Enid Blyton as a feminist icon?

7th November 1997 at 00:00
My eight-year-old reads easily, but rarely bothers. Slumped before endless videos, the only printed works that seize her interest are Beryl the Peril and the Scottish Youth Hostels Guidebook. In despair, I remembered the most exciting book I ever read as a child, dragged her to the bookshop and unearthed a Pounds 3.99 copy.

She read it aloud as we crossed the road, buses screeching to a halt. She pored over it in bed. She demanded I read her chapters before tea, after tea, in the bath, sternly checking the text over my shoulder and rifling the pages for the next exciting picture. Now six more titles are carefully lined up to follow.

Not one of those innovative, offbeat, beautifully illustrated publications that characterise the modern children's book market (and most reading books she brings back for homework) had ever wrought this miraculous transformation. They only riveted adults. Instead Rowan has been given a reason to read by Enid Blyton's Five Go to Smugglers' Top.

Yes, that most maligned and disparaged and snobbish of children's authors, whose grammar and exclamation marks we were warned not to follow by alarmed primary teachers in l961. "Never," boomed Miss Walker, "start a sentence with and or but!" But it is time this prolific wordsmith and inspirer of small people was reassessed. And with good reason. No book fired my childish imagination more than Smugglers' Top (except the even less PC yarns of John Buchan - dare I start my kid on those too?). Block the sinister deaf butler; that cunning dummy bolster in his bed; Uncle Quentin in pyjamas, drugged in the catacombs; swirling mists on the perilous sucking marsh; furtive sounds in the dark from the window-seat.

To return is to reconsider. For a start, what was all this about poverty of language? Today's children learn of impassive faces, triumphant smiles, agonised screams and blood-curdling yells, rueful gazes and devouring dogs, rope-ladders descending like an uncoiled snake. But wait a sec! Something strange here? No Blyton book would be complete without a shower of embarrassing verbs and adjectives. Everything and everyone was awfully queer, while people ejaculated with shock on every other line. Yet the whole of Smuggler's Top, Hodder Special Edition (100 Years of Enid Blyton) has been swept clean of these awkward words.

And as for sexism, tousle-headed George, with her loathing of everything feminine and feeble, is hardly the ideal modern role-model for daughters. Today, we right-on feminists insist: "Girls are great. Be proud." They reply: "Yugh!" We wince at the wimpish Anne, at the sexist stereotyping and the denial of right to male emotion: "Anne began to cry. Marybelle, frightened and puzzled, began to sob too. George felt tears pricking the backs of her eyelids, but she blinked them away. George never cried!" On the other hand, for most tomboy girls pride in their own sex comes much later. Often, what starts the process is discovery of a strong female child figure they can identify with, a heroine who achieves marvellous feats on her own. When Rowan began staring with wonder as George scaled the heights, repelled villains or leapt boldly into catacombs, I and my feminist friends remembered how much it meant to discover a girl like this.

For all her faults, George was the first catalyst. She made us realise there's nothing wrong after all with the way I feel, with the things I want to do, with the sort of person that I want to be.

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