Children Solving Mysteries: Enid Blyton’s Infamous Five

Enid Blyton
The Famous Ms. Blyton
As a child growing up in Australia, I desperately wanted to try Oreos. I also wanted to taste Twinkies, and Dr. Pepper, and possibly visit the Gap—though I had no earthly idea what that was. I, along with the rest of my nation, were constantly assailed by product placement in imported TV shows, movies, video clips and comics, and damn, we felt so out of touch, so deprived, that American kids got to eat Lucky Charms cereal (marshmallows… for breakfast!) and we did not.

But it turns out that there were some joys that we children of the Commonwealth got to experience that our revolutionary cousins were, for the most part, denied—and I’m not just talking about a diet less replete in high fructose corn syrup. Because they may have grown up with Halloween trick or treating, Thanksgiving, the Superbowl and the enviable rite of passage known as Summer Camp, but we… we had Enid Blyton.

The idea of a childhood without Blyton’s many, many works (she wrote 753 books in her forty-six year career, of which there are now more than 600 million in print) seems to me very barren indeed. To my Early Reader eyes, Enid Blyton was the ultimate Renaissance woman—not that I knew what that meant then, of course—as there was hardly a child-friendly genre at which she did not excel. If you wanted stories about fairies, pixies and brownies, you could look no further than The Books of Fairies; Pixies; and Brownies. If you wanted toys that could talk, you could go play with the ever-Naughty Amelia Jane!, or that toast of Toyland, Noddy. If you wanted fantasy adventures, you could climb The Magic Faraway Tree or jump in The Wishing Chair; if you wanted boarding school hijinks, you could visit St. Clare’s or Malory Towers; if you wanted a peek into the lives of regular kids who made their homes in interesting locales, you could go see The Children of Cherry Tree Farm or join Mr. Galliano’s Circus.

Blyton’s Books
Just a small selection of Blyton’s books
And most especially, if you were in the mood for a little mystery, you could crack a case with the Adventurous Four, the Famous Five or the Secret Seven, among several other intrepid groups of inquisitive youngsters for whom Blyton became justly revered the world over. (The Five Find-Outers, the runaways of Secret Island, Barney and his friends… the list goes on.) I always liked the Adventurous Four, didn’t mind the Secret Seven, had a mild crush on Fatty from the Five Find-Outers and wished fervently to be either circus folk like Barney or in hiding like the Secret kids. But above all of these—most of which deserve to be discussed at greater length in these pages, and doubtless will be at some future date—I was eternally, hopelessly devoted to Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy the Dog; AKA, The Famous Five.

By pure coincidence—since I was far less particular about series order back in those days—I happened to read the first Five novel, Five on a Treasure Island (1942), before any of the others (there are twenty-one, in all); a fact that I remember with bizarre clarity, given the decades that have gone by since. I mention this because I am not sure whether, had I begun with, say, Five Have Plenty of Fun (1955) or Five Get into a Fix (1958), I would have become quite so entranced by the general derring do of these four disparate cousins and their canine sidekick as I did when their very first adventure was also my very first outing as an amateur sleuth. Yes, it was with The Famous Five that I first discovered Crime, and for that I feel I will always owe them—and their creator —an ephemeral debt that can never be repaid.

When first we meet Julian, Dick and Anne, they have just been informed that they’ll be spending their summer holidays with their virtually unknown aunt and uncle, and even less familiar cousin, at a small coastal cottage on picturesque Kirrin Bay. They are dropped off among these strangers with little to no ceremony, and are then promptly sent up to bed without even meeting their cousin, Georgina—who they are roundly told prefers to be called, simply, George, because she “hates being a girl.” Next morning, the four children get off to rather a bad start, but before long they are on excellent terms, and George has even promised to take Julian, Dick and Anne out to visit her private island.

Five on a Treasure Island
The Famous Five set off together!
How well I remember all of this! How well I recall the admiration I felt for George’s outspoken tomboy antics, and the exhilaration I experienced at the very idea that a child of only eleven—although, from my then-perspective, eleven seemed terribly grown up—might actually own property that was not found on a Monopoly board. George owned an island! And her cousin Julian kept buying everyone ice-creams! Also, there was a shipwreck, and mention of a missing treasure, and… wait, the title of the book was Five on a TREASURE Island! Could it be any more exciting?

Needless to say, by book’s end, the Five have not only found the treasure but foiled a plot to steal it by three slick opportunists who, for some reason never sufficiently explained, were convinced that there was gold on that thar’ island. The treasure’s discovery lifted a shadow from George’s cantankerous scientist father, Uncle Quentin, who became a different man because: “They were rich now—George could go to a good school—and his wife could have the things he had so much wanted her to have—and he would be able to go on with the work he loved without feeling that he was not earning enough to keep his family in comfort.” I read this recently and thought: dude, being on minimum wage is no excuse for being a douche. But as a kid, the idea that George had been able to heal her father’s tortured soul with her courage and her cunning—and her cousins—was weirdly inspirational, and I mean to cast no aspersions on my own father in saying so. Though I’m sure he, too, wouldn’t have minded it if I had come home one day with a fortune in Spanish gold instead of, say, a pen holder made out of popsicle sticks. (Sorry, Dad!)

The further adventures of the Five weren’t always quite so thrilling as that first one. Sure, we were treated to: the time they rescued the kidnapped little girl (Five Run Away Together [1940]); the time they rescued the kidnapped Uncle Quentin (Five Go to Smuggler’s Top [1945]); and the time they rescued the kidnapped Dick (Five Get into Trouble [1949]). But we also had to endure the tedium of, for example, Five on Finniston Farm, which not only featured the most annoying, entitled little brat this side of Dudley Dursley, but also read like a clip show of every previous Five outing, taking plot elements (if we’re being kind enough as to call them such) and dressing them up in unconvincing disguises, in the hopes that no one would notice they were the same actors playing only slightly different parts.

Five Run Away Together by Enid Blyton
Even running away is an adventure when done properly.
Of course, a tendency toward repetition is only one of the many complaints lodged against the writing of Enid Blyton in this sophisticated age. She’s been called racist, sexist, xenophobic and uppity. Her language: limited. Her stories: simplistic. Her ideals: very, very suspect. And, look, I get it. I can see where her constant inveighing against “gypsies” and “foreigners” might be considered deplorable; where her insistence that all girls who don’t like to wear dresses must necessarily be transgendered could be seen as reprehensible; and where her belief in the upright purity of middle-class Britons could be thought jingoistic and naïve. I certainly concede that frequent exclamations like “Rather!” and “Bother!” do tend to get tiresome, that she recycles storylines with abandon, and that occasionally it would be nice for those four kids and their dog to take a relaxing holiday that didn’t involve smuggling, abduction or some other form of criminal enterprise for them to investigate.

But for all the superior latter-day moralizing about both their form and content, The Famous Five books have never been out of print in nearly seventy years. Also, their stories have frequently been filmed, and there are additional books published about them in both German and French, as kind of licensed, multilingual fanfiction. In 2008, a follow-up animated series—and associated books—entitled Famous Five: On the Case documented the adventures of the original Five’s children (and their dog), and even now Famous Five books sell upwards of 2 million copies a year. So I’m not the only one able to forgive them their blatant plot devicing and the bizarre levels of freedom accorded to a group of pre-teens. (Allowed to head off hiking, camping and boating all alone, without even a vestige of supervision? No wonder these books are still so popular with children, in this age of helicopter parents.) I can’t speak for anyone else, but I forgive them all their flaws because the Five are to me like old friends: George, the firebrand, loyal and brave; Julian, the peacemaker, calm and rational; Dick, the thinker, analytical and quick-witted; and Anne, the… well, she’s good at making sandwiches. They, along with the Lassie-smart Timmy, took the junior me along with them in rollicking adventures right out of another time, and I really believe that it is due to their painstaking investigations into sundry happened-upon misdeeds that I am, even to this day, an aficionado of the “Kids Solving Crimes”-style of storytelling. (Well, them and the gang from Scooby-Doo.)

So, hey, Blyton haters! Shut up.

Oh, and by the way: I’ve had Oreos now. Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, too. I’ve been to the Gap, and feasted on Lucky Charms, and I still think we children of the Commonwealth had the better deal, because Enid Blyton’s eclectic bibliography nourished my love of literature, whereas Oreos would probably only have nourished my burgeoning insulin resistance. (The worst dietary excesses of Blyton kids were ice cream, bread with jam, ginger beer and something called a blancmange.) So, I am content with my lot in life, and no longer repine over the fact that I wasn’t raised in a land in which one might have routinely been served candy at the breakfast table. Because I got to OD on Blyton’s very special brand of candy for the brain, instead. And, yes, it was magically delicious.


Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

Comments

  1. Chuk

    I’m in Canada and loved Enid Blyton as a kid, although I was always more of a fan of the Four and their “___ of Adventure” books. I can still sing the Famous Five TV show theme song (well, most of it anyway) too.

    (And it’s just Dr Pepper, no ‘.’ after the ‘Dr’.)

  2. Christopher Morgan

    You know I never came across this series in my school library. Now Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children, and Hank the Cowdog I simply devoured.

  3. Catherine

    That would have been “lashings of ginger beer” no?

    Oh yes, I too was an Enid Blyton fan as a kid. I remember that I received nothing but her books as gifts for my 8th birthday and that it was on her oeuvre that I transitioned to reading independently and “inside my head”. All that englishness clashed with my late ’70s Irish upbringing but I was completely sold on the unsupervised kid concept. Indeed, the Scooby-doo gang seem to be quite akin to her characters.

    My favorites were the 5-find-outers and the X of Adventure series although being quite a girly girl I was also a big fan of the bording school series (Mallory Towers and St. Clares).

    The thing that still makes me laugh is that I discovered that my husband, who never read any of her work, but heavily influenced by the rather peculiar font used for her name on book covers, thought that her name was pronounced G(hard G)nid Blitton.

  4. Laura K. Curtis

    Loved the Five! So much. I feel sorry for any child who doesn’t experience at least one of Blyton’s adventures.

  5. Rachel Hyland

    @ [b]Chuk[/b]

    “We are the Famous Five! Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the do-o-o-og…” Unforgettable, isn’t it? And, really, Dr. without the .? Who — aside, clearly, from you — knew?

    @ [b]cmorgan[/b]

    The Boxcar Children! Oh, yes. The Hardy Boys, not so much, and Hank the Cowdog I had never heard of until just now. He looks fun!

    @ [b]Skinnyplum[/b]

    “Lashings of ginger beer”, indeed! And for anyone not familiar with the source of that particular catchphrase, check this out: [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_TiqoEw4sQ]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_TiqoEw4sQ[/url]

    Gnid Blyton. Love it!

    @ [b]LauraKCurtis[/b]

    It truly is a sad state of affairs. Happily, Blyton has become somewhat better known it the US over the past decade or so, due to the success of the assorted Noddy TV shows. Yet Noddy was probably the least accomplished of all her series, not to mention being in many ways the most objectionable, PC-wise. Weird, huh?

  6. mantelli

    Most of these were readily available in the US in the 50s and 60’s, and I read them, along with a lot more British kidlit. Don’t discount the varietyof books available even then in our public libraries. My library card gave me the key to that world, and I’ll bet Blyton had even more US readers than Australian ones.

  7. Rachel Hyland

    @ [b]mantelli[/b]

    Perhaps it’s simply a case of her having fallen out of fashion over there, then, because I have spoken to (an admittedly random sample) of quite literally hundreds of Americans on this topic over the years, most of whom would have been in the key Blyton demographic throughout the 70’s and 80’s, and none knew of her. I also lived in the States for a while, and couldn’t find any of her works in the public libraries I searched. I guess what I was really saying, though, is that Blyton books were an inescapable part of a Commonwealth childhood, and I don’t believe that to have been so in the US. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe you had Blyton AND Lucky Charms. Man, life is unfair…

  8. Laura K. Curtis

    Well, on the other side of the coin, although I was a frequent visitor to our library, Blyton was never suggested to me by any US librarian. Instead, my cherished copies of her work are UK copies brought over by a friend of the family.

  9. Ritu Shastri

    I loved all Enid Blyton books growing up in India. I read every one of the books that became available. Every little pocket money that I could scrape went in buying a new Enid Blyton title! Every book was magical and I could not put the book down until it was not finished. I formed my own secret groups to solve mysteries in my community – alas nothing happenned in my boring surroundings – other than someone stealing a milk bottle. But still we had fun, having a secret password, meeting places, planning what we would do in case there was a mystery to solve. I was amazed to find when I came to US, that the kids here were not exposed to Enid Blyton.

  10. Rachel Hyland

    @ [b]Laura[/b] and [b]Ritu[/b]

    Now, see, that’s what I thought! Thank you. And Ritu: I also had a secret mystery solving club as a child, although mine was mostly populated by Barbies and our biggest case involved the whereabouts of a chocolate egg I had been saving since Easter. (Hint: I have a younger brother. Case closed.) Did you ever solve the Mystery of the Missing Milk Bottle?

  11. Nancy

    I read as many Enid Blyton books as our North Carolina library stocked, and I know those well-read copies of The Circus of Adventure, etc. stoked my early desire to go to England and have jolly times and drink ginger beer. When I finally started traveling overseas in my 20s, I was both delighted and despondent to discover at least 400 additional Blyton books I hadn’t read and was now too old to enjoy with the same youthful thrill.

  12. Maeve

    Really enjoyed this post. Have been on a bit of a Blyton nostalgia buzz lately after I noticed my young nephew reading the Famous Five. The new book covers are a bit of an eye opener though – I never used to think the Five were ‘cool’ before.

  13. Beth Talmage

    I read the Five books in California in the 70’s, and what I remember loving especially was the way Timmy was included as one of the group. Now that I’m nearing 50 (gasp) and have 5 beloved dogs, it makes me smile to think about the girl I was and the books I read, and wonder whether they shaped me or revealed me to myself or a bit of both.

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