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Book Reviews

Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton

Polly Piglet

Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


“And what did you do when you finished reading Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton?”

“Well, my imaginary friend who has been invented to help me make a rhetorical point on the internet, I screamed. And then I screamed some more and a little more and a little more because what the actual hell is this book”

“I mean, that’s a reaction.”

“I KNOW RIGHT”

“I’m not sure what else I’m meant to say here”

“Perhaps you could give me a prompt in order to explore this book further?”

“Ah okay. SO COULD YOU EXPLORE THIS BOOK FURTHER?”

“Indeed I could, my rhetorical friend! I bought it because I had never heard of Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton. I knew she had a propensity for this sort of jazz, but I never knew that it could be so blunt and so – awfully – amazing.”

“I feel you’re skirting around the point a little.”

“POLLY PIGLET HAS NO CLOTHES AND NO FRIENDS, EVERYONE HATES HER UNTIL SHE STEALS SOME CLOTHES OFF THE WASHING LINE, AND THEN SHE GETS PICKED UP BY MISTER PERCY PIG, AND THEN SHE MAGICALLY HAS NINE PIGLETS, GROWS OUT OF HER CLOTHES AND IS LEFT JUST WITH A RIBBON, BUT SHE’S NOT LONELY NOW HURRAH”

“…”

“…”

“I think that’s an ambitious hurrah.”

“THE MOST AMBITIOUS HURRAH OF ALL OF THE HURRAHS THAT HAVE EVER BEEN HURRAHED”

“Can you stop shouting?”

“I’M NOT SHOUTING, THIS IS JUST FOR RHETORICAL EFFECT.”

“…”

“I AM EMPHASIZING THE UTTER LUNACY OF THIS BOOK.”

“…”

” ‘YOU STILL LOOK LOVELY TO ME, THOUGH NOW YOU ONLY WEAR YOUR SKIN’ SAID PERCY PIG”

“…”

“…”

“WHAT???”

“exactly.”




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Book Reviews

Mischief at St Rollo’s by Enid Blyton

Mischief at St Rollo's by Enid Blyton front cover

Mischief at St Rollo’s by Enid Blyton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mischief at St Rollo’s is never going to change the world. It’s a typically Blytonian school story; new kids go to a school, thing happen, shenanigans, shenanigans, end of term, I can’t wait to go back! It’s not high literature nor is it quite the same as some of her better work in the Malory Towers books, for example. But what Mischief At St Rollo’s is so fiercely utterly readable that sometimes I can’t quite believe how Enid Blyton manages it.

Let me explain a little what I mean by that. Readability is, I think, something Blyton excels at. She is confident, brisk and blunt in her writing. She never uses two words when one will do. She hits her beats, she gives the briefest of characterisation to her characters, and she gets out of Dodge before they even know she’s there. The first page, for example, is brilliant. We are introduced to Micheal and Janet. They don’t want to go to boarding school (does anybody ever in Blyton land?), but their parents are being nice and sending them to a mixed school so they can stay together. Micheal and Janet decide to make the new school sit up a bit. And that’s all done in half a page. Literally half a page. And that’s Blyton, she goes straight for the narrative jugular and doesn’t care less. We know nothing about the room they’re in, what they look like or where they live; we know the important things: school, school, school. And when we’re there, it’s equally brisk. Everything is fine, everything is great, everything is not great! everything is sorted. Hurrah! See you next term!

I mean, it’s awful on one level but it’s brilliant on another. These are books that will make readers out of even the most reluctant individual – even if they don’t want it. There’s no choice and honestly? I rather love how brazen it all is. Enid gets the job done. And woe betide anybody who stands against her.



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Everything else

Malory Towers, Wise Children, and adapting Enid Blyton

“It’s quite the thing,” said my father to somebody on the phone, “There’s an attempted drowning.”

He was talking about Malory Towers by Wise Children, a play I’d taken my parents to see earlier in the week. The appendix incident doesn’t actually appear; problematic as it is to keep painting your heroine as some sort of violent warrior princess type, but other incidents of this sort do. One, not carried out by Darrell, is invented for the stage and remarkable in its blunt ferocity. It was, as I realised later, a particularly Blytonian thing to do.

First Term At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton cover
“the one with the attempted drowning”

The thing about adaptation is that you adapt. It’s a tautological sentiment I know, but it’s one that I keep coming back to. Emma Rice takes much of her action from First Term At Malory Towers (1946) but embraces incidents from across the series and characters who arrive much later in the books arrive within minutes. But there is only an hour and forty minutes to play with, plus a quite delightful interval; only so much can happen and Rice’s intent is clear. This is a story not of singular female strength but collective. Girl power. Family. Sisters. Support. It’s an interesting angle to take in a series that is so moralistic and convinced of its own righteousness that sometimes it forgets quite what that righteousness is. I think here, in particular, of Amanda Chartelow – a character who drove the vast amount of the Malory Towers themed article I just sent off to a journal. She is celebrated and censured in equal manner, an early rebel-girl in a world where rebellion was not easily nor comfortably allowed.

The Wise Children production is remarkable in many senses not only in the fact that it exists and that it allows these moments of independence, but also in how it speaks to an intensely wide audience. The liberties that Rice takes with the source texts, the elasticity she finds in it and exploits is well deserved and well used. Certain characters are provided with a roundness that Blyton was not able to find at the time, and certain characters are given a softness, a truth, that Blyton perhaps could not see. But then again, perhaps this is the privilege of hindsight and the liberty of being where we are in the world as women, third, fourth, post-feminist wave riders that we are.

The girls are all new to the school in the play, save one, and there’s a moment of pure delight when those familiar uniforms appear on stage. It’s confidently done – there’s a little moment of stage-craft right at the beginning of the play that was pure brilliance – and the actors eat the roles up. Francesca Mills who played ‘sensible, stolid’ Sally Hope was a particular delight, managing to bring the righteousness of Sally to the fore whilst always, subtly, managing to play with that. Sally is a little bit, how to say, dull in the books. Here she’s the exact opposite and yet, somehow, intensely true to life.

Truth, again, is something I keep coming back to. For Kierkegaard, subjectivity was truth and I think it’s a relevant thing to remember at this point. Enid Blyton is a fought-over author and ‘true’ readings of her work are difficult to find, subsumed as they in the discourse about her. Many of these fights are legitimate, earned, valuable things and I do not discount the necessity of them nor do I discount the relevance of them. I think it’s a privilege to live in a time where we have the ability to both have and vocalise those discussions and they are important discussions to have. I also think it’s important to question why many of those discussions happen solely about Enid Blyton and to, perhaps wonder, if some of that centring is because she is a woman writing children’s fiction. To paraphrase Taylor Swift’s The Man: were she a man, then she’d be the man.

(Kierkegaard, Taylor Swift and Enid Blyton! What a Friday!).

Malory Towers is on tour until 5th October 2019, and here’s the remaining tour dates.

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Book Reviews

New Class At Malory Towers

Malory Towers: New Class at Malory Towers by Rebecca Westcott, Patrice Lawrence, Narinder Dhami and Lucy Mangan, front cover.

Malory Towers: New Class at Malory Towers: Four brand-new Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Malory Towers is having a moment. The past couple of years have seen theatre adaptations, news of the rights being sold to the BBC, and the publication of this: four new Malory Towers stories from Patrice Lawrence, Narinder Dhami, Rebecca Westcott and Lucy Mangan. It’s worthwhile pointing out now that I come to these stories from a very particular place. I have written about Malory Towers academically. I’m working on an article about it now. I’m not really, I think, the target age group for this volume. That honour goes to new readers, fresh to the series, looking for a way in. It’s very much for the new reader. Not the old one who goes ‘does this volume edit out Darrell lamping everyone in sight or does it keep it in’.

For my tastes, this volume could have done with a little more curation. A little foreword before each story would have been nice; something just to set the scene and tell the reader where they are. The Malory Towers saga is big – and that’s even when you just consider the original texts. If you consider the bind-ups, Pamela Cox’s sequels, the general mythologies about the series, let alone the mythology about Blyton herself, you have a lot to deal with. And I can feel where these stories are going; they want readers to find their space at Malory Towers. They want readers to be part of that, and I love it, but I’d have liked a little more curation.

Having said that, however, some of the stories are excellent. They’re all very good, because I don’t think you get away with not being good in a volume when there are only four authors to begin with. There’s nowhere to hide, and all of the authors set out their stall delightfully. Lucy Mangan is very on brand with her bookish tale, and I very much want Patrice Lawrence to write something longer. Her opener about new girl Marietta strains at the edges of its word count; there’s the promise of something rather brilliant here and I’d love Lawrence to come back to the school story genre at some point. I also had a lot of time for Narinder Dhami’s funny and lively story of new girl Sunita Sharma and Gwendoline’s mistaken identity. Talking of Gwendoline, Rebecca Westcott is unusual and welcome in how she seeks to give Gwen some depth as opposed to making her the punchline. There’s a lot in Westcott’s story to love, though the conclusion didn’t quite work for me.

I think the ‘new girl’ premise stumbles a little the more you go through this volume, though each author is strong enough to make it work for themselves. There is, however, a little note of repetition to certain elements and a slight sense of everybody hitting the same beats. It’s important to note however that Blyton loved this sort of thing and embraced it at every chance she got. It’s also important to note that the school story genre adores these sort of rhythms and so this is very much on point. Now, if I can have that Patrice Lawrence boarding school story?



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The Children At Green Meadows : Enid Blyton

The Children At Green MeadowsThe Children At Green Meadows by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes Enid Blyton could be rather brilliant. I picked this up in a second hand bookshop the other day as a treat to myself. I had a vague memory of the title and, what’s more, I had the odd ache for something simple and rich; a Blyton of the most Blytonian sort, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the morals are bluntly rendered and the world is forever sunlit. The Children At Green Meadows delivered all that and more. It is a delight, and it kind of put me back together a little bit.

The family at Green Meadows is having difficulties. Granny refuses to sell their ancestral home, and Father is invalided, which means that Mother is having to keep everything going. Things change though when a new block of flats opens nearby and the inhabitants realise that they can’t keep pets there. These pets, inevitably, find their way to Green Meadows and everything spirals from that point. It’s a book of wish fulfillment and sudden, sharp emotion (particularly in the subplot of Father who has been invalided after an act of mysterious Great Bravery).

Sometimes Blyton could be rather brilliant, and she is very much that here. The story bowls on in a gloriously rich and blithe sort of manner; everything and everyone is lovely, and even though horrible things may happen, lovely things subsequently happen, and she gets that desperate urge for a dog, so much that you may even come to imagine that faithful companion. There’s some blunt moralising, as there is with much of Blyton’s work, but here it’s a justified bluntness and I rather appreciated the point that she makes. This is lovely, and it’s a perfect introduction to Blyton and, indeed, reading itself. I often talk about how Blyton is furiously readable and this is the perfect example of it. There’s not one inch of The Children At Green Meadows that feels flabby.

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Five Fall Into Adventure : Enid Blyton

Five Fall into Adventure (Famous Five, #9)Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a little part in this where Julian, after detailing the current predicament that the Famous Five have gotten themselves into, remarks, “…This is all very stupid and melodramatic” and it’s kind of the highlight of the entire book for me. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall, a moment where Blyton throws all of her stubborn fire at the critics and goes ‘well, yes, it is kind of melodramatic but it’s what happened and besides I’m writing this and not you’ and I love it. The Famous Five are such iconic figures, even to those who maybe have never read any of the original books, that Julian’s wry little comment sings of wall-breaking and authorial intervention, and it’s great. Give me more of this Blyton, more of this author and her stubbornly determined narratives that barely pause for breath.

The ninth of her Famous Five adventures, this is a fairly standard sort of affair. Something happens, something else happens, somebody pops up, shenanigans, shenanigans, everything’s fine and we’re back at home in time for tea. And oh the food in this book! It’s great, and a reminder of Blyton’s childish eye for detail. Note that I don’t use childish in the pejorative manner, but rather as a recognition of Blyton’s eye for perspective. She got children. She understood them. And, for a book first published in the 1950s, she knew what made them tick. Food. Fun. Friends.

This isn’t high literature, and that’s a debate that, in a way, I’m bored of when it comes to Blyton. What I find interesting and exciting about her work is how it is so fiercely determined to make sure the reader has a good time. These are books that will be read even when the reader isn’t sure that they want to do such a thing and they’re still remarkably accessible even to present-day readers, what with her use of syntax and bluntly direct prose. It’s not pretty, but it is remarkable and so very, very, brilliantly readable. I suspect that it’s long past time to bring Blyton in out of the cold, and let her be remarked upon as one of the canonical lights of children’s literature.

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Conversations with dead authors : Enid Blyton

 

  1. Enid Blyton

“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”

She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.

“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”

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How famous were the Famous Five?

My thanks to Nikesh Shukla for the tweet that unknowingly prompted this pleasant and super nerdly distraction from my thesis …

  • The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog. humans and dog. For the purposes of this post, we’ll discount Timmy (as much as it pains me) and thus work with individuals.
  • With their respectively privileged circumstances, let’s say everyone has a fairly high life expectancy where they all hit seventy eight or so and thus meet approximately 80,000 people each.
  • (There are other numbers around, but this is based on each of them interacting with 3 new people a day. Which is a big and ambitious number, but I imagine, something that socially thrusting and somewhat irritating Blytonian characters are more than capable of. “Here’s your paper Miss.” “DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THAT TIME ON KIRRIN ISLAND?”)
  • 80,000 people x 4 gobby souls =  320,000 individuals met in total. 
  • The books were published between 1942 and 1962.
  • UK’s population in 1942 = 48 million (ish)
  • UK’s population in 1962 = 55 million (ish)
  • So let’s, roughly, say an average population of 52 million (yes, roughly, I know, shut up, this is the most maths I’ve done in years…).
  • And that through their life the Famous Five meet approximately 320,000 people
  • We can therefore conclude that the Famous Five are Famous for almost 1% of the population of the UK.
  • So not very famous.
  • Ta-dah.

 

(Thank you to the lovely @yayeahyeah for helping me check my maths! I am no mathematician … can you tell?!)

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Everything else Girlsown

Happy birthday Enid Blyton!

Enid Blyton was born on this day in 1897. Happy birthday Enid!

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by Blyton the more I’ve worked on the second chapter of my thesis. I’m considering the changing relationship of children’s literature with landscape; the Arcadian idyll of the Victorian period shifting through to the movements of the post-war period where boundaries were able to be transgressed and challenged … and Enid forms a big part of this discussion.

The more I’ve worked on Malory Towers and St Clare’s, the more I’ve become convinced that Blyton’s texts work in a unique liminality; they talk back to the patriarchal dominance of the age but also, quite subversively, present alternative modes of female existence. Choice, really. And that’s quite the thing to find in an author who is, so often, read as a bastion of gendered problematics. I’m not denying the existence of these problematics but rather asking us to read beyond them in a way…

So happy birthday Enid and, in a slightly Pythonesque manner, here’s a list of facts and other things …

  • Enid Blyton is the fourth most translated author in the world. The three authors above her? Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare. (Unesco, 2015).
  • Enid Blyton had 762 books published. Just. Let. That. Sink. In.
  • I suspect popular children’s fiction would be in a very different state today were it not for Blyton. You know those Daisy Meadows books? And similar? Consider what they’d be without the nature of Blyton and the way she showed the voracious appetites of what readers could be….
  • She gave us the Malory Towers swimming pool. Still possibly the best swimming pool in the entirety of children’s fiction. And yes, this is niche, but I’m willing to argue at length about this.
  • The house she once lived in is fabulously surreal.
  • She wrote the weirdest, cagiest, and possibly best author autobiography I’ve ever read.
  • She gave us Anne; one of the most complex and misunderstood female characters ever.
  • She practically defined the idea of ferociously readable writing. Yes, this may have come at the expense of a myriad of other factors, but the woman could write. I don’t think I know of a more determined writer.
  • She wrote some of the most definitive school stories out there. The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books are woefully undercritiqued and yet, there they are, immensely and perpetually popular and also subtly promoting a whole host of diverse representations of girlhood.
  • Ginger beer. Never had some. Not sure I want to, because I think it might ruin the mystique…

 

So here’s to you Enid, and your crazy, readable ways. You’re not the most run of the mill person, nor are you infallible, and I’m fairly sure I will never write a sentence about you that doesn’t involve the word ‘complicated’, but I am very sure that you are unique. Happy birthday!

Works cited:-

UNESCO (2015) Index Translationum : Top 50 Most Translated Authors http://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsstatexp.aspx?crit1L=5&nTyp=min&topN=50 [accessed 06/07/2015]

 

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Theory

A spectrum of choice : Girlhood and Enid Blyton

“Shall I tell you what I want? What I really really want?

I really really really want to see a recognition of the diverse modes of femininity and girlhood presented in Enid Blyton’s school stories zig a zig aah.”

Whilst I’m conscious that these aren’t the exact lyrics for the Spice Girls classic, I want you to imagine that for a second they are. Wait. No. I’m a step too far ahead already. Let’s go back. Twist the sky and push the sun down over the horizon, let the night fall, let’s go back.

Let’s start here; and with Anne and George and Dick and Julian and Timmy. The Famous Five. I’d hazard there’s not many of us who haven’t met them, whether through the series itself or through the cultural shorthand that Blyton has come to represent. Racism. Sexism. Outmoded sterotype-ism. Slightly rubbish writing every now and then-ism. We know Enid Blyton, even when we don’t. She’s cultural shorthand; an icon wrapped up in sensible shoes and fanciful stories about blackbirds and some chap with a saucepan on his head. She’s part of our world.

Yet, equally, she isn’t. We know a construct of Blyton. We know an idea of her, a shape to be filled in with our concerns and our needs and our fears. It’s the same for every public body, maybe, they become a politicised space that can be written over with our needs. We don’t know Benedict Cumberbatch, but we do. We know and unknow. The paradox of knowing. The paradox of knowing that you don’t know. The paradox of increasingly complicated sentences!

So let’s go back to the simple points, to Anne, to George, and the way they are both girls and not girls, the way that they are shorthand for all that is bad and good for Blyton, all that they are and were boiled down to this – simple – dynamic.

And I am the first to find Anne complex, challenging, but she exists with George; not opposed, not the other, but rather an other. Girlhood is a spectrum; not all girls this, not all girls that – , this girl is – . Not these girls are. Not all girls are. Boil this down to pink and flowers, I dare you – girls are more, beyond that, they are not one word nor one action, and they exist, co-exist, share space in the world –

they do not cancel each other’s space. Not one for the other, but rather both as an expression of girlhood, neither as the distinct representation thereof –

Anne thrives in the domestic, the control – the limited expression of power, perhaps, because that is all she can control within that environment? The domestic space; not a subspace, not a second space, but rather space; Anne’s space –

George, the girl of action, the girl in the wide, wide world, the girl who adopts masculinised vestments and behaviours because , perhaps, she cannot exist in that wide wide world without doing so? A Cesario in the world –

Simplistic readings, perhaps – but contrarily simplistic. Deliberately so. Blunt, hardheaded readings because I rail.

I rail against readings that reinforce ideologies, that deny the shifting nature of critique and selfhood, that deny these texts relevance, that belie them –

Girls as girls as girls. A thousand figures of girlhood stretch themselves against Blyton’s canon; girls that yearn for the domestic, girls that would rather die than touch it, girls that embrace careers, girls that embrace maternity, girls that embrace a spectrum of potential – a spectrum of choice

I choose to read Blyton like this, I choose compexity, I choose, I choose –

 

Further reading

Empowering girls? The portrayal of Anne and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series

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Book Reviews

Last Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

Last Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #6)Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s maybe three or four books locked up in this finale to the Malory Towers series, three or four other stories waiting to be told in this tale of pace and speed and so important moments are lost in chapters, and characters are written in and out with that characteristic Blyton panache. This book is so much bigger than what it is and so, it is both disappointing and perfect.

Blyton is a writer who is determined that you shall have a good time. In writing about this before, I have described it as a ferocious readability. She is so very determined to have speed and pace and addiction that sometimes the finer points of her writing go aside. This isn’t a space for high literature or post-modern musings on life, but it does not mean that Last Term At Malory Towers is not full of something rather delicious and rather wonderful. This series is perhaps Blyton at her best; ferocious, stark, fearless, and to truly understand that, it’s vital to place these books within a context. They are school stories; a genre defined by rules and limitations, and yet each and every story of this series involves girls questioning and challenging those rules. Very subtly, Blyton is teaching the value of independence and the option of alternative options of womanhood. Nurse, mother, riding school owner, writer. Be what you should be, not what you have to be.

And Last Term at Malory Towers doesn’t skimp from that. Blyton is unstinting and swift in her justice; she is severe, sharp, but always understandable . That person has done wrong so they must be punished. This person has done right so they will get a positive outcome. It’s blunt, unsparing, but it is the ideology that marks Blyton’s work.

I’m always reminded with Blyton of another quote I’ve come across in my research: “If a whole age appears critically naive and subliterary in its tastes when judged against a later standard, then the standard, not the age is called into question” (From The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction fact fans). That’s Blyton, right there. Question the standard and distinguish that standard. Don’t deny the great achievement that these books were in their time. And, I suppose, don’t deny that these books with their defiant air of completion and satisfactory plot resolutions, don’t mean anything. Last Term at Malory Towers is a complex, frustrating, wonderful, moving, challenging and ferociously readable book. In a way, it couldn’t ever be anything but.

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First Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #1)First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so my Blyton marathon reaches another great classic, her series of school stories set at the deliciously described Malory Towers. It’s a school set nebulously on the Cornish coast somewhere, but the detail is what makes this school sing. Turrets. Towers. A swimming pool that’s crisp and refreshing on the hottest of days. A central court with a sunken theatre, roses, and Arcadia found. It’s Darrell Rivers’ first term and, as is the way with the school story, we follow her on her journey into acclimatising into her brave new world. It is an acclimatisation full of pitfalls, of temper, and of high-jinks and of friendship, surprisingly, enduringly formed. It is lovely.

Malory Towers is so, so good. Blyton can write, she writes with what I can only describe as a ferocious readability. There’s not much artifice here, no narrative dodging or sleight of hand. This is story, handed out wholesale, and it’s great. Blyton can write and she can give story, and she will give you story whether you want it or not. There’s something quite brilliant about her when she gets like this. It’s unafraid, unabashed, unrelenting storytelling that’s equally terrifying and equally addictive.

It’s worth nothing that, in the edition I read, the slapping incident between one pupil and another now involves shaking, though the attempted drowning beforehand remains curiously intact and unedited. I’m struck, really, about the tone of editing here. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong decision to this incident, but I’m conscious really of how I read the original incident when I was a child. It was so dramatic to me, so gobsmackingly awe-inducing, precisely because of the slapping. And whilst I’m so very conscious of that, I’m equally conscious of the necessity to understand the needs of current readers and different sensibilities. A quandary. What would you do with the relevant incident? I’m not sure it’s a call I can easily make.

But enough of editing and of nerdly niggles, and back to this wonderful book. It’s epochal, really, because it does what it does with such genuine aplomb. There’s almost too much to enjoy. Everything and everyone feels rooted, real. This is storytelling, pure and simple, and because Blyton is so determined to make this work, she does. There’s such latent power in literature like this.

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Enid Blyton, St Clare’s and ferocious readability

I finished my St Clare’s reread last night. I’ve been reading these books as part of my research; they form one of the big aspects of my next chapter alongside the Malory Towers books.

It’s been a long time since I read St Clare’s. I had fond memories but bare ones, you know? The sort of memory where you know something is good, that it makes you happy, but you can’t quite remember the detail of what it is that makes you feel so positive about something. Sensible Hilary. Slapping Carlotta. Pat and Isabel. Claudine and that swimming pool incident.

And when I finished them last night, the end of a binge of six books in a row, I realised something. For all her foibles, for all intensely problematic her talking to goldfish and never quite giving Anne a chance, Enid Blyton could write. The St Clare’s series is possess of such a determined style that it’s quite breathtaking at points. These are ferociously readable books. These are books that have been written with an eye towards being read and towards being enjoyed. And the more they’re written, the better they get. I talked earlier this week about how I think The O’Sullivan Twins might be one of the best school stories out there, but I suspect Fifth Formers At St Clare’s might stand up there with it. There are some chapters in this novel, some intense twists of plot and circumstance that are flabberghastingly brilliant. I’m not going to spoil it here, but I’m sure those of you who know these books will have an inkling of the chapter I mean. It’s the midnight one ….

I was struck as well by the diverse manifestations of girlhood within these books. One can be sensible, brave, foolish, selfish, idiotic, whatever. Blyton is determined to allow these girls to be themselves and that’s something quite special. It’s not, perhaps, kind in how she does it for certain of the girls but again, that’s something quite remarkable in itself. She’s not afraid of giving a girl a bad end, or being unabashedly scolding of their attitude. It’s not subtle but again, it’s not wrong. Writing like this intrigues me; this distinct, and occasionally vicious authorial voice, that isn’t allowed to let her characters be idiots or ignorant or stupid. That’s quite a thing.

 

I suppose really, what I’m trying to say is that Blyton gets a bad rap. And it’s often very deservedly so; she is a complex, challenging and occasionally deeply frustrating author. But she is not a bad writer. She is smart, ferociously readable, and deeply intriguing. And these books, these school stories, when they’re good – they are brilliant. They are raw, determined brilliance. And that’s something worth acknowledging.

I’m off to Malory Towers next. Wish me mishaps in the swimming pool and midnight feasts!

Categories
Book Reviews

The O’Sullivan Twins : Enid Blyton

The O'Sullivan Twins (St. Clare's, #2)The O’Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to be deliberately provocative here and begin with the assertion that this might be one of the best school stories out there.

At first glance, this is a strange assertion to make: The O’Sullivan Twins is the second novel in a series, and it’s not often that the second in the series is the one that stands out above the rest. It’s usually the first, or the last, but those middle novels rarely get the praise. They’re caught, somehow, in a space of bridging from one part of the story to the next, and rarely get positioned as stories within their own rights as opposed to textual conjunctions.

And, yet, once we move past that question of position, of context, then we have to consider the book itself and even that proves somewhat complicated. There are new girls; one that’s a family relation of the O’Sullivan twins and almost too near to the ‘girls we’ve just met’ to be considered as a ‘girl we’re yet to know’; a Girl With A Past, a girl who is lovely, and there is an elaborate midnight feast involving the best possible moment involving sausages I have perhaps to read in this genre.

A ridiculous, wonderful amalgam, and it’s wonderful because Blyton makes it work. She writes this novel with a fixed determination upon enjoyment and pace and readability. A complex author, yes, but one who could write story when she wanted to and this is amongst her best. It’s well told, brilliant stuff, and it hits moments which are both deeply thrilling and rampantly moving, often in the same paragraph. Blyton could write, she could write well, and this is a book that makes you long to go to St Clare’s. It’s a book which presents femininity, girlhood, as a thing with a thousand different faces and there’s something rather exhilarating about reading it and recognising the permissive state of such a construct. Girls can be good, bad, complicated, nasty. These girls can and will be anything they want to be and Blyton will move heaven and earth to allow that happen.

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Book Reviews

Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book : Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton's Nature Lover's BookEnid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book by Enid Blyton

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.

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Book Reviews

The Sixth Form at St Clare’s : Pamela Cox

The Sixth Form at St. Clare's (St. Clare's, #9)The Sixth Form at St. Clare’s by Pamela Cox

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to my local charity shop, I recently picked up a batch of the Pamela Cox fill-in titles for both St Clare’s and Malory Towers and was a bit fascinated to see what I thought of them. I’d registered that they existed but had never, quite, wanted to read them. It’s hard to quantify why I didn’t but I think it had something to do with the whole fact that, well, Enid Blyton is so resolutely Enid Blyton that thought of somebody else trying to be Enid Blyton blew my mind a little bit.

And these books do feel like they are undercover Enid Blyton titles. There’s something interesting in how Cox’s name doesn’t appear on the front and instead we see that familiar signature of Blyton’s on the cover. It feels a little like these are packaged as Blyton books rather than, say, a book written in the St Clare’s series but by another author. And that’s interesting to me. Do we buy these books as St Clare’s books, or Blyton, or Cox? What sort of pre-reading do we come to these books with; these books that both fit and don’t fit into the Blyton school story canon?

The Sixth Form at St Clare’s is one of the books that I felt a greater affinity with and that was primarily because I was already acquainted with the characters. I already loved them, really. My reading of the Malory Towers fill-ins (they’re the story of Felicity Rivers and her journey through the school) have been substantially different in that I have had to let go of the fact that I want them to be about Darrell and Sally and Alicia. I want that story. And there’s a necessary reading process of grieving for that.

So here we are with Pat and Isobel, the don’t care O’Sullivan twins, and it’s all rather lovely. There were a few plot twists which felt far too modern and a little off-canon (I found the ‘coming to the sixth form with your problems’ plot, very problematic), and certain of the new girls didn’t quite gel with the context of the series as a whole.

But I did enjoy it. I enjoyed it because I’ve always wanted this story. I’ve always wanted to know what happened – and Cox is very good at delivering that. She knows her series and she knows the motifs of it so well, Mam’zelle Dupot and Mam’zelle Rougier, Miss Potts, midnight feasts, Miss Theobald being awesome (Carlotta being awesome…). It’s a lovely book. And I think the key for my enjoyment of it was to acknowledge what it wasn’t, and understanding why it wasn’t that, and then appreciating what it was.

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Everything else

Blyton. Bourne End. Birthday!

(Another phase of The Spectacularly Self-Indulgent Birthday Weekend!)

Enid Blyton is a thing of wonder. I’m sure we can all agree on this? And on Sunday I visited her old house. Old Thatch is located just outside of Bourne End, Bucks. There’s a nice part about it here and the official website here.

Guys, I have a confession. I think, at last, I get Enid Blyton.

The thing is, to understand Enid, you need to go all method. You need to be the Blyton. You need to look at moss on top of a wall and see mountains, you need to hold conversations with fish and know that their silence isn’t because they don’t understand you it’s because they’re being rude, and you need to be able to see the world in the curve of a flower stem.

Enjoy the pictures.

And Be The Blyton.

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Everything else

The Secret Life Of Anne

I’ve been reading a lot of Enid Blyton recently. From her gloriously mad autobiography through to the Famous Five, her mark on children’s literature remains arguably unsurpassed. And when I was on holiday in France recently, I was startled and then greatly pleased to see rows and rows of freshly issued Blyton books in the supermarkets.

I’ve been reading a lot of very excellent articles recently on the nature of women characters. Zoe Marriott is very interesting on the topic. In a post titled “REAL GIRLS, FAKE GIRLS, EVERYBODY HATES GIRLS”, she talks about the nature of female characters in children’s literature and the reaction to them in comparison to the male characters. It’s a heartfelt, passionate read and one worth dwelling on.

It seems to have been a bit of a week for passionate oratory. In “I hate strong female characters”, Sophia McDougall talks about how male characters such as Sherlock Holmes get to be  “brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

And all that leads me to think about Anne.

TVTropes defines her as The Chick and the official website refers to her as being “a little bit absent minded but loves to look after the other members of the Famous Five especially if it involves making them a delicious picnic!”.

Want to know the truth?

It’s all lies.

Categories
Book Reviews

The Story of My Life : Enid Blyton

The Story Of My LifeThe Story Of My Life by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book. This strange and terrifying and amazing book.

The first thing to say is that it sort of defies rating. The five stars I’ve given it reflect, mainly, the outstanding audacity of it. It is supremely constructed in order to reveal very little. It’s a tour-de-force in autobiographical artifice. Written in short, breezy chapters it talks about her house, her pets, “How do you write stories Enid Blyton?”, and everything she wants us to hear and nothing that she doesn’t.

It’s fascinatingly jaw-dropping at points. I had a slight breakdown on Twitter about it and still haven’t quite recovered. I think it all began at the chapter where she tamed the goldfish…

This book is almost propaganda in a way. It propagates a very specific (and very spectacular) image of The Blyton that dominates whatever may actually be said in this book. And what she does say is so very carefully chosen, so very ‘on point’, it sort of reveals a whole lot more than I think it may have ever been intended to.

Don’t fight The Blyton. You will be assimilated. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go and buy some ginger beer.

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Girlsown Overviews

Children’s literature, food, and frenchwomen

Food is a central theme in children’s literature and school stories in particular. It’s something which has stayed eternally present from the cookery lessons of  the Chalet School, the roundness of Billy Bunter through to the chocolate frogs of Harry Potter. Food is a magical device and it’s particularly magical when used in the school story.

As part of my blog birthday celebrations, I thought we’d have a look at three of my favourite foodiest moments in school story history.

‘Angela lifted the toast on to the table. “I got Antoinette to make anchovy toast for us,” she said’                                 Fifth Formers of St Clares by Enid Blyton.
Image: wallyg (Flickr)

Why has this moment had such an indelible impact on me? I think because it’s one of the key moments in St Clares, a very ‘prank-aware’ school, that food and pranks combine. Fifth Formers at St Clare’s was published in 1945, right at the end of the Second World War. Food was being rationed. The school story was increasingly becoming an idyll of escapism. Right from the train / plane / bus journey to the relevant school, through to their exotic locales (Austria, Islands, romantic manors in the countryside), these stories were havens to the increasingly under attack populace.

The scene in question involves Angela, one of the snobbier girls in the school, and the new girl Antoinette. Angela is under fire from most of her form-mates for using her prettiness and letting the younger girls run after her in a manner unbecoming to that of a senior. Antoinette, the young sister of Claudine – a member of Angela’s form, is a girl who decides to not follow the attitude of the other young girls. Asked to make anchovy toast, Antoinette swaps the anchovy paste for bootpolish, and spreads the toast with this. Angela and her friends are of course sent to Matron for a cautionary dose and Antoinette has wangled her way out of ever doing jobs for Angela again.

There’s obviously several levels in this incident. A little bit of class commentary – the upper class Angela getting her comeuppance – and a level of the younger child winning out against the elder one. But what I really love is the final moment of the episode which involves Antoinette being so upset (oh, don’t worry, she’s really not!) she is given a square of chocolate from Matron in order to calm her soul. Brilliant. How can you not root for Antoinette throughout all of this?

“But there is no need to cook it,” said Thekla calmly. “It is smoked—see!”And she held it so that that they saw the rind was a rich red-brown.                                                                                                                                                                                  From: The Chalet School and the Lintons by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer                                                                                          Image: Hendry (Flickr)

And then there’s Thekla. Thekla von Stift makes her first appearance in Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) and has a stormy time before ending as one of only two girls the Chalet School ever expels. She seals her fate when she decides to have a go at Joyce Linton in the effort to break up the younger girl’s friendship with Joey Bettany.

Thekla’s defining ‘foodie’ moment comes in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) . Joyce, tearaway new girl, has decided to throw a midnight feast to which everybody has to bring something. We have sardines, and cake, and all the normal foodstuffs you’d expect schoolgirls to be able to procure.

And then Thekla brings “raw smoked bacon” which she calmly chomps down on in the middle of the midnight feast.

It’s an amazing moment that reinforces Thekla’s rampant role as ‘Other’ in the series and one that has lasting impact. The midnight feast ends up with illness for Thekla and Mary Shaw, and Joyce Linton, the instigator, “almost dies” with a billious attack. A bilious attack that’s very much helped on its way by Thekla’s calm eating of the bacon.

I love this. Despite Thekla’s obvious awfulness, there’s something rather epic about a stolid Prussian snob eating bacon in the middle of the night.

Image: Great British Chefs (Flickr)

What’s the thing you want most after a shock? A hot sugary cup of tea? Nope.

You want an omelette aux fines herbes cooked by a Frenchwoman who has a bit of a crush on you. This is the fate of Joey Bettany  in The Chalet Girls in Camp (1932). Following an incident in the book which Joey, naturally, is heavily involved in, she is recovering back in camp. Simone Lecoutier (who’s always had a bit of a pash for Joey) decides to cook an omelette aux fines herbes to aid the recovery process.

It’s an incredibly romantic moment. The Chalet Girls have been camping in the Baumersee; an area of intense beauty and full of all the magic Brent-Dyer could possibly imbue it with. Simone is a neat, nimble-fingered, French woman of great charm and the image of her making an omelette  on the camp-fire, seasoning it with herbs, flipping it in the pan, whilst her beloved best friend is recovering from shock is something that borders on almost sensual.

I think I’m going to have to do a follow up post on this! I mean, I’ve not even begun to talk about Guernsey cut and come again cake, watered down wine, garlic cloves vs normal cloves, ginger beer, chocolate frogs  …. 😉

(I am indebted to @wonderlanded for sourcing me the Thekla quote – many thanks!)

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Girlsown

The Twin’s at St Clare’s

I can’t get over this. I really can’t.

Their voices! Their clothes! The way it mixes Mysterious Cities of Gold with Downton Abbey! The differentiation between the twins! ANIMATED MISS KENNEDY!

And – Oh! –  the theme tune!

Was this ever made into an English version?

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Girlsown

The Joy of Enid Blyton

Yay! The fab team at Seven Stories (I’m such a fangirl) have put up a recording of their event on “The Joy Of Enid Blyton” via SoundCloud.

I love Enid Blyton. Admittedly in real life she might have been a little … different… but in book form, she’s quite simply astounding. And that’s not just for her productivity rate. A lot of her work has definitely dated but this is more than balanced out by the amount of her books that are still utter classics of their respective genre (Malory Towers for one).

Now I just have to find a time between dissertation writing, dinner and the Apprentice to listen to it ….    The Joy of Enid Blyton recording | Seven Stories’ Enid Blyton Blog

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Girlsown Theory

“Gosh, odds bodkins!” expostulated Jemima : The very curious tale of the British Boarding School story

There’s something distinctly British about the boarding school story. It struck me the other day on my commute home. For some reason I had Sally from Malory Towers stuck in my head. Good old solid loyal steadfast Sally (poor sod!) was always doomed to be second fiddle to Darrell’s central role. And then I got to thinking a little further. I’m not poorly read, in fact I’m actively studying children’s literature, but it struck me that I do not know of a non-British boarding school story.

The genre itself has evolved substantially from Angela Brazil’s fixation with class and letting her girls study abroad without actually coming into contact with any of those foreigners. Even though they’ve dated (most frightfully so!), Brazil’s canon is breath-takingly impressive. Slipping away from the more didactic style of writing which had been very popular, she wrote for the reader (including plenty of thrills, and illicit tucker) and left an indelible mark on the genre of the school story.

Naturally, there were others, both writing beside her and following avidly in her wake. The obvious popularity of Brazil’s work started a boom in the genre. Sadly a lot of these writers have fallen by the wayside now but there’s still charm in these old works. Ethel Talbot is a name that I didn’t know but, noting the similarities of frontispiece and other peritextual elements, I recently picked up a copy of Jan at Island School. It was lovely. There’s a distinct pleasure in reading a book which still bears the mark of the thrill of incipient emancipation felt by these writers. They don’t quite burn the bra just yet but these books were the baby steps of a generation forced to independence by the impact of World War Two.  This sort of thing is quite obvious in the roles of characters such as Miss Theobald – a divinely wise woman who imparts pearls of wisdom to her charges.

And there is something quite splendidly British about them. Even modern reinventions such as Harry Potter have the distinctly patriotic Hogwarts (what with the latinate mottos and noble ghosts), where the train to gets it leaves from the indelibly British location of Kings Cross. Think of Trebizon with the obsession over tennis and boys, not necessarily in that order. It seems that the image of the sports mad, gung-ho girl is a resolutely British one (I’m immediately thinking of one such girl who ‘bowls across the playground’ in one of the Follyfoot novels and knocks the bullies out of the way of Callie due to her physical impact).

I hope you’ve gathered by now that I truly love these books. The Chalet School will always have my heart but there’s something about them all that I find perfect. For me it is heavily due to the distinct identity of the genre. Play up, play up and play the game and all that. I also couldn’t imagine them being produced by any other society – and come to think of it, is the boarding school a very English concept? What are attitudes like elsewhere? Do wade in and let me know – I’m happy to be corrected!

For now, I think, the words of Angela Brazil sum up the best of the genre and what made her, and her fellow ground-breaking authors so legendary in their time: “I am still an absolute schoolgirl in my sympathies”

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Everything else

Seven Stories launches an Enid Blyton blog

The team at Seven Stories have launched a blog documenting their work on their latest major acquisition – some absolutely gorgeous sounding Enid Blyton original manuscripts. The blog promises to outline some of the work that goes behind the scenes and is well worth keeping an eye on. It also should give a bit of a behind the scenes look at the work of the Seven Stories team which will be fascinating to anybody like myself (coughwhowantsajobtheresobadcoughcough). Go and have a look!