An antique treasure by Enid Blyton

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.

(Image from http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk)

The book opens with a letter from Blyton to her fans, which I reproduce in its entirety below.

(Yes, I suck at photography.)


And just like Blyton said, the last page has an invitation to join the Famous Five Club.

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.

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22 responses to “An antique treasure by Enid Blyton

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  3. I have read most of her books but re-read mainly the school series and just started on the Faraway Tree series when I last went home. I guess I must read her again and look for the racist tones that I missed. Probably because I was too young/ignorant to discern that.

    But remember Carlotta, the girl from the circus in St Clare’s? I remember people looking down on her and being taught a lesson for being snobbish – just thinking aloud, but would Blyton have been racist if she hadn’t been white or exotic gypsy?

    It’s a long time, of course, even since I re-read those, but I’m not sure if I expected life in India to follow those lines, though in school, ‘sending someone to Coventry’ was practised by one girl in our class. (Not sure if she had Blyton in mind, but she probably did.) And later on, in hostel, some would plan and have midnite feasts but it seemed a bit sad to me that we were trying to replicate kippers and cakes with bread and pickle in a small room and no one would notice or even whisper about the next day. I was and am quite cynical about it.

    There is this author called Swapna Dutta who wrote her own school series later … not sure, but I think they were serialised somewhere, Children’s World?

    I think I looked at EB’s books as fantasy and exotica – the food, the sea near Mallory Towers, mothers and fathers working themselves to the bone in the farm stories, preserving vegetables, making jams, owning islands, buying tomato and ham sandwiches … not sure I ever thought of it as my ideal or even felt a sense of belonging – just a blind immersion and waiting for the next book but that’s it. We had the Amar Chitra Kathas and Nancy Drews too – and the ACK has come in for criticism too, I must go back and re-read everything and see how I view them as an informed adult some 25 years later.

  4. @ Sra: What an interesting comment! The lack of kidlit choices in India back in then was partly responsible for our devotion, I think. And as you’ve rightly said, it was a blind immersion; I don’t think I was ever directed to question any of the underlying assumptions–it was just the way things were.

    I haven’t read swapna dutta but it sounds like it would be interesting to compare her work with Blyton.

  5. I find myself unable to sever my relationship with Enid Blyton long after quitting her books” Me too!!!! I tried reading one recently and didn’t find it all that great, and yet EB’s charm just doesn’t fade. (I even liked Harry Potter because it reminded me a bit of her school series with the whole boarding school and best friends forever trope!)

    Was it just blind immersion in her fantasies? I guess… Indian kidlit back in the 80s rarely involved children characters and that was her strongest suit. But then I never cared for Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew – the other kidlit choices available back then. I think her charm was that of letting children believe that they could indulge in all the important grown-up activities (romance and sex were not even attractive!), and be even more effective at them than stuck-up grown ups who’d never let an intelligent child (ME of course!) do anything! I know my siblings and I had a bout of we-want-to-go-to-boarding-school after reading her school series, and I still haven’t got out of the habit of midnight feasts. :)

  6. Hi, I just came back to check for comments and realised that we did have some amount of Indian literature for kids. There were the Chandamamas and other similar publications in local languages, we had Children’s World also and then there were these National Book Trust books, with stories and illustrations. I even remember one of them was about TB and TB stamps (edutainment even then), and then we had folk tales of various states …

    I got all these – the EBs, Nancy Drews, ACKs, NBT, everything despite growing up in a small town, we had at least two bookshops that sold all these as well as adults’ fiction, regular bookstores, you know. Well over 10 years ago, they shut down and now there’s no place where kids can buy any books for themselves. There was a lending library that came up when I was in my teens – I should check whether that lasted when I go home next.

  7. This brought back such memories!
    Growing up, we could only fantasize about other places and people, and what better way to feed those fantasies than through Enid Blyton’s books! The worlds she created were as different as could be from our own, utterly unattainable and exotic. I remember the very first time I actually tasted ginger beer, the de rigueur drink for picnics, parties and midnight feasts – and it was such a disappointment! I consoled myself that this was certainly not the ginger beer that Enid Blyton wrote about.
    But oh yes, those racist undertones! From the bad gollywogs to the “wild and untamed” gypsies and Carlotta, her books were full of them. But as kids we were too innocent to catch any of that or be affected by it (I think and hope) as adults.

  8. Stephen Isabirye

    You raise a lot of important points about Enid Blyton. in fact i address some of her “controversies” as well as having inspired great writers like the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in my book on her, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com, http://www.amazon.com, http://thefamousfiveapersonalanecdotage.blogspot.com).
    Stephen Isabirye

  9. @ Bollyviewer: Yes, and it can be empowering for children, who are so powerless most of the time, to read about kids doing better than know-it-all adults. Blyton was on to something there, I think…

    @Sra: You are right –I’d forgotten about the NBT books. But I think the variety was still pretty small,and most of the Indian books I read were focused on some kind of moral lesson. There was nothing edgy about them, like say, Dahl’s Matilda, which subverts so many tropes of kidlit. Maybe my exposure to these books was limited. Incidentally, I also remember lots of kid-oriented Soviet books in the Delhi Book fairs–pop-up books featuring cosmonauts, that sort of thing!

    @ Kamini: Yes, ginger beer! I remember thinking it tasted like toothpaste the first time I tried it!
    I don’t know if we were unaffected by the racism–some of these biases are so subtle and insidious. But I think the current generation is smarter than I was :) And there are so many alternatives to Blyton now in the kidlit world.

    @ Stephen: Thanks for commenting! The link you sent me doesn’t seem to work, but your book sounds fascinating, esp. because I admire Adichie’s writing very much.

  10. The danger card is my favorite… whenver i see danger I will use it :p

  11. I loved the Malory Towers books as a youngster and I recently reread In the Fifth at Malory Towers, I still quite enjoyed it. I think that food is so important because at the time that Blyton was writing we had food rationing in Britain. People had to exist on very little food. A tomato and tinned pineapples were very exotic.Pineapples got here on a ship which had risked being torpedoed by the Germans. It’s the same with the C.S.Lewis Narnia books. People often can’t understand why feasts feature such a lot in them. It’s his imagination running wild about all the food which is unobtainable. Wartime rationing didn’t stop until 1953 in Britain.

  12. @ Katrina: It’s fascinating that Blyton’s literary emphasis on feasts has a socio-economic explanation. (This particular book was written in 1956, but I absolutely take your point.) And I’m thinking of Turkish Delight in the Narnia books, and imagining that it was considered truly exotic back then.

    Malory Towers versus St. Clare’s–now that’s a debate that’ll never be resolved in my head, I think.

  13. Yes, I was thinking of Turkish Delight too. I know that although rationing stopped in 1953, that didn’t mean that food was plentiful. In fact some things were even scarcer in the shops, particularly sweets. I think it took years for people to take food for granted again.

    Malory Towers and St. Clare’s – all very jolly hockey sticks, but what fun.

  14. Do you read Richmal Crompton’s William series? The sweet shop is such an integral part of that life, and I remember a scene where William and co. are reminiscing about pre-war bull’s eyes and monster humbugs. Always wanted to try these delights, but they were extinct by the time I moved to England.

  15. I was a great fan of Enid Blyton as a kid and I thought that her books are eternal but I am surprised to see that her books are no longer that hot among kids as they used to be. My son has no interest whatsoever (was it a girl thing then?) even though I struggled hard to convey all what I felt about EB. Wonder why?

  16. Ohmygod, I was just going to bring up Richmal Crompton’s William! Also, I love the William series – when I read them as a kid, I laughed till my stomach ached, often falling off the bed. I recently purchased a bunch of William books, and they can still bring a smile to my face.

    As for the St.Clare’s versus Malory Towers debate, St.Clare’s wins – I think because I had such a fascination for twins (and hoped against hope that I had a secret twin who’d gone missing). For a very very long time, I waged war at home so that they would send me to boarding school. My much hassled parents tried explaining to me that real life boarding school would be very different from in the books, but who were they to know better than Enid Blyton!

  17. @ Revathi: I think the values and priorities of kids today are perhaps different from Blyton’s era, so there isn’t much in her books for today’s young readers to identify with, or even desire. And of course, the boarding school books are definitely gendered too, so you’re right there about it perhaps being a boy thing.

  18. @ ramya: I love the william series too–in fact, I own all 37 books, and read them frequently.
    And yes, there’s something fascinating about twins. Though that didn’t tip me towards the st. clare’s; I’m still undecided between the two schools.

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  20. Like others, I was entranced by Enid Blyton although they were hard to obtain in the US as only her Adventure series was published here, as I understand it. I acquired Malory Towers, St. Clare’s and the Naughtiest Girl books on vacations in Canada and Bermuda or when kind relatives were traveling (one commented to my mother that he’d thought I was brighter than my taste in books – ouch). Despite her prejudice against Americans, I enjoyed every word and longed for boarding school, midnight feasts, and a tuck box. As with Swallows & Amazons, ginger beer was a romantic concept until I tried it!

  21. @ CLM: Tuck box! I remember that from my billy bunter books too. Yes, never got over my disappointment with licorice or ginger beer after that build-up.
    Blyton’s prejudice against Americans was quite pronounced–I remember Jo from Malory Towers who stole, whose mother “dripped with diamonds,” whose father was loud and brash and flashy. Oh well.

  22. I’ve grown up to realise she was prejudiced against Americans as well. When I read her descriptions of Zerelda and Sadie from Malory Towers and St. Clare’s respectively, as a kid, I thought that was how Americans were really like. But it was all prejudice on Blyton’s part.