The Popularity
of Enid Blyton
and the Famous Five

by Malcolm Potter-Brown

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Auksford, 2004  -

©  Copyright Malcolm Potter-Brown, 2004

Enid Blyton was unquestionably the most popular British children's author of the mid-twentieth century. Her sales far outstripped those of any other writer in her field, and her productivity was unsurpassed (except perhaps by Charles Hamilton, alias Frank Richards et al.). This does not necessarily mean that she was the best writer for children in her period -- Richmal Crompton, for example has a far cleverer and more elegant style together with a wicked sense of satire that was beyond Miss Blyton's reach, but it must mean that she had a very good idea of what children wanted to read. Not only that she was able to appeal to a wide range of age groups: from tiny tots, who had to have her tales read to them, through to teenagers.

Like many successful children's authors of today, Enid Blyton produced whole series of stories starring the same characters and ranging from her Noddy stories to adventure stories like the adventure series (The river/valley/island/castle/etc of adventure). the mystery of series (the mystery of the secret room, the vanished prince, etc), and the R... mytery series (the Rilloby fair mystery etc). However by far the most popular of her children's adventure series were those starring the Famous Five: Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog.

They had something for everyone: two boys, two girls, and, for animal lovers, the loyal and intelligent Timmy. Julian, the oldest, is a mature, sensible boy who acts as leader of the group. Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin know they can rely on Julian, and, as he grows older, he wins the respect of intelligent police inspectors ("We could do with people like you in the force") and is recognised as a formidable opponent by villainous adults. His younger brother, Dick, is the joker in the pack, the boy with the cheeky grin and the wicked sense of humour who is ready to risk his life to save his brother, sister and cousin (as he does in the very first book when he climbs in darkness down the rusting rungs of a ladder set in the side of a deep well in Kirrin Castle). Georgina, or George, as she prefers to be called, is a brave tomboy of a girl with a fiery temper. Based on Enid Blyton herself George is the feminist in the Five, as good as any boy (in fact better than most) she can climb trees and foil smugglers as efficiently as either Julian or Dick. Anne, of course, is the traditional girly girl, the home-maker, the little housewife, who can be relied on to see that the beds are made and the sandwiches packed, the one whom Julian can protect, who is nervous about adventures, but never flinches when the chips are down. Timmy is George's dog. George believes he understands every word she says, and perhaps he does.

Eileen Soper's illustrations must have contributed an immense amount to the popularity of the Famous Five books. Certainly none of her successors in the modernised editions that are supposed to appeal to children of today, has managed to capture the five characters so well.

Although it is not generally realised, Enid Blyton's Famous Five books follow the children through six years of their lives in strict chronological order. From the moment that George is described as being eleven on page 8 of Five on a treasure island and Dick says that she is the same age as he is, Enid Blyton knows exactly how old the Kirrin children are, and so does Eileen Soper. As Julian grows from twelve to a mature and responsible eighteen, Dick and George grow from eleven to seventeen, and little Anne from ten to sixteen. Of the two boys, Dick is obviously Miss Soper's favourite, for, while Julian has a rather sharp-nosed face, Dick progresses from being a little boy with a delightfully cheeky grin to a handsome, squared-jawed seventeen-year-old youth. However, in Five have plenty of fun, in which Miss Blyton, in response to requests from readers, decides to continue the adventures, things go slightly awry. Neither author nor illustrator seem quite sure how old the children are, especially the boys: Dick for example talks like a ten-year-old though he must be at least fifteen because it was that age that he first met Jo the gypsy girl who comes into this story. George, Anne and Timmy are not affected by this uncertainty, but Julian, sensible, humorous Julian whom everyone admires, somehow comes over as a bossy prig.

Of course, bossy prig may be how modern children think of Julian anyway. Enid Blyton has been severely criticised in recent years for expressing in her fiction the outmoded outlook of white, middle class, English respectability, though this is scarcely a fair criticism of an author who wrote for readers of her own time and place. Britain was (and still is) overwhelmingly white. Middle-class values were dominant in the middle of the century. They were shared by the working class and were not a separate bourgeois cultural tradition. Honour, honesty, courage, truthfulness, reliability were not qualities that marked off the middle classes from the lower orders, they were shared British values, and British (and indeed Commonwealth) children of all classes could enjoy the adventures of her young heroes and heroines and rejoice in the triumph of good over evil.

Enid Blyton's works remain in print, though sometimes modernised or politically corrected, and sequels are still churned out -- and even prequels telling of George's adventures with Timmy before she met her cousins. Parodies too are legion, for the upright and honourable Five seem to invite the derision of today's more selfish generation. The television parodies by the Young Ones, Five go wild in Dorset and Five go wild on mescalin set the tone, as the Five denounce Uncle Quentin as a homosexual and have him carted off to prison. Other humorists have also published short Famous Five parodies, for example Craig Brown in the Daily Telegraph combined the Five with the modern anxiety that too many children are obese and described an overfed Kirrin family unable to face walking across a room without a supply of chocolate.

The Internet, which makes it possible for everyone to have a go at publishing, has also thrown up several Famous Five parodies: one in which it is revealed that Uncle Quentin has a secret tunnel from his study to the gypsy camp to facilitate sexual adventures with gypsy girls, another in which the Five accidentally swim up a sewer pipe and get covered in excrement, and yet another in which they arrive on holiday swearing, swear all the way to their aunt's cottage, swear when they find the off-licence is closed, swear again when they cannot break in, and decide to spend the rest of their holiday swearing at the villagers because they see it offends them.

Admirers of Enid Blyton might be forgiven for keeping well away from any Famous Five story on the Net, but they would have cause to regret missing The Kirrins and the Mystery of the Sandy-haired Dwarf by Robin Gordon. Unlike the parodies, which are only a few screens long, Gordon's story is roughly the same length as an Enid Blyton Famous Five book. It is not written in the style of Miss Blyton (except for the foreword), but it is illustrated with variations on the pictures by Eileen Soper, which adds considerably to the pleasure. The book starts off by introducing Julian, now middle aged, and, after an adventurous career as a chaplain with the British army in all the trouble-spots of the Empire, settled down as Rector in Kirrin. George is still living at Kirrin Cottage, and it is not long before she and Timmy VI burst into the Rector's study, and the blot on the landscape is revealed: a huge hotel and leisure-centre being built in Kirrin village. The parodistic style is in full flow here, and you may fear the worst as George accuses Julian of ogling the bare legs of beshorted young builders and Dick is revealed as a camp film director, but nothing is ever quite what it seems in Robin Gordon, and soon the sons and daughters of the human four of the Five are busily engaged in tracking down smugglers, who (time having moved on) turn out to be terrorists with paedophile connections. Two of the boys are kidnapped, and it looks as if their only possible hope is a quick and relatively painless death, for their Uncle Dick, the only one able to rescue them, is far from being the innocent and arty film director he has always seemed. But then again, he isn't what he seems to seem either. The tale may not suitable for younger children, but in the end it triumphantly vindicates all those British values for which Miss Blyton stood. It has also the added interest of scholarly appendices in which Gordon defends the geographical consistency of Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories and suggests more of the Kirrin family history.

Enid Blyton, author of the Famous Five, was reviled by educational theorists, teachers and librarians for the popularity that led generations of children to look for another Blyton book rather than exploring other authors, she was criticised by the politically correct for sharing the common values of her country and her generation, and she was banned from library shelves, yet her books are still in print, still popular, still parodied and imitated, and still read by children.

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