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!’