‘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.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five Run Away Together (1944)



Getting into the flow of reading these Famous Five novellas, you start to understand: they are of course all the same story. The familiar characters get together, have an 'adventure' involving exploring hidden ways and overcoming a particular adversity, with each new book giving a single point of novelty to the format. The naming convention of the old Friends TV show gets it right: 'The One About The ...' We want the characters we love acting in character, and giving us what we come to the text for (laughter and sentiment in the case of Friends; adventure and in-group bonding in the case of Five) with the minimum possible amount of variety that is compatible with staving off absolute monotony. So Five on a Treasure Island is The One About The Upthrown Shipwreck And The Gold Ingots; Five Go Adventuring Again is The One In Which They Get Snowed In; and Five Run Away Together is The One About the Sticks.

What that actually means is: it's the one about the naked class antagonism. The Five are back at Kirrin Cottage, but Aunt don't-snigger Fanny is too ill to look after them—so ill, in fact, that she has to be taken away to a distant hospital. Ill with what? We're not told. At any rate, the kids are left in the care of the cook/housekeeper Mrs Stick, She has a rude son, Edgar, who mocks George by singing 'Georgie Porgie' over and over; and a dirty little dog called Tinker, whom the kids call Stinker. Then Mr Stick comes to live in the cottage, apparently on leave from his ship. I was never sure whether he was actually on leave from the RN, or if he was AWOL. But that's not the important thing. The crucial thing is that all the Sticks are nasty lower-class types. Here's Julian's first encounter with Mr Stick.
A small man, lying on the sofa. He was fast asleep, his mouth wide open. He was not a very pleasant sight. He had not shaved for some days and his cheeks and chin were bluish-black. He didn't seem to have washed for longer than that, for his hands were black, and so were his fingernails. He had untidy hair and a nose exactly like Edgar's. [ch. 5]
The novel is so secure in its belief we will identify with the upper-middle-class Five and feel revulsion at the lower-class Sticks that it runs through a series of quite extraordinary episodes. Edgar is rude, true; but the Five bully him mercilessly: they spray him with cold water, George slaps him; Julian pulls his nose ('I pulled old Edgar's nose nearly off his face!' he tells the others, with satisfaction). If we laugh, then I suppose this is comic; but if we don't it becomes really nasty. Julian's first reaction on seeing Father Stick, with his dropped aitches and ferrety manner, is to threaten to push a meat pie into his face ('he raised his arms and Mr Stick ducked'). Mrs Stick retaliates by refusing to feed them. After Timmy bites the Sticks' dog Tinker ('Timothy had him by the neck and was shaking him like a rat') Mrs Stick tries to poison him. It is, in effect, open war.

The consequence is the titular run-away: the Five stock up on supplies and take George's new boat over to Kirrin Island with the intention of subsisting there until Uncle Q. and Aunt F return, thus having nothing more to do with the Sticks. What actually happens is they discover a kidnapped and imprisoned young girl. When the Five free her and take her to the police station the inspector declares 'Bless me! Here's the child the whole country is looking for!' It transpires the Sticks (of course) are behind a nefarious plot to ransom the child for £100,000. Naturally this validates all the earlier horrible behaviour meted out to the Sticks.

But, golly, how unashamedly de-haut-en-bas that behaviour is! Here, from the early chapter actually called 'Julian Defeats the Sticks', is a sample. Julian tells the Sticks that the Five are going on a picnic:
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," murmured Edgar to himself. He was lying sprawled on the sofa, reading some kind of highly-coloured comic.

"If you've anything to say to me, Edgar, come outside and say it," said Julian, dangerously.

"You leave Edgar alone," said Mrs Stick, at once.

"There's nothing I should like better," said Julian, scornfully. "Who wants to be with him? Cowardly little spotty-face!"

"Now, now, look 'ere!" began Mr Stick, from his corner.

"I don't want to look at you," said Julian at once.

"Now, look 'ere," said Mr Stick, angrily, standing up.

"I've told you I don't want to," said Julian. "You're not a pleasant sight."

"Insolence!" said Mrs Stick, rapidly losing her temper.

"No, no insolence—just the plain truth," said Julian, airily. Mrs Stick glared at him. Julian defeated her. He had such a ready tongue, and he said everything so politely. The ruder his words were, the more politely he spoke. Mrs Stick didn't understand people like Julian. [ch. 6]
I suppose the point here is that a great many 19th- and 20th-C children's stories interpellate their readers as posher than many of them actually were. The obvious point of comparison is Harry Potter and the Dursleys. Now the Dursleys are lower-middle rather than working class; but the point of the scenario is that they treat Harry abominably because they recognise that he is, in some way, better than them; and certainly better than their horrible son Dudley.

The Dursleys, I think, point to a crucial ideological blind-spot in the Harry Potter books. Rowling makes a great deal of play in her writing with the evils of racism; the way 'muggle' is a term of abuse, the quasi-Nazi regime the Ministry of Magic runs on the reappearance of Voldemort. But if the books are 'good' on race, they are bad on class. From that moment in Philosopher's Stone when young Harry is taken out of a horrid secondary modern school and whisked away not just to an ancient Public school, but the most exclusive and marvellous school in the world, the books never shake off a rather Blytonesque sense that class hierarchies reflect some natural justice in the world.



In this illustration, the Sticks are finally arrested for the wicked crime of being lower class and dropping their 'h's. Notice the angelic halo around the policeman's helmet.

7 comments:

  1. The issue of Harry being whisked off to the mother of all private (or is it public? I can't cope with your British-isms) schools is of course insurmountable (as in a lot of Rowling's handling of prejudice, her good intentions are undone by the fundamental problems in her worldbuilding), but I think you're dismissing the Dursleys' class and its handling in the series too swiftly. Allowing for nuances that an outsider couldn't comprehend, the Dursleys never read to me like lower-middle class but solidly middle, if not upper-middle (it's only Harry, after all, who was slated for a state school; Dudley goes to Vernon's old private-or-is-it-public one). Class anxiety plays a role in their abuse of Harry and disdain for wizardly, but it runs in the opposite direction than the one you describe. Much of the Dursleys' attempts to stamp out Harry's wizardry are couched in what-will-the-neighbors-think terms, and it's clear that they view wizards as a distinctly inferior class. Petunia describes Harry's name as "nasty, common," and when Harry first visits the Weasleys (who are definitely coded as lower-middle class), he vividly imagines Petunia's disapproval of their ramshackle, messy house.

    The power of the Dursleys' negative portrayal is, of course, diminished by the fact that not only do wizards clearly feel the same class prejudice towards them, but that the latter take is validated by our expanded view on the wizarding world, most obviously, as you say, Hogwarts itself. But I do think that the intent with the Dursleys was to skewer class prejudice, not reinforce it.

    (None of this, of course, has to do with the Famous Five, which I'm fairly certain I've never read, so sorry for the derail.)

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    1. I'd be inclined to code the Weasleys as downwardly-mobile upper-middle-class myself; the tension between Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley seems to be based on two people who are essentially the same class (pureblood, old Wizarding family, well-connected professionally - after all, Bill's in banking, Charlie's doing field-trips for academia and Percy's destined to be a Civil Service highflyer) where Lucius thinks Arthur's letting the side down.

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  2. Agreed with Abigail about the class positioning of the Dursleys; Vernon is a member of senior management in a company which sells drills and the whole plot point around Dobby in the second book concerns the disruption of a sales pitch disguised as a dinner party.

    With respect to Enid Blyton, I read her as a child in a working class household in the 60s/70s at a point when she was being banished from libraries for precisely the issues you highlight: Bob Dixon's two influential (if somewhat one-dimensional) studies Catching Them Young: Sex Race and Class in Children's Fiction, and Catching Them Young: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction were very much in vogue.

    And there's certainly no doubt whatsoever that Blyton is guilty as charged. However, where Dixon undoubtedly gets it right (I'd say there was a lot he got wrong, specifically in the rather more complicated and nuanced relationship of child reader to text than he allows for and in his simplistic approach to Arthur Ransome) is that Blyton is simply the most overt in her class-warfare in a genre which largely depended on it.

    In some respects, it's almost easier to avoid and discount her obvious and naked class prejudices, while the subtly patronising classism of (Carnegie-Award winning) author Eve Gardner's Family from One End Street is, in my view, infinitely more toxic.

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  3. Abigail and Legionseagle: very interesting. On balance, I think I disagree with you about the Dursleys. It's not a question of money (they clearly do have money); it's a questions of breeding. The problem with the Dursleys is that they are nouveau riche. What's valorised in the Potter novels/films is tradition, old money and so on.

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    1. I'd say that the Dursleys* were neither particularly nouveau nor particularly riche; Dudley goes to the same school as his father went to, and though I suspect Smeltings is definitely a minor public school (the frankly ludicrous uniform definitely implies it's overcompensating for something) it would put Dudley on a level of social equality with Julian, Dick, Fatty & Co.


      *Petunia definitely thinks she's married up, I grant you

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    2. Definitely agreed on that last point. There's more class anxiety coming from Petunia's end than Vernon's, which would indicate that she has more to lose, and the fact that the Evans girls lived near the Snapes in Spinner's End, a miserable-looking neighborhood in an industrial city, certainly suggests lower-middle class at best.

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  4. This is a topic on which I have written myself but only with respect to Blyton as I have not read any Rowling. (In order to narrow down the amount of reading I do I only read authors who have died, the living can wait). I was banned from reading Blyton as a child by my father who although middle-class himself thought all her work was drivel. Subsequently, aged 7, I read everything she wrote (at night, under the blankets with a torch). Luckily a friend had all her books. 2 years ago I was given all her works FREE at a jumble sale as no one had bought them and I re-read them. As a child I thought the Famous Five were terrific and boarding school must be fabulous and when my parents asked me if I would like to go to boarding school in England aged 9 I was delighted to go. We were living in the Seychelles at the time so I can only assume I had rotted my own brain with Blytonesque-visions of ginger beer and midnight feasts. Boarding school is basically a young-offenders unit but with better food. When I re-read her works I was initially shocked at how offensive they were: anyone with a moustache was a "dirty foreigner" and grown-ups were divided into the Good (aunts, uncles, policemen) and the Bad (anyone who ran a corner shop, people with a tan and lorry drivers). One of my favourite lines is when the FF go to stay in a caravan and remark "ooh it's a lovely, pretty caravan, just like a gypsy's, only cleaner." Old Enid just can't help herself. And this is when you realise these books are infact HILARIOUS because they are so self-righteous and priggish. Read as the jokes they are they are not only amusing but also a brilliant example of how awful the class system is. If Rowling is in any way similiar ( I haven't even seen the films) then she may be an aspiring social-climber; Enid liked to think she was rather posh.

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