Five on Politically Correct island

c: | f: /

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?

CASSIO
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.

6 muppets jibber-jabbered

    Jools

    Interesting. My guess is that the editors decided it should still connect with today’s young readers without seeming obviously dated (but obviously weren’t consistent about it). Most Blyton readers will probably not be old enough to grasp the concept of the historical period of the original. Bronté and Shakespeare readers on the other hand will.

    My mother did object at the time to the not so pc aspects of Blyton and gently pointed us instead towards Swallows and Amazons, which I read avidly probably around the same time as you read Blyton. I wonder if Ransome’s books have also been subjected to the same editorial upgrade.

    Reading by torchlight: deliciously surreptitious but prone to being discovered when the book is engrossing!

    Stef Dawson

    Very true regarding the age differences of the target demographic. I fully admit that Shakespeare was an extreme example. I’ve not read Swallows and Amazons so I’ll try and dig up a copy. As you suspect, I did read somewhere that they may have been edited with regards character names like Titty Walker being changed to Kitty in some adaptations. Can’t think why!

    If the Famous Five editors had been consistent I wouldn’t be half as grumpy about it. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, because I’d forgotten most of the rather limp storyline. It’s mainly the one or two glaring inconsistencies that alerted me to the fact it had been altered, which prompted me to do some further research.

    The primary thing that doesn’t gel is that every character — young and old — says things are just golly, super, smashing, jolly spiffing hockey sticks. While I also struggled a few times with archaic sentence structures, if everything is kept that way, fine, the dialogue is representative of the time period, albeit skewed through Blyton’s worldview regarding children.

    But there’s an argument to be had that if the editors are updating the text to be more relevant to today’s readers, they should fix the dialogue to suit the other edits, or not bother doing a half-arsed job. Why have a kid waltz into a grocer’s (they do like to eat a lot on their adventures!) and say:

    “My, that fruitcake looks frightfully tempting. Please may we avail you of its entirety in exchange for this shiny two-pound coin?”

    when:

    “That fruitcake looks delicious. Even though we only have two pounds, please could we buy it from you?”

    is more up-to-date in tone, while still retaining some semblance of the children’s decidedly middle class upbringing.

    Of course, if it was to be truly representative of today’s vernacular it should probably read:

    “I’ll give you two quid for that cake, biatch.”

    Klaus

    “If the Famous Five editors had been consistent I wouldn’t be half as grumpy about it.”

    Well I jolly well would be. I don’t care whether they’ve been consistent or not, I’m horrified by this massaging of a period in our history. I don’t believe the editor’s motives are altogether benign either; there’s a degree of air-brushing going on here. Sinister work indeed.

    I was half-way through listening to the eBooks and thinking did I just hear “…a pound COIN???”, recalling the greenish paper notes that could each buy a tank full of petrol, a weeks worth of groceries, and change for a packet of Players No. 6. After a brief internet search I discovered I was not mistaken, and I was not alone.

    Looks like it’s back to the paper originals…

    Stef Dawson

    @Klaus if you have access to the paper originals, that’s marvellous news. Wish I still had mine instead of the bastardized copies available today. Maybe I read them to death, which is why they got chucked out.

    I’m inclined to agree with you that there’s a sinister overtone to some of this. The money thing is truly baffling. Regardless of the value-based inconsistencies present in the new stories, would the editors of, say, a swashbuckling pirate story swap the dug-up stash of doubloons for a chest full of pound coins for the sake of trying to connect with today’s audiences? No.

    What about medieval Britain where livestock were traded? Would a book set in that period have its bartering system swapped for a fiat currency? No. So why is decimalisation deemed different here?

    Everywhere we look, there’s history that needs to be told and preserved, warts and all. Should this be filtered just because the target demographic aren’t adults? I say not.

    Eohippus

    I´ve been lately reading Blyton to my 8 -year old niece. I didn´t pick the Famous Five, but the Adventure series, because I had a mental picture that they were a bit more suitable for the more mature (8 years instead of six) audiences.

    We started with the book Castle of adventure. To my surprise, one of the favorite characters of my own childhood, Tassie, wasn´t anymore a gypsy girl. She had been remodelled into a “wild girl”.

    Ok, I understand the demands of political correctness, somehow, but what IS a wild girl? That´s what my niece was asking.

    “What do they mean by saying she is wild? In what way she is wild? Is she like the Friday in Robinson Crusoe? Is she always wild, or only every now and then wild? Is she wild like a wild animal? Has she been growing up with wolves like Mowgli? Is she so wild they need to shut her inside a cage? How can she talk if she is wild? Oh, she has a mother! Is her mother wild too?”

    It was easy to see that the attempt to prevent prejudiced attitudes among young audiences didn´t work well with my niece. -Oh heck, they mean she is a gypsy. You see, this is an old book and at the time it was written people still had a bit odd attitudes towards people from different cultures. “Oh, I see, well, that was stupid of them. But even so, they could have just told Tassie is a gypsy. Gypsies are not wilder than other people so why do they now say she is wild?!”

    Next day we continued reading from my own edition from the 1950´s.
    By the way, when I asked my niece after we had finished the book what she had enjoyed most in it, expecting to hear something like “It was so exciting!” she answered, instead: “I liked it because it was so old-fashioned! It is interesting to hear how people talked and behaved in old times, although it was a bit odd!”

    Stef Dawson

    @Eohippus: Thanks for the account. I agree, changing things like that is silly. As you point out, even one word can make a difference in meaning if it’s not handled well.

    I truly wonder to what end it’s done. Political correctness, perhaps, but who are we “protecting”? And why? Just because books are written of an era when attitudes were different doesn’t make them any less relevant. I cited some rather flippant examples in the main body — Shakespeare and Brontë — and was called out on the target audience.

    Imagine another popular book that’s regarded as age-appropriate for children, albeit a year or so above Blighton: Robinson Crusoe. Would they monkey around with it? Have they already? Back in 1719 Daniel Defoe’s world was very different and there are a whole bunch of things deemed unsavoury in today’s world:

    • When Crusoe joins an expedition to bring back slaves. Perhaps they should be rebranded “wild men”?
    • The mention of cannibals. Should they be made vegetarians?
    • When Crusoe and Friday kill the natives. Mmmm, ethnic cleansing much?

    And so on. Why change the meaning of one set of books and not another? Are the 1950s more alterable because of their comparative recentness? Baffles me.

Tap tap tap

(required)

(required, never made visible)

(optional, linked with rel="nofollow")

(required)