Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Love Enid Blyton

Fannish squee?

I’m looking at the words for this week’s theme now that I’ve typed them in a Microsoft Word document. Both words are underlined with squiggly red lines. This occurs on only two occasions.

1) When a word has been misspelled.
2) When an existing word isn’t recognised by my PC’s internal dictionary.

But neologisms and linguistic innovations occur all the time in the developing world of the English language. Every day produces new words. Every day marks the passing of old and forgotten words. And I could have decided to talk about my ‘fannish squee’ for the English language in response to this week’s theme.

I’ve studied linguistics. I’m currently alternating between two entertaining books that relate to language. One is a study of contemporary etymologies through the development of American English. The other is an overview of corpus linguistics.

But I can bore people enough about those subjects in my own time. What I wanted to talk about here was the woman responsible for my love of the English language. Enid Blyton.

Enid Blyton was an English children’s writer. One of the most successful children’s storytellers of the twentieth century. She is the fifth most translated author in the world. Her books have sold more than 600 million copies. She’s been translated into nearly 90 languages. For a full history on the lady, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enid_Blyton

I grew up with Blyton’s stories. I grew up reading about the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. I adored the Adventure series (Castle of Adventure, Island of Adventure, etc). And it was because of these compelling, simply written stories that I wanted to grow up and become an author.

I’ve studied Blyton’s work since becoming an adult. There have been allegations of sexism, racism, post-colonial snobbery and elitism charged against her writing. Few of these accusations are without substance. And I’m not going to try and defend the indefensible. Reading her stories about The Three Golliwogs today is like reading hate mail from the KKK. Her portrayal of girls as stay-at-home, cook-and-clean role models borders between condescending and downright misogynistic. Her overuse of stereotypes is breathtaking.

But she could tell a compelling tale. She wrote exciting stories about young children having adventures. She kept her language simple, and yet it was always effective. She fuelled me with a desire to write and love the English language. So, whilst I can’t condone her racism, sexism or elitism, I have to admit I’m indebted to the woman for making me fall in love with words. And, if that’s not enough to deserve my ‘fannish squee’, I don’t know what is.

14 comments:

  1. Hello, Ash,

    Well, I admit that I'd never heard of Enid Blyton, despite having read very widely as a child. So off I went to read the Wikipedia article (thank you)! I get very annoyed by the notion that it's okay for other people to "revise" an author's work to make it more politically correct. I'd be livid if anyone tried to do that with my books. It sounds as though Ms. Blyton was a product of her times. One can hardly fault her for that. And the nature of the adventures she created--children going off on their own, or getting the better of adults--would, I imagine, have universal appeal.

    Thank you for an enjoyable AND educational post.

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  2. Lisabet,

    I genuinely adored this woman's writing when I was growing up. She was the J K Rowling of my age group and responsible for my continuing obsession with words and writing.

    And the adventures still live fresh in my mind. Every holiday I look forward to lashings of ginger beeer and ice cream, and a rollocking adventure ;-)

    Ash

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  3. Ash -
    I'm with Lisabet on this. You can lament that a writer doesn't translate well into the modern age, but you can't blame them for being a product of theirs. I wonder what we'll cringe over in our writing 30 years from now? Probably words like Fannish and Squee. And that's when grammar checker will type out "Told you so."

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  4. Kathleen,

    I LOVE the idea of a grammar checker saying "Told you so."

    And you're right about her being a product of her times. I studied C S Lewis at the same time as I was revisiting Blyton. The sexism in his narratives is worse than Blyton's. But it was a symptom of the age it was written in, rather than apeculiarity of the writer.

    Ash

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  5. I adored Enid Blyton's books when I was a kid. Her stories were brilliant, she really did know how to captivate children. I couldn't wait for each new adventure, plus she was one of the few writers even of her day who often mentioned spanking in her stories, which was great for budding kinksters such as myself. ;)

    I still have quite a collection of her books from my childhood days and when my own children reached a certain age I thought they might enjoy me reading the stories to them, but sadly times have changed and kids are no longer as sweet and innocent as once they were. I tried reading a Famous Five book to them, but my two sons just about cracked up with laughter the moment they heard the names Dick and Fanny. They couldn't believe kids had names like that. Oh well, times change. I still have a soft spot for Enid Blyton's stories, but prefer to keep them as a happy memory rather than try to read them in the light of a much different era.

    Thanks for a very interesting article.

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  6. Fabian,

    I'd forgotten about the spankings. That would really go down well with today's PC brigade, wouldn't it?

    Dick was a great name for a character. And was it Aunt Fanny from the Famous Five books?

    If you've not seen it, this is an excellent parody on the FF books: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKD2_iLCAvc&has_verified=1

    Ash

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  7. Hi, Ash,

    Yes, that's right, it was Aunt Fanny in the Famous Five books.

    I wonder if the modern releases of Enid's books have the spanking references removed? I've never looked. I remember reading the very first FF story, Five on a Treasure Island, where Uncle Quentin threatens Julian with a spanking.I also remember how diappointed I was when it didn't happen, LOL, I had no idea why at the time...it was going to be quite some years in the future before I got to grips with that aspect of myself. :)

    Thanks for the link, I shall enjoy that.

    Did you see the tv drama about Enid, where she was portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter?

    Libby (aka Fabian Black)

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  8. I clearly recall reading Blyton's "Adventure" stories when I was in public school (in Canada). I haven't read any of her books since then, so I don't know about any of the sexist, misogynistic, elitist, or racist tone of anything she wrote. I don't really *remember* the stories, of course (it was 50 years ago), so they may have been rife with all those "isms," but what I do remember was enjoying them thoroughly and actually re-reading them to experience them over and over again.

    I did read some biographical details about her, recently, and discovered that she was considered, by her own children, to be what would be called a "mean mother." I can buy that. The public persona of a woman/mother can be considerably different from what is experienced by her children behind closed doors.

    However, this doesn't negate the fact that I absolutely loved those "Adventure" stories, which fired my imagination and reassured me that girls *could* have adventures and live an exciting life.

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  9. Libby,

    I'm going to have to look out for the Helena Bonham Carter/Enid Blyton biopic. I haven't seen it yet but I do enjoy a good drama and it sounds fun.

    Thank you,

    Ash

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  10. Rose,

    I have a friend who read Blyton's books as a child. She now returns to them like comfort food, whenever she feels the need to read something childlike and innocent.

    I'd heard Enid wasn't the kindest soul. But that's only a part of her personal legacy - it's not the one she left to us readers. As you rightly pointed out, we remember her for the thrilling and exciting adventures she provided. And that's quite a thing to be remembered for.

    Ash

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  11. Hi Ash!

    Like Lisabet, I've never heard of Enid Blyton. Most Americans have never heard of Spike Milligan, its an english thing. But I'm curious to look for her stories in google Books and see what she sounds like. I know what you mean about how her writing might be attacked for racism and so on. Robert E Howard is the same way. A black person would really tense up reading some of his stuff. Times change.

    I also relate to what you say about how a writer can fire you up as a kid to learn about language. Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs affected me that way. I think pop writers, especially erotica writers have an obligation to study rhetoric because so much of what we do when we do it right has to do with conveying complex feelings.

    Good post.

    Garce

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  12. Garce,

    Those writers who influence us as children have a lot to be proud of.

    And I agree that rhetoric helps with any writing :-)

    Ash

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  13. Hi Ashley. Greetings from Australia, where Enid was immensely popular with my age group (I was born in the perfect year for a smut writer...'69).

    My earliest memories of being read to by my father are "The Wishing Chair" and "The Magical Faraway Tree". I still remember my feeling of terror when the kids were caught up in the clouds and the Faraway Tree had moved on...they had no way home! (The details are hazy but the feelings are still strong - to me the mark of excellent writing).

    Then later on my sister and I devoured the Famous Five and The Secret Seven. I don't think I can add to what the other commenters have said about her "isms" being a product of her time and place.

    The fact that she may not have been a particularly nice person is interesting. As erotica writers, we often bemoan the fact that people won't separate US from our WRITING. I'm a man, and I've written f/f scenes (and f/f/f) scenes. Does anyone truly think I've HAD girl-on-girl sex? But I digress. Where I'm heading is, should Enid's apparently questionable parenting be remembered for the impact it had on, let's say, a couple of dozen people? Or should she be remembered for the impact her writing has had on so many million people? I guess you'd get one answer from her children, and a different one from most other people.

    I couldn't follow that link you posted...it's been restricted in Australia. But I'm guessing it's from the Comic Strip show, Five Go Mad In Dorset? Classic...

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  14. Willsin,

    I'd heard she was big down under under ;-) You're right. It was the Comic Strip presents. I'm sorry the link was restricted but it sounds like you've already enjoyed it. I still laugh at Dawn FRench's relationship with Timmy.

    Blyton does seem to embody the questions about the author/narrator. I've also written f/f scenes and I've had one reader ask me how I know so much about girl-on-girl sex. The answer (that I have a writer's imagination) somehow doesn't seem to satisfy the curious.

    I'm happy to remember Blyton as a good storyteller, and the author who got me addicted to reading.

    The one thing that does puzzle me about her 'isms' is that they don't seem to have made an impact. Certainly not on me, or any of the Blyton fans I know. We hear so much about the adverse effects of TV violence on modern youth. You'd think that 'isms' in children's literature would have a similar impact.

    Instead, most of us act with mild surprise when someone says the books' content was not politically correct. And then we re-read the books with muted disbelief.

    It doesn't seem to have spawned a generation of readers to be any more sexist/racist/reactionary than those before or since.

    We've all got good and bad sides to our personality. It's only right that she should be remembered for the great impact she had on so many young readers.

    Thanks for your comments,

    Ash

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