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Nilanjana S Roy: Seventy jolly good years

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

“Goodness!” said Ms Blyton. “The Famous Five have turned 70, isn’t that jolly?”

“Ripping!” said George (who hated being called Georgina), tucking into crumpets and lashings of ginger beer to celebrate in a manly sort of way.

“Topping!” agreed Anne, kneeling submissively so that Julian and Dick could use her as a footstool.

“Woof!” said Timmy the Dog, barking at a hapless editor who was a smuggler in disguise.

“Don’t mind me,” said the editor gloomily. “We’re trying to clean up Blyton’s language, and if you think that’s a wizard job, pooh-hah to you.”

“Pooh-hah?” said Dick.

“See what I mean?” said the editor, looking for a secret passage he could sulk in, safely away from Marketing, who never failed to remind him that the Famous Five series still sold two million copies every year.

Between 1942 and 1962, Blyton wrote 21 of the Famous Five books, making the cousins – Julian, Dick, Anne and tomboy George, plus Timmy the Dog – one of the most famous families in children’s literature. Blyton, who typed an average of 10,000 words a day, tossed off other series side by side, from The Five Find-Outers to The Secret Seven. That makes Alexander McCall Smith’s 3,000-word-a-day work ethic look like mere amateurism.

The titles of the books explain some of their popularity over seven decades. The Famous Five went to treasure islands, ran away together, went off in caravans, found circuses, explored islands, visited Mystery Moor, Billycock Hill, Finniston Farm and Demon’s Rocks, had adventures, had a wonderful time, had plenty of fun and had mysteries to solve. It spoke of a world free of interfering parents – Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin were unrepentant absentees – and filled with spies, sinister men, shipwrecks, secret passages and lashings of delicious picnics.

It’s harder to explain why the Famous Five have lasted when Willard Price’s adventure stories or Sarah Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy have been (mercifully) forgotten. In the attempts to sanitise Blyton over the years, removing politically incorrect references to niggers and golliwogs, editors have been unable to clean up her fictional universe, which was cheerfully classist, mildly racist, and strongly sexist.

Among the passages that can’t be sanitised, for instance, are Julian’s infamous words to George: “You know quite well,” he says, “that if you ever go against the orders of the chief – that’s me, my girl, in case you didn’t know it – you won’t come out with us again. You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.”

Examining Blyton’s continuing appeal, Amy Rosenberg makes a sharp observation: “The majority of the kids reading Blyton in the second half of the 20th century were not British. In fact, most of them were the children of former British subjects.”

My theory about Blyton is that she was Macaulay’s last weapon, to be deployed to equally deadly effect between the tattered remnants of Ye Olde England and the newly independent natives. She began writing the Famous Five series, for instance, in 1942 — but few of her books contain much reference to the war, except as a marvellous opportunity for the kids to meet spies. (Some of the Secret Seven books have more in the way of explicit references.)

Instead, Blyton’s world is drenched in nostalgia for an England that was already dying. The future would contain no Policemen Plods, fewer nannies and cooks, and the quaint little cottages would slowly disappear. Her predominantly white world only admitted a few carefully exotic non-white members, there as curiosities — a gypsy girl, the French teacher, a nasty black golliwog. It was perfect for many Indians growing up in the convents of a certain decade, where school houses were often named after British viceroys and generals.

But perhaps Blyton’s books also allowed Indian readers in English the pleasures of reverse exoticism. In an email exchange, the writer and critic Amitava Kumar speaks of discovering Enid Blyton in Bokaro at the age of seven. “I had never encountered ‘scones’ in my life: but the Famous Five would eat scones with butter or jam. They wore raincoats and boots. These weren’t things I had, and for me they were the signs of modernity. I desired them. The Famous Five spoke to each other in English – why wouldn't they? – but that was special to me. Their village policeman also spoke English. That, too, was special. To eat scones and speak English — that was Blyton’s lesson to me.”

The adult world, to most children, is a severe disappointment, and so it was with Blyton. Scones, like Nestle’s milk or ginger beer or hardboiled eggs, were seriously overrated; England is a small, damp island; smugglers turned out to be boring businessmen trying to evade customs duties. But there was a brief period when she and the Famous Five made you believe that it was a jolly good thing that the world was such a ripping place, and for that relief, much thanks.


The author is at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy 

First Published: Tue, March 27 2012. 00:53 IST
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