by Mark English
Recent discussions concerning purportedly unacceptable content in children’s books from past decades got me thinking about my own childhood literary encounters.
I was not taught to read and write until my first year of formal education and even then (at the advanced age of six), I had misgivings about learning to read. I remember having the chilling realization that my learning to read would cut me off forever from that blissful world of being read to. In particular, the bedtime story ritual was doomed to oblivion.
That bedtime ritual had drawn on a fairly wide range of books, including some classics, but certain favorites had dominated. Works by Enid Blyton, some Little Golden Books, and a collection of stories from the BBC radio programme Listen with Mother come to mind.
One noteworthy example was Noddy Goes to Toyland, written by Enid Blyton and illustrated by Harmsen van der Beek. Though written for very small children, this work could be seen to have distinct philosophical dimensions, sociopolitical, logical and ontological.
The sociopolitical dimension relates to migration and pluralism. Noddy is a boy made of wood with a nodding head who was created by Old Man Carver, but runs away. A friendly brownie finds him wandering in the forest, naked and destitute, and takes him to Toyland. Noddy is a kind of refugee and potentially an illegal alien. A rather daunting public hearing is held, presided over by a bewigged judge, in order to decide whether he has a right to stay. It all hangs on the question of his identity, on what he is – specifically on whether he is really a toy.
Noddy is no Einstein. His naïveté and ignorance of basic physics and logic is a source of gentle humor in the book – as when, in building his house, he wants to start with the roof so that they will have protection in the event of rain.
Bedtime stories were by no means my last encounter with the work of the prolific and much maligned Enid Blyton.
My first-grade teacher was a very sweet natured, slightly chubby girl in the early stages of her induction into the dark reaches of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She used to spend a lot of class time reading to us. The two books I remember couldn’t have been more different. Br’er Rabbit did nothing for me. I found the stories tedious, unpleasant and quite alien. In stark contrast, I loved Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It was a real treat.
The book was the second in a series of popular fantasies for children about a gigantic magical tree which grew in an enchanted wood. Dick comes to stay with his cousins Jo (a boy, by the way), Bessie and Fanny who live in a house near the wood. He is at first skeptical of his cousins’ claims about the enchanted wood and the tree but soon gets involved in their adventures.
At the top of the tree, there is a ladder that leads to a magical land. This land is different on each visit, because each place moves on to make way for another. The children are free to come and go, but they must leave before the land moves on, or they will be stuck there until that same land returns. The lands at the top of the tree are often idyllic but are sometimes extremely unpleasant – for example, the Land of Dame Slap, a nasty schoolmistress.
As attitudes to physical violence changed, Dame Slap’s behavior was toned down, and in revised editions she appears as the completely non-violent but still sharp-tongued Dame Snap.
More generally, entire passages were rewritten in revised editions to remove descriptions of violence. For instance, when the tree is taken over by goblins, original editions have the intruders being vigorously fought off by the giant tree’s established residents. Mr. Watzisname pummels them “as if he were beating carpets” and the Saucepan Man throws his saucepans at them. Absurdly, these passages were replaced with vague references to “chasing”.
There were other name revisions, also, in addition to the sad case of Dame Slap. Fanny was “updated” to Frannie. And cousin Dick became Rick in later editions. Understandable perhaps.
I wasn’t a great reader of fiction as a child. In my second year of school we witnessed an annular solar eclipse and I became hooked on astronomy. (The eclipse happened during the school day. Most of us had makeshift pinhole contraptions for indirect observation. The bolder children looked at the sun through smoked glass – or directly at the sun as the moon slowly blocked it out. Some of us probably damaged our eyes for life.)
In my fourth year of school (aged nine) I returned to Enid Blyton, reading and enjoying a number of books from the Secret Seven and Famous Five series. (Those troublesome names, Dick and Fanny, crop up again, by the way, in the Famous Five stories.)
The Secret Seven books are about a group of child detectives who are day pupils. By contrast, the main characters in the Famous Five novels are all boarders whose adventures occur during holiday periods after they have returned home from their respective boarding schools.
Interestingly, the issue of identity comes up again in these books as it did for Noddy in Toyland. But this instance of ambiguous identity is treated not as a problem but simply as a light provocation, a curious twist, a fact of life. I am talking about Georgina, one of the four children constituting (with Georgina’s dog) the Famous Five.
From Wikipedia: “Georgina is a tomboy, demanding that people call her George, and she cuts her hair very short and dresses like a boy. She is headstrong and courageous by nature and, like her father, scientist Quentin Kirrin, has a hot and fiery temper. Introduced to the other characters in the first book, she later attends a boarding school with Anne where the teachers too call her ‘George’… [She] often gets cross when [someone] calls her by her real name … and she loves it when somebody calls her George or mistakes her for a boy… George sometimes takes this to the point of asking that her name be prefixed with Master instead of Miss. Various references have been made to what meaning should be read into this…”
In the end, very little I should think. Blyton eventually revealed that the character was based on herself.
The scenes of the adventures – involving spies, criminals, coded messages, secret plans, caves, tunnels, secret passageways, etc. – vary. Sometimes the stories are set close to George’s family home, a cottage near the sea in Dorset, sometimes further afield.
Wikipedia again: “In some books the children go camping in the countryside, on a hike or holiday together elsewhere. However, the settings are almost always rural and enable the children to discover the simple joys of cottages, islands, the English and Welsh countryside and seashores, as well as an outdoor life of picnics, ginger ale, lemonade, bicycle trips and swimming.”
These books may not be literary masterpieces, but what’s not to like?
At the age of ten or eleven I read a couple of Jack London books, The Call of the Wild and White Fang (said to be influenced by the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer). But books about astronomy dominated my reading until my mid-teens.
I can recall a few other works of fiction which I read during that period, however. There was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Suicide Club. Stevenson’s short story, “The Bottle Imp”, which I read about that time also had an effect on me. And then there was Ian Seraillier’s The Silver Sword and Lawrence Durrell’s White Eagles over Serbia. As I grew older and began to be interested in poetry and serious fiction, Durrell remained very important for me.