Like many, I find myself unable to sever my relationship with Enid Blyton long after quitting her books, and I’ve often wondered what it must have felt like to receive the drip-feed of her work (800 titles!) in real time. Well, now I sort of know, for I recently purchased a first edition of Five on a Secret Trail, the fifteenth in the Famous Five series.
The book opens with a letter from Blyton to her fans, which I reproduce in its entirety below.
(Yes, I suck at photography.)
The inside back flap of the dust jacket has an advertisement for a Famous Five Card Game “which is such fun to play!” Had I known about this game’s existence in my childhood, I’d have no doubt murdered for it.
Here is a picture of the game:
And a sample card.
The Danger Card!
(All card images from the Enid Blyton Society Site.)
And what of the book itself? If you so desire, here is a detailed review by a member of the Blyton society. The reviewer is obviously devoted to Blyton, but admits, “Looking at the plot of this book I had to conclude that about here (maybe earlier for some fans) a little repetitiveness enters the series.”
Factor in the British habit of understatement, and there you have it: Five on a Secret Trail is awful. No amount of nostalgia can counteract its essential mediocrity, for Blyton just doesn’t seem to give a damn about the story. Three of the four villains are so perfunctorily described that we don’t even see their faces. The book’s pace is snail-slow, and secret passages and trails and hidey-holes occur with monotonous regularity. As for the inevitable “treasure”–well, no-one seems to have known it was missing in the first place. Worst, the meals seem to consist solely of ham sandwiches and raw tomatoes, and I was outraged that dessert was “tinned pineapple on bread”. Without muffins and scones and clotted cream and trifle, the Blyton pill is hard to swallow.
As I’ve recounted in an earlier post, I have serious issues with Blyton’s positionality, but I am frankly delighted with my find, which I’ve armored in bubble-wrap and hidden away from stray children. An explanation of this contradiction may be found in Amy Rosenberg’s excellent article on the Commonwealth countries’ problematic yet rich relationship with Blyton. An excerpt:
…In a talk at Harvard in 2007, [Nigerian novelist] Adichie talked about growing up consuming Blyton’s tales of gallivanting white children. As a result, she said, it wasn’t until she countered Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that she realised novelists could write about black people too.
Kirsty Murray, a young-adult novelist from Melbourne, Australia, also felt stymied. “My problem with the British / European landscapes in Blyton’s work,” she says, “ is they had colonised my imagination so effectively that I felt nothing interesting could possibly happen in an Australian setting. Our ragged, sun-baked landscapes were so in contrast to Cherry Tree Farm, and our dry creeks so lustreless beside the babbling brooks of Blyton’s England, that I felt self-conscious about my country’s lack of twee charm.”
For the Indian novelist and poet Amit Chaudhuri, the unease came from a more direct feeling of humiliation. “I felt the same enchantment others did upon discovering travelling circuses, English villages, bobbies, seasides, picnics, bicycles, hams, scones, rashers of bacon, and pints of milk,” he says, “But I have to confess to a discomfort with that world even as I was reading about it – not a retrospective disquiet based on what I learnt about Blyton later, but something I encountered as a child: a slight sense of alienation in the midst of the immersion. I sensed a cruelty even as I was devouring the stories, and a contempt for countries far away from England.”
As an example, Chaudhuri proffers one of the few references in Blyton’s oeuvre to people from other cultures: in The Mystery of the Vanished Prince, the Five Find-Outers have just returned from holiday and are nicely tanned. Then they hear that Prince Bongawah is in town, visiting from a faraway land. Playing a joke on their local constable, the butt of many of their jokes, the Find-Outers dress one of their members up as the prince’s sister, Princess Bongawee, who struts about in colourful clothes and a headscarf and bosses people around. “She acts pampered and pushy,” Chaudhuri recalls, “and someone in the books says that people from that part of the world are just like that.”
The full text of the article can be found here. Do read it, please.