kids who solved mys­ter­ies without their par­ents and gov­erned their own schools. We mud­dled through the fact that there was more than one Dick; that terms such as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ were thrown about with aban­don and how rather harsh judg­ments were made on peo­ple’s looks and their char­ac­ters, with one of­ten con­nected to the other. We weren’t re­motely rat­tled by any of it, but now it seems we don’t trust our chil­dren with dis­tin­guish­ing right from wrong, and anachro­nis­tic opin­ions and mores from what we be­lieve and how we be­have now. My gen­er­a­tion en­joyed Bly­ton be­cause we were en­trusted to take her with a pinch of salt. But then, we don’t al­low our kids salt ei­ther any more.

It was in the mid-Noughties that many of these changes were made to Bly­ton’s texts. They in­clude oddly mi­nor things like chang­ing ‘bis­cuit’ to ‘cookie’, or clar­i­fy­ing that the three bears’ por­ridge is called oat­meal in some coun­tries — re­ally, I’m mak­ing up none of this — and call­ing a ‘jersey’ a ‘jumper’ in­stead. More ex­treme, how­ever, is the al­ter­ation of the names of var­i­ous char­ac­ters, with Bessie be­com­ing Beth, ap­par­ently be­cause Bessie is a typ­i­cal slave name in Amer­ica, and Dame Slap be­com­ing Dame Snap. Fur­ther, the boys are now seen to share house­hold chores with the girls, and in Malory Tow­ers, Dar­rell no longer slaps that lit­tle brat Gwen­do­line when she goes much too far with her naugh­ti­ness, but ‘scolds’ her in­stead.

It’s hard to know what these al­ter­ations were sup­posed to achieve or pre­vent. Can’t we trust our kids to judge and un­der­stand that Bessie was noth­ing more than an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of El­iz­a­beth as far as Bly­ton was con­cerned? And that ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ meant noth­ing more than light-hearted and odd? Cer­tainly, the whole golly-wog-ter­ror­ist theme in Noddy was a racism of its time and was deemed of­fen­sive as far back as the Six­ties. Fur­ther, if those ter­ror­ists had been dis­abled peo­ple, then I’d be the first out burn­ing batches of Bly­ton, but, re­ally, al­ter­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Noddy and Big Ears be­cause it seemed sex­u­ally ques­tion­able?

In UK li­braries, Bly­ton is the se­cond most pop­u­lar ‘clas­sic’ chil­dren’s au­thor, sug­gest­ing to me that chil­dren want to be bossed about a bit. They love know­ing what the rules are and rel­ish see­ing wrong­do­ers get their come­up­pance, as they al­ways do in Bly­ton.

Fur­ther, while we adults wring our hands at Bly­ton’s habits when it comes to peo­ple’s looks, we might do well to take a leaf out of her book. In Bly­ton’s books, ug­li­ness is gen­er­ally a by-prod­uct of a nasty or un­happy na­ture and when one or both is re­solved, she al­ways com­ments on how much nicer the char­ac­ter in ques­tion looks. It’s not about be­ing pretty or plain as we now un­der­stand it, but about be­ing de­cent and happy. Her char­ac­ters’ de­cency leads to their at­trac­tive de­meanour and knock-on pop­u­lar­ity, not the other way around.

We bleat on about how our young peo­ple lack a moral com­pass, but given that we seem to have failed at hand­ing them one, maybe it’s time to call in a black-and-white blun­der­buss like Bly­ton. And if the down­side of her di­rect­ness is a boy skip­ping the wash­ing-up or a girl called Fanny, then this is small pota­toes com­pared to what they’ll be ex­posed to a few short years down the line. No of­fence in­tended to any pota­toes.

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