How famous were the Famous Five?

My thanks to Nikesh Shukla for the tweet that unknowingly prompted this pleasant and super nerdly distraction from my thesis …

  • The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog. humans and dog. For the purposes of this post, we’ll discount Timmy (as much as it pains me) and thus work with individuals.
  • With their respectively privileged circumstances, let’s say everyone has a fairly high life expectancy where they all hit seventy eight or so and thus meet approximately 80,000 people each.
  • (There are other numbers around, but this is based on each of them interacting with 3 new people a day. Which is a big and ambitious number, but I imagine, something that socially thrusting and somewhat irritating Blytonian characters are more than capable of. “Here’s your paper Miss.” “DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THAT TIME ON KIRRIN ISLAND?”)
  • 80,000 people x 4 gobby souls =  320,000 individuals met in total. 
  • The books were published between 1942 and 1962.
  • UK’s population in 1942 = 48 million (ish)
  • UK’s population in 1962 = 55 million (ish)
  • So let’s, roughly, say an average population of 52 million (yes, roughly, I know, shut up, this is the most maths I’ve done in years…).
  • And that through their life the Famous Five meet approximately 320,000 people
  • We can therefore conclude that the Famous Five are Famous for almost 1% of the population of the UK.
  • So not very famous.
  • Ta-dah.

 

(Thank you to the lovely @yayeahyeah for helping me check my maths! I am no mathematician … can you tell?!)

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Happy birthday Enid Blyton!

Enid Blyton was born on this day in 1897. Happy birthday Enid!

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by Blyton the more I’ve worked on the second chapter of my thesis. I’m considering the changing relationship of children’s literature with landscape; the Arcadian idyll of the Victorian period shifting through to the movements of the post-war period where boundaries were able to be transgressed and challenged … and Enid forms a big part of this discussion.

The more I’ve worked on Malory Towers and St Clare’s, the more I’ve become convinced that Blyton’s texts work in a unique liminality; they talk back to the patriarchal dominance of the age but also, quite subversively, present alternative modes of female existence. Choice, really. And that’s quite the thing to find in an author who is, so often, read as a bastion of gendered problematics. I’m not denying the existence of these problematics but rather asking us to read beyond them in a way…

So happy birthday Enid and, in a slightly Pythonesque manner, here’s a list of facts and other things …

  • Enid Blyton is the fourth most translated author in the world. The three authors above her? Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare. (Unesco, 2015).
  • Enid Blyton had 762 books published. Just. Let. That. Sink. In.
  • I suspect popular children’s fiction would be in a very different state today were it not for Blyton. You know those Daisy Meadows books? And similar? Consider what they’d be without the nature of Blyton and the way she showed the voracious appetites of what readers could be….
  • She gave us the Malory Towers swimming pool. Still possibly the best swimming pool in the entirety of children’s fiction. And yes, this is niche, but I’m willing to argue at length about this.
  • The house she once lived in is fabulously surreal.
  • She wrote the weirdest, cagiest, and possibly best author autobiography I’ve ever read.
  • She gave us Anne; one of the most complex and misunderstood female characters ever.
  • She practically defined the idea of ferociously readable writing. Yes, this may have come at the expense of a myriad of other factors, but the woman could write. I don’t think I know of a more determined writer.
  • She wrote some of the most definitive school stories out there. The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books are woefully undercritiqued and yet, there they are, immensely and perpetually popular and also subtly promoting a whole host of diverse representations of girlhood.
  • Ginger beer. Never had some. Not sure I want to, because I think it might ruin the mystique…

 

So here’s to you Enid, and your crazy, readable ways. You’re not the most run of the mill person, nor are you infallible, and I’m fairly sure I will never write a sentence about you that doesn’t involve the word ‘complicated’, but I am very sure that you are unique. Happy birthday!

Works cited:-

UNESCO (2015) Index Translationum : Top 50 Most Translated Authors http://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsstatexp.aspx?crit1L=5&nTyp=min&topN=50 [accessed 06/07/2015]

 

A spectrum of choice : Girlhood and Enid Blyton

“Shall I tell you what I want? What I really really want?

I really really really want to see a recognition of the diverse modes of femininity and girlhood presented in Enid Blyton’s school stories zig a zig aah.”

Whilst I’m conscious that these aren’t the exact lyrics for the Spice Girls classic, I want you to imagine that for a second they are. Wait. No. I’m a step too far ahead already. Let’s go back. Twist the sky and push the sun down over the horizon, let the night fall, let’s go back.

Let’s start here; and with Anne and George and Dick and Julian and Timmy. The Famous Five. I’d hazard there’s not many of us who haven’t met them, whether through the series itself or through the cultural shorthand that Blyton has come to represent. Racism. Sexism. Outmoded sterotype-ism. Slightly rubbish writing every now and then-ism. We know Enid Blyton, even when we don’t. She’s cultural shorthand; an icon wrapped up in sensible shoes and fanciful stories about blackbirds and some chap with a saucepan on his head. She’s part of our world.

Yet, equally, she isn’t. We know a construct of Blyton. We know an idea of her, a shape to be filled in with our concerns and our needs and our fears. It’s the same for every public body, maybe, they become a politicised space that can be written over with our needs. We don’t know Benedict Cumberbatch, but we do. We know and unknow. The paradox of knowing. The paradox of knowing that you don’t know. The paradox of increasingly complicated sentences!

So let’s go back to the simple points, to Anne, to George, and the way they are both girls and not girls, the way that they are shorthand for all that is bad and good for Blyton, all that they are and were boiled down to this – simple – dynamic.

And I am the first to find Anne complex, challenging, but she exists with George; not opposed, not the other, but rather an other. Girlhood is a spectrum; not all girls this, not all girls that – , this girl is – . Not these girls are. Not all girls are. Boil this down to pink and flowers, I dare you – girls are more, beyond that, they are not one word nor one action, and they exist, co-exist, share space in the world –

they do not cancel each other’s space. Not one for the other, but rather both as an expression of girlhood, neither as the distinct representation thereof –

Anne thrives in the domestic, the control – the limited expression of power, perhaps, because that is all she can control within that environment? The domestic space; not a subspace, not a second space, but rather space; Anne’s space –

George, the girl of action, the girl in the wide, wide world, the girl who adopts masculinised vestments and behaviours because , perhaps, she cannot exist in that wide wide world without doing so? A Cesario in the world –

Simplistic readings, perhaps – but contrarily simplistic. Deliberately so. Blunt, hardheaded readings because I rail.

I rail against readings that reinforce ideologies, that deny the shifting nature of critique and selfhood, that deny these texts relevance, that belie them –

Girls as girls as girls. A thousand figures of girlhood stretch themselves against Blyton’s canon; girls that yearn for the domestic, girls that would rather die than touch it, girls that embrace careers, girls that embrace maternity, girls that embrace a spectrum of potential – a spectrum of choice

I choose to read Blyton like this, I choose compexity, I choose, I choose –

 

Further reading

Empowering girls? The portrayal of Anne and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series

Last Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

Last Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #6)Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s maybe three or four books locked up in this finale to the Malory Towers series, three or four other stories waiting to be told in this tale of pace and speed and so important moments are lost in chapters, and characters are written in and out with that characteristic Blyton panache. This book is so much bigger than what it is and so, it is both disappointing and perfect.

Blyton is a writer who is determined that you shall have a good time. In writing about this before, I have described it as a ferocious readability. She is so very determined to have speed and pace and addiction that sometimes the finer points of her writing go aside. This isn’t a space for high literature or post-modern musings on life, but it does not mean that Last Term At Malory Towers is not full of something rather delicious and rather wonderful. This series is perhaps Blyton at her best; ferocious, stark, fearless, and to truly understand that, it’s vital to place these books within a context. They are school stories; a genre defined by rules and limitations, and yet each and every story of this series involves girls questioning and challenging those rules. Very subtly, Blyton is teaching the value of independence and the option of alternative options of womanhood. Nurse, mother, riding school owner, writer. Be what you should be, not what you have to be.

And Last Term at Malory Towers doesn’t skimp from that. Blyton is unstinting and swift in her justice; she is severe, sharp, but always understandable . That person has done wrong so they must be punished. This person has done right so they will get a positive outcome. It’s blunt, unsparing, but it is the ideology that marks Blyton’s work.

I’m always reminded with Blyton of another quote I’ve come across in my research: “If a whole age appears critically naive and subliterary in its tastes when judged against a later standard, then the standard, not the age is called into question” (From The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction fact fans). That’s Blyton, right there. Question the standard and distinguish that standard. Don’t deny the great achievement that these books were in their time. And, I suppose, don’t deny that these books with their defiant air of completion and satisfactory plot resolutions, don’t mean anything. Last Term at Malory Towers is a complex, frustrating, wonderful, moving, challenging and ferociously readable book. In a way, it couldn’t ever be anything but.

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First Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #1)First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so my Blyton marathon reaches another great classic, her series of school stories set at the deliciously described Malory Towers. It’s a school set nebulously on the Cornish coast somewhere, but the detail is what makes this school sing. Turrets. Towers. A swimming pool that’s crisp and refreshing on the hottest of days. A central court with a sunken theatre, roses, and Arcadia found. It’s Darrell Rivers’ first term and, as is the way with the school story, we follow her on her journey into acclimatising into her brave new world. It is an acclimatisation full of pitfalls, of temper, and of high-jinks and of friendship, surprisingly, enduringly formed. It is lovely.

Malory Towers is so, so good. Blyton can write, she writes with what I can only describe as a ferocious readability. There’s not much artifice here, no narrative dodging or sleight of hand. This is story, handed out wholesale, and it’s great. Blyton can write and she can give story, and she will give you story whether you want it or not. There’s something quite brilliant about her when she gets like this. It’s unafraid, unabashed, unrelenting storytelling that’s equally terrifying and equally addictive.

It’s worth nothing that, in the edition I read, the slapping incident between one pupil and another now involves shaking, though the attempted drowning beforehand remains curiously intact and unedited. I’m struck, really, about the tone of editing here. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong decision to this incident, but I’m conscious really of how I read the original incident when I was a child. It was so dramatic to me, so gobsmackingly awe-inducing, precisely because of the slapping. And whilst I’m so very conscious of that, I’m equally conscious of the necessity to understand the needs of current readers and different sensibilities. A quandary. What would you do with the relevant incident? I’m not sure it’s a call I can easily make.

But enough of editing and of nerdly niggles, and back to this wonderful book. It’s epochal, really, because it does what it does with such genuine aplomb. There’s almost too much to enjoy. Everything and everyone feels rooted, real. This is storytelling, pure and simple, and because Blyton is so determined to make this work, she does. There’s such latent power in literature like this.

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Enid Blyton, St Clare’s and ferocious readability

I finished my St Clare’s reread last night. I’ve been reading these books as part of my research; they form one of the big aspects of my next chapter alongside the Malory Towers books.

It’s been a long time since I read St Clare’s. I had fond memories but bare ones, you know? The sort of memory where you know something is good, that it makes you happy, but you can’t quite remember the detail of what it is that makes you feel so positive about something. Sensible Hilary. Slapping Carlotta. Pat and Isabel. Claudine and that swimming pool incident.

And when I finished them last night, the end of a binge of six books in a row, I realised something. For all her foibles, for all intensely problematic her talking to goldfish and never quite giving Anne a chance, Enid Blyton could write. The St Clare’s series is possess of such a determined style that it’s quite breathtaking at points. These are ferociously readable books. These are books that have been written with an eye towards being read and towards being enjoyed. And the more they’re written, the better they get. I talked earlier this week about how I think The O’Sullivan Twins might be one of the best school stories out there, but I suspect Fifth Formers At St Clare’s might stand up there with it. There are some chapters in this novel, some intense twists of plot and circumstance that are flabberghastingly brilliant. I’m not going to spoil it here, but I’m sure those of you who know these books will have an inkling of the chapter I mean. It’s the midnight one ….

I was struck as well by the diverse manifestations of girlhood within these books. One can be sensible, brave, foolish, selfish, idiotic, whatever. Blyton is determined to allow these girls to be themselves and that’s something quite special. It’s not, perhaps, kind in how she does it for certain of the girls but again, that’s something quite remarkable in itself. She’s not afraid of giving a girl a bad end, or being unabashedly scolding of their attitude. It’s not subtle but again, it’s not wrong. Writing like this intrigues me; this distinct, and occasionally vicious authorial voice, that isn’t allowed to let her characters be idiots or ignorant or stupid. That’s quite a thing.

 

I suppose really, what I’m trying to say is that Blyton gets a bad rap. And it’s often very deservedly so; she is a complex, challenging and occasionally deeply frustrating author. But she is not a bad writer. She is smart, ferociously readable, and deeply intriguing. And these books, these school stories, when they’re good – they are brilliant. They are raw, determined brilliance. And that’s something worth acknowledging.

I’m off to Malory Towers next. Wish me mishaps in the swimming pool and midnight feasts!

The O’Sullivan Twins : Enid Blyton

The O'Sullivan Twins (St. Clare's, #2)The O’Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to be deliberately provocative here and begin with the assertion that this might be one of the best school stories out there.

At first glance, this is a strange assertion to make: The O’Sullivan Twins is the second novel in a series, and it’s not often that the second in the series is the one that stands out above the rest. It’s usually the first, or the last, but those middle novels rarely get the praise. They’re caught, somehow, in a space of bridging from one part of the story to the next, and rarely get positioned as stories within their own rights as opposed to textual conjunctions.

And, yet, once we move past that question of position, of context, then we have to consider the book itself and even that proves somewhat complicated. There are new girls; one that’s a family relation of the O’Sullivan twins and almost too near to the ‘girls we’ve just met’ to be considered as a ‘girl we’re yet to know’; a Girl With A Past, a girl who is lovely, and there is an elaborate midnight feast involving the best possible moment involving sausages I have perhaps to read in this genre.

A ridiculous, wonderful amalgam, and it’s wonderful because Blyton makes it work. She writes this novel with a fixed determination upon enjoyment and pace and readability. A complex author, yes, but one who could write story when she wanted to and this is amongst her best. It’s well told, brilliant stuff, and it hits moments which are both deeply thrilling and rampantly moving, often in the same paragraph. Blyton could write, she could write well, and this is a book that makes you long to go to St Clare’s. It’s a book which presents femininity, girlhood, as a thing with a thousand different faces and there’s something rather exhilarating about reading it and recognising the permissive state of such a construct. Girls can be good, bad, complicated, nasty. These girls can and will be anything they want to be and Blyton will move heaven and earth to allow that happen.

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