‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Blyton



Having read through a proportion of the Famous Fives and blogged my responses, I'll trespass on your patience (I know, I know) with some final round-up thoughts about her. Otherwise, what've we got?

Five on a Treasure Island (1942)

Five Go Adventuring Again (1943)

Five Run Away Together (1944)

Five Go To Smuggler's Top (1945)

Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947)

Five Get Into Trouble (1949)

Five On A Secret Trail (1956); Five Go To Billycock Hill (1957); Five Get In A Fix (1958)

Here are some general observations, via Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard:
Enid Blyton was the most commercially successful British children’s author of the 20th-century ... Her parents’ marriage was quarrelsome, and when she was nearly 13 her father walked out. Enid was shattered by this, and took to writing sentimental poetry as a psychological escape … Failing to get on with her mother after her father’s departure she left home as soon as she could. Her parents wanted her to be a concert pianist, but she abandoned musical training and studied to be a kindergarten teacher, learning the Froebel and Montessori methods. [Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (UOP 1984), 68-9]
It's true! In addition to her books for children she write or edited The Teacher’s Treasury (1926) and Modern Teaching: Practical Suggestions for Junior and Senior Schools (1932). It oughtn't to surprise us that adults interested in writing for children have often been adults interested in teaching as a career (except that, Farrar aside, that wasn't the pre-1914 model, especially). Anyway: during the 1920s and 30s she wrote a great deal of shorter work for children, much of it to do with fairies: The Enid Blyton Book of Fairies (1924) and Sunny Stories for Little Folk (1926) rode the vogue for fairies in part set in motion by the work of Rose Fyleman. Her first full length children’s fiction was The Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937). She soon diversified into school fiction (with ‘The Naughtiest Girl in School’, 1940). The first Famous Five novel came out in 1942; the first Secret Seven a few years later.
Blyton in fact only became a household name during the 1950s, when she began to produce stories about Noddy, her most celebrated and notorious creation. It was during this period, and largely because of the Noddy books, that she began to attract considerable criticism from book reviewers, librarians and educationalists, who accused her of mediocrity and alleged that she wrote in a vocabulary so limited that (as one critic put it) it was ‘drained of all difficulty until it achieved a kind of aesthetic anaemia.’ By the end of the 1950s her books were being deliberately excluded from libraries in Britain and overseas. Enid Blyton invariable answered attacks by saying that she gave children what they wanted, and took no notice of critics over twelve years of age. She also pointed out that if children could not borrow her books from libraries they would buy them with their own money—which proved to be true, for sales increased dramatically; her income by the late 1950s was reportedly over £100,000 per annum. But she was privately very resentful of attacks and threatened legal action if there was any question of libel. [Carpenter and Mari Prichard, 69]
None of that parochial 'best-selling British author' nonsense for David Rudd: he thinks Blyton '…arguably the best-selling children’s writer of all time.’ The sales do seem to back this up (she still sells 100 million books a year, apparently); and clearly her staggering work-rate has something to do with this: Rudd gasps at her ‘incredible productivity … in the 1950s she averaged 50 publications a year, notching up a record 69 in 1955.' He's also content to speculate about the psychological wellsprings of her work:
‘Many think that this event [her father walking out on her mother] arrested Blyton’s emotional development, thus explaining her facility in writing for children. But this explanation is offered of too many children’s writers. In fact, Blyton had a large amount of material rejected before her eventual success with her first book, Child Whispers (1922), a collection of verse in the manner of Rose Fyleman.’ Imogen Smallwood, Blyton’s younger daughter, has suggested that her mother’s writing came out of periods when she was most under stress. This certainly applies to her books of the 1930s … and the Famous Five, Mystery, Adventure and school series (St Claire’s and Mallory Towers), all of which started life around the time of the breakdown of her first marriage … and the hushed-up, fairly turbulent early years of her second marriage. [David Rudd, in Victor Watson (ed), The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (CUP 2001), 91-2]
From Rudd I learn that she had to have hormone treatment (during her first marriage) in order to get pregnant, because the doctors declared she had 'the uterus of a 12-year old girl'. Is that even a thing? But Rudd is better on the question of her supposed sexism and racism. Not guilty, he thinks; or guilty only insofar as her entire generation and class can be so convicted.
If she is guilty of anything it is “ageism”, in that she empowers her child characters at the expense of adults, showing the latter to be inadequate and deceitful. Children are shown solving their own problems, with companionship always central.
And he thinks highly of her creation of 'George':
George’s power is cultivated from the outset … she dominates the book [Five on a Treasure Island] … there are clearly parallels with the British at war, when King George’s people—on St George’s “sceptered isle”—were seeking to defend themselves from “wicked men”.’
Rudd quotes Churchill for comparison: Hitler is ‘this wicked man, who resolved to break our island race’. He concludes:
This first book shows how a fiercely independent girl relinquishes some of her autonomy in exchange for friendship. The price to pay, though, is entry into a patriarchal world. Though many critics accuse the books of being sexist, it seems that Blyton frequently problematizes the whole notion of sexism. Throughout the series the unfairness of traditional gender roles is exposed, mainly through George. [Rudd, 252]
All of that seems to me good and interesting. I've only a couple of further things to say, stuff I've been pondering for a bit without really drawing a firm conclusion. I have, for instance, being thinking about the context of 'gang' adventures. Not gang in the 'straight-outta-compton' sense of the word; gang as in the preferred pack mode of young kids at play. You + your mates. There are, of course, lots of stories that relate the advetures of such groups; to the point where a children's book that tells the story of a solitary child (like Alice, say) strikes many people as odd and unappealing. From at least E N Nesbitt [1899 The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899); Five Children and It (1902); The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), The Railway Children (1906)] through Blyton, Lewis and up to Series of Unfortunate Events and J K Rowling, kids evidently find particular joy in stories of gangs of friends having adventures. In almost all cases the gang is made up of relatives: brothers/sister, cousins. This is interesting, I think.

I've also been thinking about George. Rudd is right, I think, that she is the most interesting character in the books. But it seems to me that George's gender is shaped by a different idiom that the ones gender studies often discusses: not sexual desire or 'femininity' but rather the perception that boys are just better at 'adventuring' than girls. The Five are made up of two boys, two quasi-boys (counting Timmy) and one girl. Anne is there to show that girls are just not as good at the physical stuff, but also not so good at keeping secrets. Secrets are clearly crucial to what Blyton is doing, generally; but this makes me wonder whether the books aren't actually saying that adventuring and keeping secrets are in some sense the same thing. All those tunnels!

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