Thursday, October 20, 2011

"It's probably all Enid Blyton's fault.": A Secret Seven Conversation with the Terrific Two

My Cracked Spinz book group read Puzzle for the Secret Seven by Enid Blyton for our September meeting. Unfortunately, I had spoiled any enjoyment I might have gotten out of the book by first going to YouTube and watching Enid. This biopic presents a rather unsympathetic side of Blyton. Helena Bonham Carter starred as the title character and she really nailed it. I found myself -- and still find, actually -- frozen by that performance from reacting to her work.

Luckily, help was on the way. Cracked Spinz members Val and Paul both grew up in England and read Blyton's Secret Seven and Famous Five books at a young age. I was interested in their "double-vision" --what they remembered all these years about the books and what is there for them now as adults. For a couple of weeks they carried on the following email conversation which they've generously allowed me to turn into a blog post.

Paul:  Hi Val.  First, thanks for reuniting me with the Secret Seven after our 35 year separation.  It was quite an eye-opener.  When I was a kid, I used to prefer the Secret Seven to the Famous Five - Blyton's original band of investigating kids - because I felt I could relate to them more.  The Famous Five were clearly upper class kids from another era, whereas somehow the Secret Seven felt more modern, more democratic.  I can't believe I really felt that way after just reading Puzzle for the Secret Seven.  I was surprised at how dated the mindset was.  Although it was written in 1958, these are more like little Edwardian kids, kids of the empire, with a belief in racial superiority and a duty of care towards the lower orders.  It was appalling really how they fixed up the gipsy woman's caravan, then thought nothing of walking into it uninvited to search for the stolen violin.  I definitely want to read a Famous Five book now to check if they are really more patrician than the Secret Seven.

I don't have any problem with these books still being published and read by kids today, but I wish they wouldn't tinker with them.  In this edition, they've updated the money with references to '50 pence' which didn't exist then, and kids being given 20 pounds - a vast sum in the 1950s - to go to the fair.  It should be kept clear that these books are period pieces and that these people and they way they think belong in the past.

Val:  Paul, I totally agree with what you are saying.  As a child, I found the storylines to be kind of comforting with the cosy tales of tea and parents who were around  but not interfering with adventure!  Reading it as an adult I kept getting tripped up by the language in particular.  They way Blyton describes the poverty-stricken woman is so negative.  Meanwhile, her oldest child is portrayed as being 'not quite right in the head' -- an observation which is unchallenged by any of these so called detectives!

What did you make of her usage of the 'SS' represented in symbols on group badges and the shed door?

I also felt myself getting annoyed at the gender stratification, with the girls often being left out of the most exciting projects.

Paul:  Dunno about the SS thing, but people have tried to make the Nazi connection with Blyton.  I just Googled an article in the Independent about how she seemed not to object to talk of appeasement at some party in the late 1930s - really poor stuff, a complete non-story (it actually has a gaudy "Revealed" headline too, but it doesn't reveal anything).  I doubt she was a Nazi-sympathiser then, but Peter out of the Secret Seven - I could definitely see him in a Gestapo uniform.  I'm not sure she always presents Peter as a hero, though.  He gets called an idiot in this book for insisting on passwords from people he knows, and Blyton really does paint him as an idiot in scenes like that.

And yeah, the sexism was something else that wouldn't be tolerated now.  The girls weren't allowed to investigate anything after dark!  I'd be interested to know what you think about kids reading this kind of thing now.  Do you think 21st century girls could, or should, enjoy these stories?

Val:  My guilty secret is that I saw a lot of myself in Peter!  His need for order and protocol made me cringe but nevertheless...I never thought about the fact that she was belittling him in those scenes, though now you say it, it makes sense.  I have a lingering suspicion that he was much more a reflection of herself.  If you have seen the film 'Enid' on YouTube you'll know what I mean.

The story you linked to seems to be a clear case of self-promotion for the writer!  While I do believe that she had a lot of faults, I would hesitate to paint her as a Nazi sympathiser on such flimsy observations.

As for the sexism, sadly I think these days neither boys nor girls would be really allowed to wander around so freely.  That's a terrible shame as crime stats (concerning children as victims of abduction or assault) really haven't changed since then.  It's all about perception, I suppose.  On that subject, I felt uncomfortable when the hired hand went into the caravan - where the blind child was sleeping alone - and forbade the kids from going in with him.  It's really hard to read this stuff without being influenced by cultural perceptions of appropriate behavior.

The stories seem so old-fashioned to me now, in the language as much as the attitudes.  I'd like to think modern girls would see through that, but can't be sure.  The shelves of W.H. Smiths were stocked so I have to assume somebody is reading these!

The foreword to this story was written by one of Blyton's [two] daughters.  Did you know they tell completely different tales of their childhood?

Paul:  That's interesting about how kids wouldn't be allowed to roam free like we did in the 70s.  During summer holidays we would be out of the house after breakfast sometimes, going on long walks or bike-rides with a butty*-box and coming back around 5pm for our tea.  It was all quite Enid Blyton-ish, I suppose.  (We also formed secret societies and had meetings in sheds and garages).  When we were a bit older we'd be getting on buses and trains and generally getting out and about in the world without adult help.  It seemed like a normal part of growing up but I'm afraid you're right that kids don't do that so much now.  I was walking to school without adult supervision when I was eight or so I think, half an hour each way.  It seemed perfectly safe because there was a couple of hundred other kids all walking the same way.  You'd be hard pressed to find a kid of any age walking to school these days.  All this must distance modern children from the Blyton stories even more, but clearly there is still an appeal.  What could it be?  Why are they still reading them?  I'd love to know.

I never felt creeped out by the bit about Matt in the caravan with the boy, but I've looked back at it and I do a bit now.  "Matt walked into the dark caravan making soft, comforting noises in his deep, kind voice.  Peter flashed his torch swiftly inside and saw Benny's dark head on a pillow in the corner.  Old Matt bent over him."  Is there something wrong with how we assess interaction between adults and children now?  Surely Blyton never intended to suggest anything untoward going on, but this passage does make alarm bells ring in our modern sensibilities.  (My cousin is a primary school teacher in the UK; she has been advised never to touch a child, even to comfort a five-year-old with a scraped knee).

I don't really know anything about Blyton's life, character or her relationship with her daughters.  It's interesting that they have different stories to tell though - were they a bit dysfunctional?

* sandwich - for our transatlantic readers

Val:  My life growing up was pretty much like yours.  We had a massive field at the back and spent entire days there making camps and wishing for a tree house!  We also had secret societies, though nothing much mysterious ever happened.  This led us to go looking for things.  I remember once we decided the bloke down the street was kidnapping people and cutting them up in his shed. (He was always in there banging about - it kind of fit.)  I'll never forget the day we were skulking about in the bit of the field behind his house, peering through the hedge and taking notes (lol).  Then the man himself came up behind us and asked what we were up to.  I have never run as fast in my life.

I wonder if kids today like the books for the same reasons I did - they represent something you can't quite touch but yet it all seems very real, like it could very well happen to somebody - not just you, and kind of comforting.  Maybe we should do some more research on this topic.  I'm going to ask about it on Twitter.

Maybe I noticed the (unintended I am sure) connotations of Matt's actions because I was reading it with an eye out for how it seems in current society and the entirely different place kids today occupy there.

I think I was about 10 or 11 when my mother told me that Blyton was 'not a nice person'.  I can clearly remember that this information upset me, and I read a lot more about it as I grew up.  In a nutshell it seems that she craved attention from children but had no real interest in her own.

I remember reading Noddy and Big Ears (very un-PC names these days), and I also loved Blyton's boarding school books.  Did you read more than the SS and FF?

Paul:  No, I never did read any Blyton outside of FF and SS, but I think you really got to the core of the appeal there, when you said that what happens to the kids in the books could, maybe, possibly happen to you and your 'secret club'.  A member of our secret club also had a sinister neighbour we used to spy on and keep notes about.  We imagined him getting up to all sorts of dastardly deeds and would often sneak into his back garden and try to look through his windows.  We got chased once or twice, too.  Our stories are really similar and it's probably all Enid Blyton's fault.  There were probably kids all over the country harassing perfectly innocent neighbours after reading her books.  Growing up in the suburbs was so boring that you always craved excitement and when it never came you just had to invent it.  Blyton was certainly an inspiration there, and it makes me think of her more sympathetically.  You don't critically examine your influences as a kid, but looking back, I think my childhood experiences were much more colourful because of what her stories egged us on to do.

I'm interested in how culture-specific all this is.  I'd like to read some Korean children's literature to find out what kind of examples it's setting.  I'm guessing there very different.  but the whole thing is skewed by chronology, Blyton being so dated, so you might have to go back in time for a true comparison.  Also, Korean children's literature today, as far as I can see is dominated by foreign stuff like Harry Potter - though I hope I'm wrong.

It's also interesting how most of our observations on this are sociological and not literary.

Bybee:  I have a question:  What would be the approximate age a child would become interested in Blyton?  Also, at what point would they have outgrown the FF or the SS?  Are there any books of hers that appeal to older children, like young adults?

Paul:  Probably started when I was sevenish.  I was done with em by the time I was ten, I think.  Val?

Val:  I am pretty sure I was into the boarding school books by 11 or so.

Paul and Val, thanks so much for agreeing to do this!  I hope you'll both decide to reread a Famous Five book and come back for another conversation.


Anonymous said...

As an American, I was hooked on the "Trixie Belden" series. I read a couple of Nancy Drew's but they didn't appeal to me. Trixie was a "not too sure of herself" 13 year old with 2 older brothers and one younger. She had a best friend with an adopted brother (first 2 books)and a couple of other teens to round out the "Bobwhites of the Glen" (or BWG's to those in the know!)

This series was also written in the '50s and Trixie and I seemed to have the same amount of freedom...and the same frustration regarding parents and younger brother!

My kids ('77 and '80) also had a lot of freedom but my brother's kids (15 and 6) NEVER go anywhere unsupervised.

Is it that there were truly fewer sexual predators out there or are we just more aware of them because of the media? Are parents today over-protecting kids? Or does the media encourage "copy cat" crimes?

Ah, I've got to go and check if TB is available for my Kindle! :D


Bybee said...

I liked Trixie Belden, too! I only read one of her books -- the title escapes me, but she did this Rabbit Rabbit thing to make her wishes come true. I always wanted to read more, so I guess I'm going hunting as well.

As for hiding and spying on neighbors, Harriet the Spy wins top honors.

Anonymous said...

There are 39 books in the series...which means that I read the first book about 30times because whenever a new book came out, I usually started at the beginning.

I loved these books because Trixie was always fighting the "gender barrier" even though it wasn't call that at the time.

My sister (also an avid Trixie Belden fan) and I used to be able to quote the books word for word.

Even though we lived in a neighborhood with a bunch of kids, nothing mysterious ever happened...damn!!!