My earliest bookish memories are inextricably linked with Enid Blyton – her books are the first I can actually remember reading, and when I was growing up any pocket-money I had was spent on buying one of her stories. I had quite a collection of Armada paperbacks, and had several favourite series of hers – Malory Towers, St. Clares, the Five Find-Outers and of course the ‘Adventure’ series. Alas, all my childhood books got lost somewhere along the way, so I was surprisingly excited when OH treated me to a lovely set of the complete Adventure series books in lovely paperbacks with vintage illustrations on the cover – the perfect Christmas present!
And oddly enough, I found myself sunk deep into the first volume, “The Island of Adventure” on Christmas afternoon when most of the rest of the family were having a post-lunch nap! I found myself drawn in after reading the first few paragraphs – I remember them *so* well, despite not having read the books for decades – and astonishingly was just gripped after a few pages.
“Island” was published in 1944, and features four children: Philip and Dinah Mannering, whose mother works to keep them while they attend boarding school and live in the holidays with their uncle and aunt; and Jack and Lucy-Ann Trent, orphans who also live with an aged uncle. Philip, Jack and Lucy-Ann meet at a summer school, where both boys are cramming under an unwilling tutor, Mr. Roy. Come the time for Philip to go back home, the Trents run away rather than stay with Mr. Roy – particularly as the latter has taken a strong dislike to Kiki, Jack’s talking parrot – and go to Philip’s house in the hope that his aunt will take them in for the summer. Fortunately she will, and the four children embark on a series of adventures around the old, crumbling house the Mannerings live in, called Craggy Tops. The befriend a man called Bill Smugs, staying locally, go swimming and picnicking, learn to sail, discover criminals, abandoned mines and secret passages – in fact, the perfect adventure story!
Scarily enough, I found myself as captivated today by the book as I did back in my childhood. The children are allowed to do dangerous things and have real adventures – ‘borrowing’ a boat and sailing it on their own; climbing down quite dangerous shafts and tunnels; encountering aggressive armed men and coming into real peril. There is often the sense that the children are in real physical danger, with threats of beatings from Joe, the crooked handyman, or the men in the mines. The book was actually very gripping and exciting, and although I knew what happened (the stories obviously made a huge impact on me as a child) I couldn’t put it down.
So is it wrong that a woman of my age (let’s just say – over 50!) can be captivated by a book for children which is nearly 70 years old? I don’t think so at all! I know that Blyton has come under all sorts of criticism for her attitudes – middle class children, stereotypical gender roles etc – but I didn’t see a problem here. The children were surprisingly mature, dealing with issues like the Mannerings’ mother having to work for a living, Aunt Polly’s being overworked and short of money for bills, and they were quite aware that cash would have to be provided in return for the Trents staying with the Mannerings for the summer. Both girls and boys are expected to do chores (although there is some differentiation between the sexes), and although Lucy-Ann is somewhat clingy and dependent, Dinah is described as being “as strong as any boy” (and I’m reminded of course of George in the Famous Five who is equally resistant to stereotyping). All in all, I thought this book was as wonderful as when I first read it – which is no mean feat for a book this old being re-read by an adult.
I don’t actually know a lot about Blyton (although I think I’ve heard that as a person she might have left a bit to be desired), but as an author I think she’s remarkable – and the fact that her books are still available now and loved by new generations of readers must be some kind of tribute to her skill. She’s a national treasure, and I loved being reintroduced to some of my childhood favourites this Christmas – I shall have to ration the rest out over the year!