Eastern Eye (UK)
Mystery of changing language
OPINIONS ARE DIVIDED OVER PUBLISHERS CHANGING LINES IN POPULAR BOOKS TO ‘SANITISE’ THEM
AS A child growing up in the heat and dust of Patna, a small town in northern India, I absolutely loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventure stories.
The five were made up of siblings Julian, Dick and Anne, their tomboy cousin “George” and Timmy the dog. George, who was really Georgina, cut her hair short and hated being treated as a girl.
In my dreams I went on “hols” with them. I had hardly been outside Patna and would listen with awe to the tales of boys who had ventured to faraway Calcutta (now Kolkata). In my imagination, I found myself accompanying the Famous Five to Kirrin Island, the location of some of their thrilling sojourns.
To be sure, I loved the Bengali food my mother cooked at home for me and my two sisters and two brothers – dal, rice, fried aubergine, fish curry and, on rare occasions, chicken or mutton. But how I wished I could join in with the Famous Five as they tucked into sandwiches, tinned sardines in tomato sauce, hardboiled eggs, pickled onions, pork pies, anchovy paste, sausages, jam tarts and eclairs. Of course, all of this was washed down with great lashings (a favourite Blyton phrase signifying plentitude) of ginger beer.
Now, I can go into Tesco or Waitrose or even Fortnum and Mason and get all this and more. But, as a child, I was brought up on a vision of idyllic England. That is perhaps why I have always liked the hymn, Jerusalem, with its evocation of “Englands green & pleasant Land”.
Looking back on its now, I realise my school, St Xavier’s, with its tuckshop, quadrangle, monitors, houses, and uniform with a striped tie, was as English as Eton. Cricket was elevated to a religion, with exhortations never to leave a gap between bat and pad.
Now I learn that ‘offensive’ words and phrases in Blyton’s books are being rewritten to modernise her language to what is socially acceptable. How come I had read Blyton’s Famous Five or Secret Seven (Peter, the society’s head; Janet, who is Peter’s sister; Pam; Barbara; Jack; Colin; and George) and been innocent of the values language could convey? Only once did I wonder why a child from the east was called a “savage”.
Agatha Christie, too, is being sanitised. I had been unaware of the author’s racist references when I had devoured such classics as The 4.50 from Paddington, The Witness for the Prosecution and
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
I was practically brought up on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book but Father Cleary, who took us for English and was also the cricket master, never told us that the author believed in the superiority of the white man.
Blyton wrote more than 700 books and is still loved by children all over the world. Her Famous Five and Malory Towers books see words such as “brown” with reference to tanned faces, “queer” and “gay” being changed to bring them up to date. English Heritage released updated blue plaque information in 2021 saying Blyton’s books had been linked to “racism and xenophobia”.
Examples of “racism” include 1966’s
The Little Black Doll, in which the main character Sambo is only accepted by his owner once his “ugly black face” is washed “clean” by rain, while in Noddy, “golliwogs” were changed to “goblins”.
In the 1937 Poirot novel, Death on the Nile, the character of Mrs Allerton complains that a group of children are pestering her, saying “they come back and stare, and stare, and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children”.
This has been stripped down in a new edition to state: “They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children.”
Vocabulary has also been altered, with the term “Oriental” removed. Other descriptions have been altered in some instances, with a black servant, originally described as grinning as he understands the need to stay silent about an incident, described as neither black nor smiling, but simply as “nodding”.
In a new edition of the 1964 Miss Marple novel A Caribbean Mystery, the amateur detective’s musing that a West Indian hotel worker smiling at her has “such lovely white teeth” has been removed, with similar references to “beautiful teeth” also taken out.
Dialogue in Christie’s 1920 debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles has been altered, so where Poirot once noted that another character is “a Jew, of course”, he now makes no such comment.
The 1979 collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories includes the character of an Indian judge who grows angry demanding his breakfast in the original text with “his Indian temper”, a phrase now changed to say “his temper”.
References to “natives” have also been removed or replaced with the word “local”.
It is worth bearing in mind that authors such as Blyton and Christie were reflecting the values of their day. Some libraries now hide away the originals and publicly display only the new editions. Not everyone is happy. The Free Speech Union, which advocates freedom of speech, declared: “Classic works of children’s literature should not be rewritten to make them more politically correct. They are of their time and teaching children that previous generations thought differently to them is a more valuable lesson than shoehorning in woke platitudes about gender equality.”
There is no easy answer to removing racist language from much-loved children’s books. I am glad I read the originals, but they were set in an England in which Rishi Sunak could not have been prime minister.
Christie’s 1939 novel, And Then There Were None, was originally published as Ten Little Niggers and later changed to Ten Little Indians.
Incidentally, British Asians also need to be careful they don’t make the same mistakes. For example, the word gora
(white) and its racist use, with assumptions of Asian cultural superiority – “what do you expect? He (or she) is a gora!”