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Is it okay: to read Enid Blyton books?

For a large percentage of my childhood I dreamed of being in the Secret Seven. I’d imagine having meetings in my shed, call all bread “jammy buns” and look for evidence of nefarious crimes everywhere. Laughing neighbours were smugglers, the man driving down my street a painting thief, and any abandoned wrappers or cigarette butts were “clues”.

In reality I was actually sitting in my book-fort reading by torchlight. I didn’t have a dog called Scamper – and I’m pretty sure my pet fish, Comet, would be about as useful as a Magikarp in any kind of criminal confrontation. No-one was painting on cats to cover up a kidnapping, and everyone around me was frustratingly law-abiding. The dream died, new obsessions came around, and all of a sudden I found myself at 22 revisiting my copy of Good Old Secret Seven.

It was a bit of an awakening.

On the surface of it, the series is about seven ordinary children who happen to be part of an exclusive crime solving club in the 1950s. However, looking back over things with more mature eyes, it’s interesting to see the world that Peter, Janet, Pam, Barbara, Colin, Jack and George actually live in; one laced with tinges of racism, elitism, xenophobia and sexism.

Of the seven main characters in the book, I’d argue that Enid Blyton has only bothered to give personalities to three of them; Peter, Janet and Jack. Peter is the boss of the Secret Seven, and, apparently also of Janet. Throughout the story he orders her to make invitations, prepare beverages, and stay at home in times of trouble. His attitude towards “the girls” seems to be a view of physical and mental inferiority; girls are there to serve and be protected.

In this particular book, Janet is looking through a telescope and discovers someone lurking at an old abandoned castle at the top of a hill. Naturally, the Secret Seven decide to investigate. Peter decides that the girls should stay home as “the hill would be a bit steep for them”, however Janet has a rare fit of defending herself and insists that she, Pam and Barbara (who as characters are pretty much indistinguishable) be allowed to come along. Peter gives in, and phones an unimpressed Jack.

“What a nuisance!” said Jack. “It’s quite a way to the castle – and we’ll have to bike slowly or the girls won’t keep up with us.”

Blyton doesn’t just put these kinds of words into the mouths of male characters either. When describing Jack’s ‘pest of a sister, Susie’ she writes “She’s more like a boy, really,” said Barbara, which made all the boys look scornfully at her. “Well you know what I mean,” she went on. “She’s brave – and bold, and don’t-care-ish – and she doesn’t cry if she hurts herself, and she’ll stick by her friends through thick and thin. If she were a boy I’d like her awfully – but as she’s a girl, she’s just a nuisance.”

Outside of her work Enid Blyton herself doesn’t seem to have actually been the benevolent fairy godmother type character one would expect. If her own daughter’s account and the film Enid are to be believed, she was actually an emotionally immature, unpleasant woman who cheated and lied and ruined lives. Wow. In a lot of her works, people are suspected of criminal activity on account of things such as “looking like a dirty old tramp”, wearing “unusual clothes” or simply “being a foreigner”. Almost all of Blyton’s books are infused with paranoia and fear of the unknown, and she was even criticised for this during her lifetime. In addition, her many hundreds of stories were commonly labelled as ‘boring’ and ‘lacking in literary value’

I don’t think any of that is a reason for children to stop reading her books though. Whether or not her work accurately reflects 1950s England, or just how she viewed things, it’s an interesting insight either way. In terms of the potentially racist and sexist attitudes she portrays, Blyton is definitely not alone. Looking at some of Agatha Christie’s work before censorship is enough to get the little grey cells ticking, and seeing some of the old cover art for adventure stories is almost enough to make you laugh out loud at how ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is illustrated. Her work is just a product of its time, and I think that gives it historical value.

The world that the Secret Seven live in is definitely outdated, but that doesn’t mean that the books are too. And so, to conclude in the grand tradition of Secret Seven novels, I’ll refer to Scamper (“Woof!”), and then choose the next password – ‘Nuisance!’

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12 thoughts on “Is it okay: to read Enid Blyton books?

  1. I agree, the Faraway Tree is similarly full of surprisingly misogynistic comments but kids really don’t pick up on it. What they respond to (based on my own experience, and that of my niece as I read it to her) is the faux-Victorian world of strict headmasters, tea-time, sweet shops etc. And, as you say, Enid Blyton is definitely not alone in being anachronistically racist and sexist – a re-appraisal of children’s stories according to modern standards of political correctness would require virtually every fairy tale to be censored, not to mention my all time favourite book series as a child; Tintin.

  2. Completely agree. In some ways it is all so different that it’s almost as detached as something like Harry Potter. I find it really interesting that in some countries they’ve even gone back over the Famous Five books and changed the characters “Fanny” and “Dick” into “Franny” and “Rick”. Amusing.

  3. Indeed, Elizabeth, indeed! You’ve hit this nail right on the head.

    But I’m not too sure how to proceed RE: allowing these little ‘alternative realities’ roam free. Censorship is terrible, but so too is allowing the dissemination of horrendous propaganda, which could be equally damaging to a community as censorship itself.

    All those parents that wouldn’t let their children watch TV or do anything fun suddenly begin to appear rational.

  4. I was given these books to read as a child, but my Mum would ask me to point out to her anything that I felt wasn’t fair.
    As a result, I was looking for the racism and misogyny, and getting annoyed at it, while enjoying the tales of kids doing adventurous things.
    It meant that we had discussions from a young age about girls being able to do anything we wanted to do, how stupid the boys were being for thinking they were incapable, and about people who look different from you not necessarily being bad people.
    As Mum raised us to think in quite feminist and multiculturally accepting ways, it was easy.
    I think it’s ok to give children problematic texts as long as you frame it as such.
    It helped me to be able to identify misogyny for myself, from a young age, and helped me learn that not everything I read/see is ‘right.’
    In our games about the adventures we read, my sister and I would shoot off on our bikes and say “I hope those boys can keep up.”

  5. Thanks Amy! I agree wtih you about censorship, but also don’t think that hiding something will make it go away, or quash attitudes. Ultimately it could be argued that it is good for children to be exposed to things like this. Finn’s mum’s approach sounds like the best one – teaching children to identify things for themselves, rather than representing the world as lacking in anything negative, and letting them enjoy the fun parts of the story.

  6. Of course the books are racist and sexist. They were written sixty years ago, they are a product of their time.
    I managed to read and enjoyed all of them throughout my childhood, and emerged okay. We shouldn’t forget what society was like, plus I think that it is good for people to know how things once were for girls and women, its more incentive to improve.
    Did you ever read the Blyton’s Malory Towers series? The main character, from memory, was a gutsy and forthright schoolgirl.

  7. Pingback: The Write Stuff Thursdays | Freedom Tights!

  8. Jordan, what you’re saying sounds pretty much in line with my argument for reading Enid Blyton. It’s good to know how things have changed. Yeah, I have read the Malory Towers books. Darrell Rivers is definitely a comparatively strong protagonist. It’s actually quite interesting to think about, as I’m fairly sure that the six Malory Towers books were first published about ten years before the Secret Seven books, and are also targeted at slightly older readers.

    In terms of potential racism and gender issues though, I guess it is hard to compare the two series as the characters in Malory towers are all female, and the books are about how they relate to each other, and they are also quite removed from the ‘real’ world. If I remember correctly, she does make some pretty choice generalisations about the French…

  9. I must say that all I think of Enid Blyton is I think she is the best childrens author that ever lived.
    And I think also that as a kid, I found the stories interesting. Perhaps when I am eighty or somthing I will see the floors more in the books, but the moment I see in her a great author and Fantastic Books.

  10. I think that the Enid Blyton’s books are always going to be a favourite book for any child. It is the sense of exploration and adventure that they had that I wanted to do as a child.
    I think as long as we teach children that some of the things portrayed in this book are not right then it is fine to let them read them without censorship or anything like that.
    You will still always have to remember how these books were made 60 years ago and of course times have changed so you so have to give it a bit of leniency in that aspect.

  11. I loved Enid Blyton books as a child, and have even collected some as an adult. I loved the adventure stories and the innocent, traditional elements such as children camping and hiking together, and playing in the woods.

    At the same time, parts of the stories repeatedly annoyed me, such as the condescending attitude towards girls, like Peter keeping Janet in order in the Secret Seven, and the girls being left out of the spook-train hunt in “Five go off to camp”.

    What annoyed me even more though, was the element of bullying which was portrayed as being right and deserving. Here are a few examples : As a senior girl in Malory Towers, Darrell scoffs at a young girl for saying she is sensitive, and thinks she should snap out of it. In one of the adventure stories (can’t remember which, but it wasn’t the FF or SS), a boy called Lucien is laughed at as “Bugs Bunny” because he has buck teeth. And in Five Go off to Camp, a boy called Cecil (or is it Cyril?) who’s a bit of a “softy”, is scorned by the Five for being a “darling baby” and “mother’s pet”.

    However, I agree with those who say it’s all right to read these books. I find them interesting, safe and imaginative, and as parents have pointed out, we can always explain the wrongs of the “bad bits” to children.

    PS When I was a child, I would sometimes scribble my own additions to things that were said or done which I deemed unfair, to change these bits to my liking ;-)

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