Five get into a linguistic fix--dragging Enid Blyton into the 21st century

From today's Guardian--"Enid Blyton's Famous Five Get 21st-Century makeover."

The one time my dear mother really truly betrayed me is when she oh-so-conveniently left our complete collection of Famous Five books in the Bahamas when we moved back to the States. She never liked them--she had somehow gotten it into her mind that Enid Blyton wasn't exactly what she wanted her daughters to read and re-read and re-read...But goodness, I did enjoy them.

And a large part of their charm (even though I took it for granted at the time, being essentially a sweetly jolly British-esque school girl myself*) was the vividly-written British-ness of them. That is about to go out the window--ten of the books are being bland-ified, to make them more accessible to today's young. For example, "she must be jolly lonely all by herself" will become "she must get lonely all by herself". Blah!

My own boys have listened to audio books of several of the original books with much enjoyment (although goodness knows I winced at some of the racism and sexism, so much so that I'd rather read them aloud myself, so that I can do my own editing; maybe this is why my mother ditched them). But what really is bothering me is the sense I get from this that the world is becoming far too linguistically homogeneous. Surely there are still people in England who say things are "jolly?" My own dear husband (who has provided italicized interjections) comes from (the dismal working-class slums of) Liverpool, and has never called anything jolly with any sincerity (Jolly? Luxury! i.e. it's a class thing), but there must be some people still there who are glad-eyed and upright and sincere (and upper-clarse ....)

And even more than that, I am vaguely bothered to find that I have been speaking in outdated English English myself--it is no wonder that I am so often misunderstood (pities self). One of the things I say quite often--"it's all very peculiar" is being changed to "it's all very strange". Although I would say "it's all really peculiar," overusing "really" as I do (sigh--a quick search of my blog revealed a "really" in almost every post).

But anyway, it all seems wrong and pointless. Blah, I say again.

*so much so that I was chosen for a UK TV commercial, in which I sailed with Captain Birdseye, promoting fish fingers.


  1. If they *really* want to bring them into the 21st century, they're going to have to do a whole lot more than change the language!

    George will have to be able to go with the boys, Anne will have to stop being perpetually timid... (Or was that Secret Seven? I read and loved both as a child, though I *did* get tired of poor George always having to wait behind with Anne)

  2. And, as you said, they'll have to work on the racism.

    Mind, complete remakes have worked (kind of) with Nancy Drew, so I won't say it can't be done, but still...

  3. Enjoyed your post. I'm not familiar with Enid Blyton--I'll have to see if my library has any of her books. Are they from the 1950's? I'd love to recommend Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" books (1914) in my blog--they're really cute and funny, but the racism is off the charts, stereotypes running amuck, so no can do.

  4. It's been years, but I remember how much I like these books when I was 9 or so. There was one about a circus that really grabbed me.

    Apparently they've made the Nancy Drew books blander, too.

    Bleah is right!

  5. Hm.

    ...perhaps what you see as homogenizing -- or perhaps as lowering the side? -- is merely opening the pristine gates of literature and allowing the unwashed reader masses inside, those who by accident of birth or education are not up to parsing out through context exactly what is meant by "jolly lonely" (when in their experience it had something to do with Santa, not loneliness). I imagine those who are reluctant readers could benefit from the short, simplistic, mildly adventurous Blyton stories, as well as younger readers who are just beginning to handle their first chapter books.

    I honestly cannot grieve over anything being "homogenized" or lessened or having that reading playing field leveled out if it means more readers.

    Change isn't always necessary: they changed such fiddly bits in the Potter books that I was irritated; it seemed that there was an assumption that American children were stupid, and their parents wouldn't shell out their $25 for the fifteen-pound tomes if no one "translated" for them. That was patently false, as they were committed to the series, and would have struggled on to read anything about HP, I believe. But I also recall watching my niece struggle through the Narnia series after the films came out, with deep frustration - written in the 20th century with vestiges of 19th century turns of phrase, she was at sea almost immediately. I wouldn't have liked someone changing the words to the series, necessarily, because they're "classics," but on the other hand, if that meant she could read them, well, isn't that the point of children's books? Not to set them on their shelves and polish them up only for those rarefied folk who can get through their dense linguistic turns, but for every child?

    Or is that too Marxist of me?

    And man, I wish there were videos of you shilling fish as a British girl. I think I would almost pay to see that.

  6. I'm against the updating because Enid Blyton *should* be left behind as an outdated relic. Why is it necessary for anyone to read her unless they are approaching the books from a scholarly historical pop-culture angle? There are plenty of other well-written accessible books being published today -- and their authors have much need of the royalties than the Blyton estate.

  7. It saddens me, as a reader and as an historian, to see folks who obviously love literature, championing the homogenization and politicized "correction" of books such as Blyton's.
    Blyton wrote a hundred years ago. Her writing reflects the time and culture she was in: no more, no less. Personally, I love the joyful specificity of her language: I may not say "Jolly good!", but the phrase and all it connotes, makes me smile.
    Let's not make the shortsighted mistake of consigning all "outdated" literature to the rubbish bin. There are wonderful things to be leaned, enjoyed and shared with one's kids, in these books. Yes, the racism is regrettable, but it is not an act of deliberate hostility, t is a reflection of the cultural moment, and to take it personally is sort of silly. I don't stop reading Agatha Christie novels because she refers to someone as a "hooknosed Jew", even though I'm Jewish. In a hundred years, people will read novels from today and think the word "racism" is dated, because, I hope, by then we'll have gone way beyond it.
    Let's enjoy writing from all centuries and cultures as a way to expand the way we look at the world, not as outmoded trash. The more we learn about other people's ways of being and thinking, the more we have tolerance, compassion for and interest in others...and by extension ourselves.
    Jolly Good!

  8. Tanit-- I don't think I am being elitist (although I know I'm sometimes guilty of that). Apart from the loss of integrity to the books themselves, which I think is unfair to the author, I think that to fiddle with Blyton's language in this way, with the aim of making the books "accessible," is just not a good idea--the rascism and the sexim remain, given even more validity as models, perhaps, by the changes in the language to make it seem like this is how things "currently" are. When the language makes clear how dated the books are, the read doesn't have as much risk of buying into the whole dated world.

    Why should the reluctant readers of today's UK have to have the Famous Five and the myriad bits of baggage they come with shoved down their throats just because Blyton was the standard "get kids reading"author of the mid twentieth century? (which I think is Emily's point)

    Keeping the language intact lets the books be seen as the period pieces they are, unhomoginzed and with their cultural integrity (nasty though that is in places) intact, to be enjoyed or not, according to the tastes of the reader.

    Incidently, there have been changes to Blyton's choice of words and character names before, but nothing that seems to be on quite this organized scale with such an explitly "aultruistic" aim.

  9. I have never read these books but I lived in England during the 80's for four years and was obsessed with Blyton's Enchanted Wood books when I was in second grade. These have had character names updated and some of the stories condensed but nothing as major as it seems they are doing with these. I am glad I still have my Enchanted Wood books I received on my eighth birthday. So sorry you no longer have your copies.

  10. On the whole, I *don't* favor the updates--as I tried to say in my not-too-clear double post up above, if they're doing this in the interests of modernizing the books, then they need to change the sexism and racism too. Otherwise, I'm not too sure I see the point.

    Really, I think any reader can get used to the out-dated language pretty quickly, but, then, I read fantasy, so I am used to slipping into other people's worlds--and was when I was the age the books are aimed at. That may have made a difference.

    On the other hand, it may be a non-issue: The Nancy Drew books are continually being reborn and updated. At this point, it's possible to get books from a number of different eras, all at once, and comparison read them, if one wishes. The same may happen to Blyton.

  11. Yeah, I think the only point that makes any sense, Bookwyrme, is the money point.

    And I agree entirly about the ability to slip into the fantasy world coming into good stead in books like these--the same thing happens when reading classics like Little Women. One's eyes just bounce across the things that are strange....

    It's been ages since I read Nancy Drew, and I've never tried the modernized editions. I'm trying now to imagine the Famous Five set in 2010--four children (and they really are children) all by themselves...it just doesn't work.

  12. Nancy Drew's an interesting case--I guess because she was ghost-written to begin with (Do you have any idea how disillusioned I was when I learned that?) Anyway, there are some updated versions of older books (now out of date themselves!), plus some new adventures that come out in different forms every decade or so.

    Current Nancy is a fashion-ignoramus while Bess is a beautiful flirt who loves tinkering with cars and George is a computer whiz. It's kind of fun to read and compare the differetn decades.

  13. "On the whole, I *don't* favor the updates--as I tried to say in my not-too-clear double post up above, if they're doing this in the interests of modernizing the books, then they need to change the sexism and racism too. Otherwise, I'm not too sure I see the point"

    -- exactly. Except, as Charlotte says, the point IS money.

    I don't think you're elitist. Remember, I was a teacher... at a school for kids with learning disabilities. I feel like I spent a lot of time rewriting books - the books I loved - so they'd be accessible to the kids I loved. It was a lot of extra work that I did because I'm insane, but some part of me railed that it wasn't fair that they never got to read "fun" stuff - only things in hideous color paneled books that were in their "Level." I felt they deserved more.


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