Happy Families redux

Last weekend’s column, drawing rather heavily on this piece on Blyton’s families from a couple of years ago.



A young couple have twin children, male and female. Preferring boys to girls, they care far more for their son than for their daughter, so that even as a toddler the unloved child retreats into herself. When both the children are three years old the son dies, and the parents resent his sister for surviving. They allow her to forget that she ever had a brother, send her to boarding school when she is old enough, and choose never to visit or write, or even to send birthday cards.

There’s still something a bit transgressive about the idea of parents who don’t love their children—it is, for example, the aspect of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin that seems the most discussed. Parents are unlikely to admit even to having a favourite child. Mothers in particular are expected to be the source of magical, selfless love, and made monsters of when they fail to do so. Fairy tale retellings over time morph uncaring mothers into evil stepmothers to soften the blow.

The story above is not, however, from a literary work about damaged children, or if it is it’s an unlikely one. It is from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School, and the life story of Joan Townsend, the best friend of that book’s protagonist.

Parents in the Blytonverse range from criminally negligent (oh, are you having an adventure again? they ask as their children once again entangle themselves with internationally-operating and well-armed gangs) to the openly villainous. The first of these is generally a narrative necessity; the second is rarer. The books often get dismissed as comfortable stories about comfortable middle-class children and most of the time this is true, yet occasionally something surfaces that makes one wonder if all is really as it seems.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the incident in The Naughtiest Girl in the School is not that Joan’s parents have been treating her badly for years. It is that, when Mrs Townsend explains to her daughter’s headmistresses that she wishes said daughter had died, everyone around her seems to accept this as normal. Even Joan herself understands and accepts her mother’s neglect once she has heard the facts.

Joan is not the only one of Blyton’s fictional children who has a lot to forgive her family. Barney, of the series of novels that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, is the son of a circus girl and a man whose family, we are told, mistreated Barney’s mother until she ran away taking her child with her. Carlotta, of the St. Clare’s series of books, has a similar family history. Then there’s Margery, also of St Clare’s school, whose father wishes for sons and so sides with Margery’s stepmother (and the mother of his sons) against his daughter until her school friends intervene by writing to him to prove that she is worthy of his regard.

Childhood means not having power. We’re told that one reason baby animals (including baby humans) are cute is in order to make the adults look after them, since they are helpless to look after themselves. Children of all species are reliant on the benevolence of the adult world for mere survival. If they cannot make themselves loveable, they are doomed.

This is all rather more brutal and nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw than one expects from what are, let’s be honest, not very good books. But if you read Blyton’s fictional universe as one in which these truths are known and understood, where your dependence on your parents for survival is not buried in platitudes about loving families (or at least, not so deeply buried that it isn’t widely known and understood), a lot of things begin to make sense. Carlotta earns tips from her formidable grandmother when she is appropriately ladylike. Barney and his father and grandmother find each other and live happily ever after. Margery and her father are reconciled and presumably go home and determinedly act out happy familial relations. Joan forgives her mother—what were her alternatives?


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