Five go mad in the academy
THE FAMOUS FIVE: A GUIDE TO THE CHARACTERS APPEARING IN ENID BLYTON'S SERIES. By David Rudd. Revised edition with appendices by Norman Wright. Pounds 4.10 (inc pp) from: Norman Wright, 60 Eastbury Road, Watford Herts WD1 4JL
Apart from attracting children, children's literature draws in collectors, nostalgics, cultural anthropologists, doom-merchants, literary theorists and psychologists alongside the more hands-on folks: teachers, librarians and authors. They are nearly all represented in the collection of papers from the NCRCL Blyton conference and the conference itself must have been loud with the sound of these differing ingredients bubbling.
It's no surprise that the phenomenon of Enid Blyton could draw in this mix because she is surrounded with such ambivalence. Nearly every contributor here has to grapple with a contradiction: childhood love and adult unease. There is now a flourishing school of unashamed adult enthusiasts whose signed-up members include David Rudd (PhD on Blyton), Mary Cadogan (attaching Enid to her love of William), and Rosemary Auchmuty (feminist lawyer and editor of a forthcoming two-volume Encyclopedia of School Stories). Perhaps a cynic might say their enthusiasm is proclaimed so forcefully here that it betrays the same unease that has snapped at the heels of the Blyton phenomenon since the 1950s.
The Blyton publishing machine that keeps it all going can't possibly care a cucumber sandwich what slings and arrows come their way: UK sales stand at over 4 million a year, another 4 million are sold abroad. And that's year after year.
The writers find plenty to celebrate about that. Anne Fine digs out some key tricks in the Blyton technique: "You can't get lost in the plot"; "you can't miss things coming"; "she never intimidates her readers with large solid blocks of paragraphing"; "all her description is done in conversation"; "you can't get lost emotionally" . . . and all that food! Interestingly, Fine reminds us that Blyton's orgy of scoffing coincided with food rationing.
Rudd, whose Guide to the Famous Five is both hilarious and intriguing, isolates another key textual characteristic - the way in which Blyton incorporates a raft of non-literary, oral techniques in her storytelling. And at a more psychological level he uncovers the way in which Blyton takes her readers between two poles: home, cosiness, homeliness and away-ness, out there, in a gang.
Yes, yes, all well and good, but her work reveals her to have been a sexist, racist, spiteful, unloving snob, doesn't it? The contributors remind us of offensive passages, and the slating criticisms from the past 40 years. In a sense that work has been done: the publishers have responded by weeding out the most ghastly of the Blyton inhumanities.
This book accepts and celebrates that she can't be wished away with adult criticism and says that for millions of people there is a Blyton moment in our lives. As Peter Hunt and Nicholas Tucker suggest in their contributions, it might be a very special, fleeting time of intense and very valuable reading.