Saturday, 15 October 2016

The peculiar timelessness of Enid Blyton

The children’s author Enid Blyton, who died nearly half a century ago, has been in the news recently. The publishers, Hachette, have announced that they are scrapping their updated versions of Blyton’s Famous Five books.

The stated intention, when this project was launched six years ago, was to replace old-fashioned language that might make it harder for children to enjoy the stories. ‘Housemistress’ and ‘school tunic’ were updated to ‘teacher’ and ‘uniform’, archaic slang such as ‘awful swotter’, ‘jolly japes’ and ‘lashings of pop’ were replaced with blander alternatives. In some places there was a political dimension to these revisions. Blyton’s ‘dirty tinkers’, for example, would from now on be described more politely as ‘travellers’.

Enid Blyton wrote more than 600 children’s books, producing, at her most prolific, 50 a year. There was a rumour during the 1950s that to maintain this level of output she employed a team of ghost writers. A librarian, sued by the author for repeating this story, had to apologise in court. The truth was Enid Blyton didn’t need any help. By her own account, she wrote without thinking, allowing the stories to emerge unmediated from her unconscious onto the keys of her typewriter.

During the 1960s and 70s critics began attacking her on other grounds. Educators had long considered her books too simple, claiming that young readers were addicted to them because they presented no linguistic demands. More damning than that, her books were now seen to be marred by xenophobia, sexism and snobbery. The girls and boys whose adventures are narrated either conform to gender stereotypes or are rebuked for challenging them. Coming from middle-class families, they are too often pitted against suspicious outsiders whose criminality is associated with foreignness or low social status.

Inevitably, the news that Blyton’s publishers have abandoned these updated versions has been celebrated by some as a defeat for the forces of political correctness. But I think this reveals a misunderstanding both of the motives for the project and of why it failed. Blyton’s more overtly racist stories have not been in print in English for decades. Mercifully only used copies of The Three Gollywogs are available on Amazon, where reader reviews express a mixture of nostalgia and defiance. ('My grandma used to read the book to me when I was a baby… those who see gollywogs as racist or offensive need their heads tested.’)

The 2010 revisions seem to have been motivated mainly by a desire to smooth the path for the twenty-first century reader. The intention, as the publishers said at the time, was to make the texts ‘timeless’.  But timelessness requires more than the removal of obstacles. Peculiar language is as likely to be a hook as a stumbling block. I’d hazard a guess that very few of Blyton’s earlier readers were as socially privileged as her characters, or had any experience of boarding school, or ever talked in real life about ‘jolly japes’. The old-fashioned public schools that featured in the kinds of books I found in Cheltenham Public Library as a child were almost as far removed from my own experience as Hogwarts. Books create their own worlds into which readers are drawn. Language is an essential part of how those worlds are created.

This piece has appeared previously in The Bangladesh Daily Star

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