It’s been an awfully big adventure
The Famous Five, a byword for unsupervised childhoods and lashings of grub, are 75 this year. Bitter criticism of the books may now have given way to satirical jokes, but devotee Flora Watkins will be giving them to her children to read
Isay, I’ve got a perfectly wizard idea. Let’s take four plucky children and their dog, remove all responsible adults—we’ll say they’re sick, called away on urgent business or something—and set the jolly quintet up for all sorts of adventures. What about throwing in some boats and camping and bicycles and magnificent picnics, too? Oh, rather!
It’s a commonplace premise of children’s adventure fiction, but, although it’s been done before and since, notably by arthur Ransome, arguably none have done it quite so successfully as Enid Blyton. since Julian, Dick, anne, their cousin George (Georgina by rights) and her dog Timmy first appeared in 1942, their escapades have helped make Blyton one of the world’s best-selling children’s authors.
The adventures of the Famous Five continue to be the biggest-selling series of her vast canon, which encompasses more than 800 novels and short stories. The combination of daring, ruined castles, buried treasure, villains, secret passages and Guernsey sweaters, all washed down with ginger beer, is part of the British psyche. They’ve been the subject of films, TV adaptations, a BBC ban and some wickedly funny parodies, as seen in the success of the recent ‘Enid Blyton for Grown Ups’ book series (Five Go Gluten Free, Five Go On a Strategy Away Day and so on).
although she originally conceived them as a series of six, Blyton eventually wrote 21 ‘Famous Five’ books, producing one a year between 1942 and 1963 (plus eight short stories) in response to overwhelming reader demand. Their enduring appeal is➢
‘The phrase “lashings of ginger beer” doesn’t actually appear in the books ’
down to ‘the amount of freedom the children have and the fact that they’re completely in the roles of heroes, independent from adults for most of the story,’ believes Alex Antscherl, editorial director for Enid Blyton at Hachette Children’s Group.
The stories are also delightfully escapist and not only in the amount of control the children wield. Blyton’s winning formula might be summed up as ‘Five go off completely unsupervised, outwit some thoroughly dangerous men and consume Type2 diabetes-inducing amounts of fruit cake, scones and ices with no ill effects’.
It’s the food consumption that’s such a gift to satirists. The phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’ doesn’t actually appear in the books—it comes from the 1982 ‘Comic Strip Presents...’ production Five Go Mad
in Dorset. (You will, however, find ‘lashings of hard-boiled eggs’ in book 12, Five Go Down to the Sea.)
When Five On A Treasure Island came out in 1942, Britain was suffering the privations of the Second World War. How delicious, then, for a child living under rationing to read about Aunt Fanny’s newly baked scones and ‘ginger cake made with black treacle… dark brown and sticky to eat’.
However, within a few years, that same child might have had to resort to reading the latest book under the covers, with a torch. By the mid 1950s, criticism of Blyton’s work was becoming voluble. Her books began to disappear from the shelves of libraries and, in 1954, the head of the BBC’S schools department, Jean Sutcliffe, upheld the corporation’s ban, declaring her to be a ‘tenacious second-rater’.
The Famous Five became the subject of school and parental disapproval. At primary school in the 1980s, I fiercely resisted efforts to wean me off the books, at one stage defiantly reading Five Go To Mystery Moor inside a copy of something considered more suitable.
The Famous Five adventures, say her detractors, are formulaic, the language repetitive. Picnics are invariably ‘magnificent’, cars ‘eat up the miles’, the children encounter ‘queer’ goings-on. Worse still are the children’s privileged lives, with servants and boarding schools.
There are the outdated stereotypes— washing-up is always delegated to the girls—and the snobbery: the working-class Stick family in Five
Run Away Together are depicted as slovenly and stupid. Foreigners are regarded with suspicion, Americans are brash and vulgar, gypsies dirty and surly (albeit often brave).
For Miss Antscherl, the woman tasked with selling the books to a new generation, none of this is a barrier to children’s enjoyment. She points out: ‘Blyton was very much a woman of her time. She was born when Victoria was on the throne—it would be silly to pretend that these are supposed to be contemporary stories.’ Children, she adds, tend to be driven by plot, not a literary style, and the books zip along at a glorious pace. ‘You want to find out if they’re going to solve the mystery, discover the baddies or escape—they’re frequently being locked in dungeons.’
‘Isn’t it more fun entering a world in which there’s an island in the family?’
Dipping into the boxset with original Eileen Soper illustrations that I bought for my two young sons, I’m struck by how admirably Blyton controls the suspense. The hunt for the ‘spook’ trains in Five Go Off to Camp is almost as exciting as when I read it as an eight year old (and subsequently had to sleep with the light on).
A friend, Martha Owen, a mother of four, agrees. ‘I would credit Enid Blyton for setting my [nine-year-old] daughter up as a lifelong bookworm,’ she says. ‘I bought her the whole collection without a second thought and she went from cover to cover through all 21 books.’ Blyton herself said that she was not interested in the views of any critic ‘over the age of 12’.
Parents can be reassured that the Famous Five are safe in the hands of Miss Antscherl. She intimates that recent tinkering with the language to bring it up to date—an idea since dropped—wouldn’t have happened on her watch (‘Oh you are a brick,’ as Julian might have said). She has introduced new, contemporary illustrations for the 75th anniversary (the Soper editions will still be available), but that’s as far as the updating goes. George will definitely not be identifying as recreationally transgender and Dick and Aunt Fanny will not be renamed (the fate that befell Titty in the recent film of Swallows and
Amazons—she became ‘Tatty’). Introduce your child to the Famous Five and who knows where they’ll take them. Former Children’s Laureates Anne Fine and Dame Jacqueline Wilson are among the writers who enjoyed the books when they were young (although the latter, known for her gritty themes, says she was acutely aware that the children had considerably more money than her family).
Isn’t it more fun entering a world in which there’s an island in the family and ponies to ride as well as jolly schools that let you take your dog? Where you can scoff all the sandwiches meant for tea as well as lunch without risk of childhood obesity? Where you’re free to leap on your bicycle, pitch your tent beyond the lonely farmhouse and tangle with some jolly bad hats, but be back in time for tea? A magnificent tea. Escapist, yes. Formulaic, perhaps. But exciting? Rather!
Facing page: One of Eileen Soper’s original illustrations. Below: The new editions by Laura Ellen Anderson
The independence of the Five from adults is one of the series’ most enduring charms
Despite being the subject of school and parental disapproval, Enid Blyton said that she was never interested in the views of any critic ‘over the age of 12’