What do you get when you cross an old book with idealists from a modern world, hell-bent on not offending anyone for fear of litigation? A damn mess.
For better or worse, I was raised on a staple diet of Enid Blyton books, most notably the Famous Five novels. I chewed through the lot when I was six or seven and have fond memories of the characters shinning up trees in shorts, consuming ridiculous quantities of food and ginger beer, and chasing after bad guys in the spirit of adventure, getting back in time for tea and medals.
My original copies have sadly been lost/sold/fallen apart, but we found one in a charity shop for 50p so I’ve been reading it with my little boy. Little did I know that among the scratchy illustrations lay the beast of political correctness who has air-brushed history in the interests of, well, something-or-other.
Looking back at the stories now, they have not aged at all well. The plots are thin, dialogue is clunky, every character has the same kind of ‘voice’, and characterisation is eschewed in favour of just having the protagonists reveal their habits on a regular basis. But there’s an undeniable charm about the stories that is still prevalent today. So much so that after reading a few chapters with him at bedtime, I caught my boy sneakily reading the next chapter to himself by torchlight.
With that said, the books do offer a wonderful glimpse into a past era. Not necessarily a wholesome era, but an era nonetheless. A time when there wasn’t an Internet, computers, mobile phones or televisual feasts every second of the day to tempt people to stay inside. A time when you made your own fun. When you played out, went on adventures, and fuelled your imagination with whatever you could find lying around in nature.
Yet someone at the publishers has decided to edit the stories in recent revisions to remove some of what they class as offensive content. Things that have fallen under the digital axe include:
- The children no longer do chores around the house.
- The boys help out with the washing up.
- Their clothing has been altered in places. Goodbye shorts, hello jeans.
- Terrifyingly sexist sentences such as, “you can’t sleep in that dark place because you’re a girl” have been chopped or sanitized. Regardless that the comments are usually directed at Anne whom is often the character who makes the intellectual leaps that lead to solving the puzzles, and who is brave enough to go in the dark scary places anyway.
- References to money have been updated.
- Removal of objectionable words like ‘queer’ and ‘gay’.
I did read that in some of Enid Blyton’s other books, major character names have been changed. Dick and Fanny became Rick and Frannie, for example, presumably to bypass sniggering and innuendo-laden jokes from the army of six-year-olds who might otherwise have had their innocence corrupted by an author. Let’s not worry about the fact that I’ve overheard mothers dropping upwards of five F-bombs a minute to their kids on the way to school. No, let’s rename a character in a book and pretend everyone conforms to an ideological society in which boys like Andy from the Adventurous Four must now attend school instead of learning the fishing trade with his father full-time.
I will not argue that some edits might well improve the accessibility of the stories to today’s dumbed-down youth, but if the alterations in the story I’m reading at the moment are any way representative of the broad, ham-fisted approach to the series, I shall be seeking pre-1970s copies wherever possible.
Sidestepping typos, which are mandatory in modern texts, the inconsistency with which the editing process has been undertaken pulls the reader out of the story. One scene sees Julian saunter into a shop and buy orangeade using a pound coin. In the 1950s, people who had a pound (note back then) were rich beyond their wildest imagination.
But in the scene prior to this, the intrepid explorers convinced an innkeeper to prepare them sixty-four rounds of sandwiches and hand over a complete fruitcake, for the princely sum of five pence. Children might not have a fully-developed worldview, but they’re not stupid. A discussion on how inflation and other economic factors influence the cost of products in sixty years was undermined moments later by Julian wielding his anachronistic pound.
If we’re going about updating literature to erase bits of unsavoury history or modernise the language and concepts, why do it to Enid Blyton and not Shakespeare?
Prithee, keep up thy quillets. There’s a poor pound coin for thee.
I’m not comparing Blyton to Shakespeare here, just highlighting that it’s unfair to edit one and not the other. There are modern versions of Shakespeare, but the originals are still available. Not so with Enid Blyton. The publishers appear to be trying their level best to stamp out old editions.
In the Faraway Tree, the black girl Bessie was replaced with a white girl called Beth because of purported overtones of slavery. Yet the servant Bessie in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre can remain? Sure the target audiences are somewhat different, but what makes slavery any more palatable when you’re thirteen than when you’re seven? History has context. It shouldn’t be sandpapered because a few idiots with nothing better to do decree it unworthy of today’s audiences.
If anything, leaving texts as they were — politically, socially and racially awkward as they may be — serves a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how society has evolved over time. I don’t know any six- or seven-year-olds who would read the antics of a character named Bessie and immediately think it represented oppression and racism. Neither does it condone the act. It just represents a period of history that should be preserved as-is without meddling to suit the elitist whims of the can’t-say-that brigade.