My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As ever with me and Enid Blyton, the idea of ‘rating’ one of her books is something quite different than rating another. So four stars, yes, definitely, but they are four Blyton-shaped stars and thus of a very different ilk to those that I would give something else.
This book is odd. So odd. Delightful, too, and vividly poignant at others with its depiction of an English countryside that does not exist any more, but it is that oddness that sticks with me. I never quite had Enid Blyton down as the person who would teach me about the hibernation habits of snails, but she has and now I know, so I must recast my opinion of this woman of a thousand authorial faces. And I think, perhaps, that this will always be my difficulty with Blyton. I cant, quite, find her somehow. I can figure out what makes a text Blytonesque through comparing that text with another, I can figure out what her characters like by comparing them with one another, but I can very rarely put my finger on Blyton herself. Even her intensely surreal autobiography doesn’t really reveal who she is. There is such artifice about how she holds herself in her work that sometimes, I think, the artifice reveals more than it may have been intended to reveal.
Consider the title. Even there, with it being “Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s book”, it’s throwing out this idea of a herd of nature lovers who belong to Enid Blyton. That this author has transcended her space in literature so much that her name itself can act as a sort of literary imperialism? That’s fascinating. Unnerving, too, but also deeply and wildly fascinating.
And so to the book itself. It’s split into a series of chapters which firstly cover two walks a month taken by a group of children and their next door neighbour. Following this we have some ‘poems of the open air’, some ‘interesting things to do’ and then a list of slightly accusatory ‘do you know these flowers / birds / poems / trees?’ followed by a group of stories about various other nature related things. It is a beast of a book, really, that covers a lot of ground.
The chapters dealing with the walks are perhaps the most interesting despite their eventual repetition. The book opens in January and in the house of John, Janet and Pat. The three children are bored until the next door neighbour – Mr Meredith, soon to be known as Uncle Merry – offers to take them out for a walk. This, naturally, is the best thing ever and Changes Their Lives For The Better. Each month, the children and Uncle Merry go out for two walks and discover everything going in the countryside. It’s mildly hysterical at points – they pretty much take five steps and discover 200 species of plant, 20001 trees and a spider that nobody’s ever seen before. Everything is sporting and lovely and blows everybody’s minds and that’s pretty much it for a hundred or so pages.
What is striking, however, is that when you read this sequentially (and I suspect it wasn’t intended to be – there’s something about that structure that doesn’t sing out for a linear read), you can pick up on some tense character development and a distinct tension between Uncle Merry and Janet. John, her brother, is sporting and has a good eye for spotting things. Pat is pretty much the comic relief. Janet, though, she starts by saying how much she hates wildlife – to which: “How silly of you!” said Mr Meredith.
There’s bracing, and then there’s bracing. In June, Janet is scared of a bat: “Janet, I shall slap you!” said Uncle Merry impatiently. “A bat can’t hurt you! I shall send you home if you behave like this!”. In June, later, she gets told off: “How Janet loves to squeal!” (Her squeal, at this point, is due to Pat saying that there’s a snake near her – fairly squeal worthy, I feel). In July, she is complimented for not squealing or jumping when bats and moths fly around her in the dark. Whilst this isn’t the most precise analysis I’ve ever done and there’s a natural proviso about acknowledging the cultural context this was being written in, there’s something there for me in this journey of Janet’s; this blanket ‘stop being a bit rubbish’ attitude which is quite aggressively framed towards her. At one point, Janet even supposes at one point that her nervousness is just “a habit she’s got into”. It’s not a habit that any of the boys have gotten into. (FREE JANET).
So – complex gendering of characters and random physical violence aside, this book does remain oddly appealing. (And if that’s not a sentence I could write about a ton of Enid Blyton, I don’t know what is). It’s a book full of vivid little inked drawings of everything the children find and every now and then, there are some full colour plates which are heavenly. Rich and very much of the period, and sort of quite lovely with it. The endpapers too are gorgeous; green and white illustrations of the walks. The children are in suitable sensible gear, everyone is smiling and skipping and they’re surrounded by squirrels and hares and rabbits and birds – it’s a sort of pastoral scene ramped up to factor twelve.
TL:DR-> Bonkers, problematic, but lovely. As ever.