Pushing the right buttons

Islands
Islands

Enid Blyton Five on a Treasure Island
Knight Books 1975 (1942)

Enid Blyton’s fiction remains extraordinarily popular. Despite the disdain of literary critics much of her vast output remains in print because, as publishers know, her work sells. I was brought up on the Noddy books, migrated to the Famous Five and then on to the Secret Seven. I never got onto Malory Towers or St Clare’s (girl’s stuff, of course) or anything else that wasn’t part of a series. Re-reading Five on a Treasure Island as an adult it’s clear why Blyton is criticised, made fun of and parodied: the writing is stilted, employs a limited vocabulary (anything out of the ordinary is ‘queer’) and frequently mundane. But it does appeal to young readers, mainly because it is told from their point of view – their passions, their fears, their expectation that every morning holds the promise of adventure.

You have to hand it to Blyton – she knew how to push the right buttons. First off the title, no doubt consciously borrowed from Stevenson’s novel, raises expectations of the sea, maps, hidden treasure, pirates, danger. We’re introduced to siblings Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10) who go on holiday to the Dorset cottage of their reclusive uncle Quentin Kirrin and Aunt Fanny. Here they meet their cousin Georgina (11), a sulky tomboy who prefers to be called George, and her secret pet, Timothy the dog (called Timmy in the sequels). George is due to inherit Kirrin Island in Kirrin Bay and in due course we are indeed introduced to boat trips, a map, hidden treasure, villains and, for good measure, a ruined castle on the island.

Corfe Castle postcard
Corfe Castle, from an old postcard

The fictional Kirrin Island appears to be an amalgamation of at least two real-life locations. Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset is usually cited as the original. It is certainly ruinous, and has the requisite towers and wells that are mentioned in the book. Enid and her husband Kenneth spent holidays in nearby Swanage in the thirties and forties, making Corfe Castle a good candidate for Kirrin Castle even though Purbeck is not a true island but a peninsula. On the other hand Enid went on honeymoon with her first husband in 1924 to the Channel Islands. In a letter she wrote about “an island I once visited several times when I was in Jersey” which “lay off the coast and could only be reached either by boat or by a rocky path exposed when the tide was out. It had an old castle there and I longed to put the island and castle into a book. So I did, as you know!”

One curiosity about Five on a Treasure Island is that it was published in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, and yet you will seek in vain for any mention of it. No evidence of rationing from descriptions of the children’s meals, no suspicion that a war might curtail holidays to Scotland or the south coast, no hint that the children’s parents or aunt and uncle are involved in the war effort. It’s as if the Famous Five are locked into a Neverland where outside events don’t impinge and time is slowed down (the children hardly seem to age through dozens of adventures).

It’s interesting to compare Blyton’s treatment of children on holiday with that of a near contemporary classic. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, five years after the war ended, but some of its origins lie in an incident that took place previously. In September 1939 three schoolgirls were evacuated to C S Lewis’ home near Oxford to escape possible attacks on London and other cities. This gave Lewis the germ of an idea for a story:

This book is about four children whose names were Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter. But it is most about Peter who was the youngest. They all had to go away from London suddenly because of Air Raids, and because Father, who was in the Army, had gone off to the War and Mother was doing some kind of war work. They were sent to stay with a kind of relation of Mother’s who was a very old professor who lived all by himself in the country.”

In the first Narnia book the four children had morphed into the Pevensie siblings – Peter, Susan, Edmund and the youngest, Lucy, and “the story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country…” This parallels Blyton’s tale about siblings who, failing a holiday in Pozeath in Cornwall, travel from the city to stay in the house of their scientist uncle who lives in a cottage near the sea. Of course the parallels aren’t exact, and Lewis’ frame story is one that would have been replicated several times over during the war. Added to which, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy while Five on a Treasure Island is, perhaps marginally, more realistic. But there is another aspect to the Narnia tale that reminds me of the Famous Five tale.

Lewis makes much of Cair Paravel in his fantasy, a castle by the sea, of which the Pevensie children eventually become the rulers. By the time it reappears in Prince Caspian (1951) the castle has become a ruin and is now located on an island. How reminiscent this is of the Kirrin cousins who come to see themselves as rulers of Kirrin Castle on their island! Lewis may have intentionally based the family name of the Pevensie children on Pevensey Castle, the ancient ruined fortifications on the East Sussex coast, borrowing its appearance and location for Cair Paravel. But it’s tempting to wonder whether, even assuming he’d come across Blyton, Lewis unconsciously assimilated some themes from her story. Highly unlikely, I know, but worth speculating about.

L P Hartley suggested in The Go-Between that ‘the past is another country’. Some seventy-odd years later Five on a Treasure Island is another world for many readers, where children wander the countryside unsupervised, automatically go to boarding school, rarely cheek adults and seem to routinely carry torches, string, matches and other accessories in their copious pockets. Above all, boys will be boys and girls are expected to be girls (apart from rebellious George, who is based on Blyton herself). But children remain children for all that, and modern day children — of all ages — can still enjoy the vicarious thrills of exploring ruins, finding treasure and being scared out of their wits.

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11 thoughts on “Pushing the right buttons

  1. There is still a total magic for kids in both the books mentioned. Blyton’s vocabulary is perfect for gobbling tales whole, as I recall doing. Her character George, sulky and rebellious, is the absolute favourite with most children – a facet of childhood is that the exercise of authority is resented.
    As for the Narnia series, it is arguably the best fantasy for children ever written.
    I can still read Blyton, which is more than I can say for Franklin W Dixon – and yet as a child I found his books simply wonderful.

    1. … a facet of childhood is that the exercise of authority is resented.

      I can only agree! Though I’m not so sure about the Narnia stories (my less-than-favourable review is here http://wp.me/s2oNj1-narnia) I can’t argue with their huge popularity — there certainly have that imaginative quality that fantasy fans prize.

      1. I was surprised that you found Narnia lacking – but I have commented there with a possible explanation. As far as I’m concerned, Lewis hit every possible button when it came to engaging a lively young imagination.

        1. Lively young imaginations, yes, that’s whom they’re aimed at, not fuddy-duddies like me! It’s certainly possible to over-analyse them, to suck all the joy out of the stories, but my grandsons are enjoying them and who am I do contradict them?

          1. I am kept from fuddy-duddihood by the exercise of trying to reproduce some of the same elements in my own fantasies – except that I also tend to try throwing more humour into the mix.

  2. Very interesting. I had never heard of Blyton. The parallels to Narnia piqued my curiosity too. Even beyond the possibility that Lewis read the book or heard it discussed, or read reviews, I think at certain times, ideas are “in the air.” That’s a direct quote from Thomas Edison. Once when he was being congratulated for inventing the lightbulb he said, “If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have – ideas were in the air.”

    The 30’s spawned several series in the US involving children or young people. There were The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew was followed by several other girl detectives. And a friend’s recent blog post revealed another series I hadn’t heard of, “The Boxcar Children.” Launched in 1924, there are 100 books in the series by various authors, continuing through the present.

    1. I’d heard of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but like you not the Boxcar Children. To my chagrin, I’ve read none of them, and suspect I never will. It’s possible that some aspects of children’s culture don’t easily cross into others, especially in the past, and book-reading may have been one them. It’s my impression that post-war British culture was often quite insular except in the visual arts (cartoons or Westerns for example) and in popular music, where it became increasingly open to American influences.

      Many of Enid Blyton books were quite culture-specific and, as I’ve noted, not high literature, so I’m not surprised they didn’t make a successful Atlantic crossing. Having said which, the Famous Five series caught the European imagination, with translations and even original sequels published, and in the late noughties Disney made a cartoon series of the same name featuring the children of the original Famous Five. I felt this was low culture brought even lower.

  3. I loved Blyton when I was a kid. The Famous Five and St. Clare’s were my favorite series. The vocabulary may be simple but at that age it really doesn’t matter. I only cared about the story. She definitely knew how to create a good one and what was the best way to tell it.

    Those parallelism you found are very interesting. Probably unlikely, like you said, but fascinating anyway.

    1. Yes, I agree that she was good at engaging young readers with plot and straightforward vocabulary. Along with millions of other young readers over the years (and you of course, Paula!) I found Blyton encouraged reading. Which can only be good, and the next step on from all those dire Peter and Jane-type reading schemes — and a lot more enjoyable!

      It’s only curmudgeonly grown-ups who carp at the fact it’s not great literature, or betrays the prejudices of its time.

  4. I gobbled up Enid Blyton greedily and would have happily read many more. Boxcar Children and Bobbsey Twins, too. Somehow these all seemed the same to me, and very satisfying as a child. Narnia, of course, felt more substantial. Then back to gorging with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I really think they were on to something with those serial books.
    Quite by accident, I watched a “Famous Five” spoof the other day – it’s up on Netflix streaming. It has Dawn French in it as George and Jennifer Saunders as Anne. “Comic Strip presents ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset'” complete with “lashings of ginger beer.” I do recommend.

    1. Yes, Five Go Mad in Dorset is very funny, though I haven’t seen it since it was aired in the 80s. I’ve heard though that the sequels were missable. What you say about reading Blyton, Kimberly, contradicts what I said to Morgan above, so I’m happy to stand corrected!

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