My Enid Blyton censorship hell
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.