Archive for February 15th, 2012

February 15, 2012

Happy Families

For various reasons I’ve found myself rereading Enid Blyton’s “R” mystery series over the past couple of months. The “R” Mysteries feature (as is usual in Blyton) a group of children, three of whom are cousins, stumbling upon crimes and assisting in the solving of them while having many picnics and amusing pets – in this case a hyperactive spaniel and a trained monkey. The monkey belongs to Barney, the fourth child who is unrelated to the others. Barney grew up in a circus, doesn’t know who his father is, and is homeless for most of the series. The reader is given a bit of backstory (in The Rockingdown Mystery in particular): His mother apparently married an actor (Shakespearean, therefore respectable) but soon ran away from him because she missed circus life. In The Rub-a-Dub Mystery we’re told by a character who knew her that her reason for leaving was the unkindness shown to her by her new mother-in-law.

We’re told at various points in the series about Barney’s yearning for family and a sense of belonging (these books always feel to me a lot more interior than a lot of Blyton’s fiction). We’re not told how he reacts to the news that the family he seeks consists of the woman who drove his mother away and the man who let this happen.*

Another of Blyton’s orphans is Fenella in Come to the Circus! Fenella lives quite happily with an aunt at the beginning of the book, but is soon forced to move in with another uncle and aunt instead. Why? Well:

“Well, Fenella—I’m going to be married,” said Aunt Janet. “And I’m going out to Canada.”

“Oh, Aunt Janet!” said Fenella. “To Canada! That’s along way, isn’t it—far across the sea?  Shall we like that?”

I shall,” said Aunt Janet. “I’ve been there before. But you’re not going, Fenella. I’m going to marry Mr. White— you’ve seen him here sometimes—and he wants us to go and work on his uncle’s farm in Canada. But we’re afraid we must leave you behind.”

“Leave me behind—here, all alone!” cried Fenella in alarm. “But what shall I do? I’m only ten.” […]

“Oh, you’ll soon learn to like animals,” said Aunt Janet, emptying the dirty potato water out of the bowl. “Anyway, there’s no help for it, I’m afraid. You’ve got to go somewhere —and Harry—that’s Mr. White I’m going to marry—he doesn’t want to take you out to Canada with us.”

“Nobody wants me!” wailed Fenella, suddenly. “My father and mother are dead, and you don’t want me, and I know Uncle and Aunt won’t want me either.”

“Now, don’t be silly,” said Aunt Janet, briskly.

Beyond this one instance of Fenella’s voicing her pain and having it brushed aside (“don’t be silly”? What the fuck, Aunt Janet?) there’s no sense that a child might feel rejected or otherwise damaged by this sort of breezy “oh, we don’t want you anymore”.

Then there’s The Secret Island in which three siblings are mistreated by their aunt and uncle, who pull them out of school to turn them into unpaid labour. But this is seen by characters within the text as an outrage, and the couple are punished at the end. Far more interesting is the case of Jack, the children’s friend, who lives with his grandfather. Jack is able to escape with the others because his grandfather is about to abandon him anyway (“He’s talking of going to live with an aunt of mine. If he does I shall be left all alone, for she won’t have me too”). Again, this isn’t treated as in any way remarkable by the text – merely a convenient fact that makes Jack available to the others.

Back to Barney, who at the end of The Rub-a-Dub Mystery finds his father. The next book in the series (The Rat-a-tat Mystery) has the whole group visit Barney’s new home, where he seems to be on excellent terms with his grandmother. Voluntarily leaving aside Blyton’s bad track record on continuity for the moment (and fair enough, she wrote a million books a year), what could be going on here? Is this Barney’s forgiving nature? Has he investigated the circumstances in which his parents separated and decided it was all just a big misunderstanding/his mother was equally in the wrong? Or has Barney chosen not to think about it; is he so desperate for a family that he has forced himself to forget why he lost his in the first place?

Victor Watson in his excellent Reading Series Fiction reads Blyton as being entirely on the children’s side. He cites passages like this one, from the first Famous Five book:

“Julian thought she didn’t understand grown-ups very well. It wasn’t a bit of good fighting grown-ups. They could do exactly as they liked. If they wanted to take away George’s island and castle, they could. If they wanted to sell it, they could!”

Watson reads the first six Famous Five books as in part documenting the relationship between George and the father whom she loves but who is, at least at the beginning, fundamentally untrustworthy in the ways that matter:

The four children stared at him and didn’t answer. They couldn’t very well say, “Well, firstly, you wouldn’t have believed us. Secondly, you are bad-tempered and unjust and we are frightened of you. Thirdly, we didn’t trust you enough to do the right thing.” (- Five on a Treasure Island)

Obviously this tendency of the adults to get things horribly wrong or simply to disappear from the children’s lives is in part a device to allow the children to become the movers of the plot; absent or incompetent adults are to be found all over children’s literature.

But it’s tempting to read Blyton as, rather than the comfortable “nanny narrator” as which she is often perceived, a chronicler of a harsh, (hopefully) alternative universe. One in which adults regularly abandon children, or abuse them and those they love, and the children will accept this without protest or even surprise because it’s normal, it’s expected, and they are so starved for love and family. A week or so ago I wrote about my former perception of Dickens as a writer of virtuous orphans in a cruel world. But even when Dickens does this, he and the text make it clear that this is an outrage. Blyton’s brilliance lies in the fact that she normalises this, even at the level of the text. I imagine Barney at the breakfast table each morning facing his grandmother and father and smiling, gritting his teeth and telling himself to forget.



* There’s another possibility – this version of the story was told to Barney’s friend Snubby, who may have chosen to conceal it from him. Snubby never seems surprised or uncomfortable at Barney’s comfortable relationship with his newfound family; but then, as another orphan (albeit one with an extended family) Snubby knows what’s at stake.