Check the publication date: this is a wartime story. Easy to forget that because the war is never mentioned, but a moment's thought re-inserts it into its time. Julian (12), his brother Dick (11) and sister Anne (10) are uprooted from their usual summer routine and packed off to the countryside, like the 3.5 million 1940s people, mostly children, evacuated under the, now I come to think of it, rather sinisterly named Operation Pied Piper
. Also of the war is the way food is fetishized: kids, obviously, are fascinated by tasty food, but it's hard to recover the sense that rationing made food into a locus of intense desire of the kind not seen since, in our lazily feastful latter days. (See also the Turkish Delight, and Mr Tumnus's tea and cakes, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
; after all, food rationing continued in the UK until July 1954). I think it's also possible to read the main 'adventure' tropes of this story as fabulised versions of contemporary events, including a ship that sinks and then comes back up again (like a submarine) and grown men threatening children with guns and locking them in cells (exciting if we read it as a story; depressing when we consider how many men spent 1939-45 doing exactly that with Jewish, Gipsy or Slav children).
At any rate, Julian, 'Dick' and Anne consider going to Kirrin Island to be a great adventure, awfully thrilling and so on. Here they meet Georgina, one of the more fascinating figures from 20th-century children's literature because of the tenacity with which she insists that her biological gender should not define her. George is a particularly attractive character in the context of this novel, since so many of the other children are so sappy: nice, welcoming, cheery and so on. There is a gnarliness in George's demeanour that stands out splendidly. Otherwise a few things struck me, re-reading this novel after four decades or so. One is that, though I read all the Famous Five books as a kid—indeed, counted myself a proper fan of the series, and had them all on my shelves (with the numbers printed on their paperback spines)—nonetheless I discovered I had no memory of this story whatsoever
. It had moved through my consciousness like the hawk over the hill, or the wind on the sea, and left no sign of its passing. Odd, that.
The second thing is that the undeniably arch tone of the books, so famously (and repeatedly) parodied—'lashings of ginger beer' and so on—was much less intrusive than I assumed it would be. Of course the books are dated, but more to the point they are about
the past, or about the way the past erupts into the present. I'll come back to that in a moment. Harder to reconcile with my own 21st-century parenting sensibilities was the way the adults in this novel are so utterly careless of the children's wellbeing. They're perfectly blithe about the kids not only going out all day into the countryside to play, but taking boats (without lifejackets) into stormy waters, wandering around a ruined castle that is a series of fatal accidents waiting to happen and so on. It really was another time: nowadays the thought of letting your kid so much as get on a scooter without (a) you running alongside, (b) him wearing helmet and other protections and (c) the shop-person who sold you the scooter being CRB checked is inconceivable. (Inconceivable
!) On the other hand, it's a Gordian-knot-cut for Blyton, since it enables her to free her kids for peril, adventures and so on without having any awkward protective parents getting in the way.
There are several other things, key things, that Blyton (because of, rather than despite, her supposed 'emotional immaturity'
) really understand about childhood. The obvious one is the value kids put on having fun, on going away for the holidays, on not being at school and so on. But there are two related aspects that these novels fundamentally get. One has to do with the primacy of ones friends, and the relative unimportance of parents, teachers and other authority figures. Connected with this is the fascination the novels have with 'secrecy'. The various secret tunnels, caves, ruined castles, maps, codes and so on are actually merely correlatives to a more important secrecy: the mere fact that kids keep certain things from their parents. There are, I don't doubt, good psychological reasons
for this, to do with the long-ish process by which children extract themselves from existential immersion in their parents (in their mothers, really) and establish their own separate identities. Having secrets is more important to kids today than ever
She's good, too, on the ways childhood friendship differs from adult friendships; both more intense and, in a way, less particular. George is horrible to the others, but they befriend her anyway. Tim is an integral part of the friendship-group even though he's not human (I remember, as a kid, my disappointment that Blyton's The Secret Seven
is seven human children plus the dog. It seemed to me, shall we say, incoherent to include the dog in the Five but exclude him from the Seven). Blyton also has something of Dickens's deep sense of how fairness
centres childhood's apperceptions, or more precisely how hugely unfairness rankles. Her adults are almost always distant, arbitrary, cranky (or, of course, actively villainous). Her kids are almost always right about things.
I don't want to get carried away, mind you. In lots of ways Blyton is an extremely weak writer. She worked deliberately with a limited vocabulary, something she took away from her early experiences as a teacher, so as to make the books more accessible for young readers. That's a perfectly noble aim, but Blyton frankly lacked the technical chops to do eloquent things with her limited tools. To read Dr Seuss, or (a slightly different but nonetheless comparable case) Simenon, is to understand how this 'limited vocabulary' trick can become a strength rather than a restriction. In Blyton it leads to repetition, and a kind of flatness of voice. There's also the (large, important) question of the books' sexism and, in some cases, racism; something I'll come back to in later posts, I think.
It's tricky to hit the nail on the head as far as this goes, not because Blyton is 'of her time' (though I suppose she is) but for a more fundamental reason: because her appeal is grounded in the social dynamic of the childhood affinity group, where people who are 'other' are nakedly mistrusted and disliked. The flatness and repetitiveness of her writing is, by this logic, both a failing and a strange strength: strength because it inculcates precisely the familiarity
, the small-c conservatism sense of safeness and groundedness, that many children value, and that many readers come to the books for in the first place. That familiarity is why Blyton wrote series (twenty-one Famous Five novels in total, not counting non-Blyton-authored extras
) and why her fans were content to reading the same characters going through essentially the same story again and again. Five on a Treasure Island
even, it seems to me, plays games with this very repetitiousness. When they first explore the underground caverns, the underground caverns, there is a whole section, and whole section, section, about echoes:
'Isn't it strange? said George, in a low voice. At once the echoes took up her words, and multiplied them and made them louder -- and all the dungeon caves gave back the girl's words over and over again. 'Isn't it strange ISN'T IT STRANGE, ISN'T IT STRANGE.' [ch 12]
There's quite a bit of this ('Where do you suppose the ingots are?' said Dick ... INGOTS ARE! INGOTS ARE! ARE! ARE!') which works, neatly enough, as a metatextual parody of the way the books themselves, in each iteration and one after the other as a series, echo the strangeness (chapter 2 of Five on a Treasure Island
is called 'The Strange Cousin' -- George herself, of course) and the cookie-cutter repetition of finding treasure, uncovering secrets, foiling dastardly plots and so on return and return with a positively Nietzschean incessance: 'Chapter 4: An Exciting Afternoon'; 'Chapter 12: Exciting Discoveries'.
It also speaks to the way in which Blyton handles her intertextuality. As far as this novel goes, that is most obviously to do with Stevenson's Treasure Island
. Quite a bold move, in fact, flagging up the influence, right there in the titles, especially since Stevenson's is so much more, so hugely
more dynamic and rounded a story. The other intertext that struck me (apart from L'Île Noire
, which I doubt Blyton knew: it first appeared in 1937 but only in French) was Carroll's Alice
. Specifically, the scene in chapter 11 where Tim literally chases a rabbit down a giant hole in the ground, which leads to the underground world and the golden treasure.
There's one place in Five on a Treasure Island
that interrupts the pleasurable death-drive repetition of the familiar interactions and events, and that is when Blyton's prose goes uncharacteristically Gothic and a summer storm, blowing and raining onto the surface of the sea, manages to disobey all relevant laws of physics, reach down to the seabed and hoik up an entire shipwreck, depositing the whole thing unbroken, like an egg, on the sharp rocks.
The waves were like great walls of grey-green! They dashed over the rocks that lay all around the island, and spray flew from them, gleaming white in the stormy sky. They rolled up to the island and dashed themselves against it with such terrific force that Julian could feel the wall beneath his feet tremble with the shock. ... There was something else out of the sea by the rocks beside the waves—something dark, something bit, something that seemed to lurch out of the waves and settle down again. Wjhat could it be? [ch. 6]
This is so ridiculous it is almost Dada. A moment's thought, even in childhood, is enough to focus its foolishness. Sky-storms don't work that way (and if they did, the shores of the world would be littered with up-sucked wrecks, and the Kirrin Island wreck would long before have been deposited on the rocks). But the ridiculousness is, in a way, the point. The slightly pop-eyed tone of Blyton's writing here shows that this is a symbolic upheaval; this is the repressed being dragged up by main force. What is it actually about, this novel? It is about the past, or more specifically about the way the past wrenches itself back into the present, no matter how deep it has been sunk or how cunningly been hidden away. The twist at the end is that, on first inspection, the past appears noisome ('everything so battered, sea-drenched and seaweedy. The smell was really horrid' [ch. 8]) it turns out to be golden. How this relates to Blyton's own life-habit of denying, repressing and Stalinistically rewriting her own past
may be left as an exercise to the reader. I'm more struck by the social than the personal resonances: that a book written in the middle of the Battle of the Atlantic comprehends, on a rather inchoate but nonetheless potent symbolic level, that ships are sunk for reasons that go back a long way; for reasons to do with gold and with the possession of land. That the past is never really past, but is continually erupting into the present. 'George gave a curious choke. Her eyes burned as if they were on fire. "Mother! You can't sell my island! You can't sell my castle! I won't let them be sold!" Her father frowned. "Don't be silly, Georgina. It isn't really yours".' [ch. 10]).