**Part of an ongoing series looking back at the books we loved as children during the summer holidays**
Five Go To Mystery Moor by Enid Blyton
189 pages, Knight Books (1986)
Girls Gone Wild by Pat Black
I was out drinking with this guy I know a few weeks ago. It was one of those nights where a promising spring is starting to mature into a bright, golden summer. We were out in the beer garden of a pub. Nice mellow crowd. The sun sinking in its own sweet time, flushing everything pink. The blossom drifting off the trees with each fresh zephyr. The sound of Burning Spear floating right along with the petals. Do you remember the days of slavery? I didn’t feel like I was in the city.
These two absolutely beautiful Japanese girls emerged into the evening light, catching the eye of everyone in the garden. That jet black hair. Bottles of beer in their hands like golden sceptres.
My friend blanched and looked down to the grass beneath his feet. This wasn’t like him. I had expected a sleazy appraisal of the newcomers, as he has what is referred to in these parts as a glad eye for the ladies.
“Have you shamed yourself with those two girls?” I said.
“Then what’s up?”
He drew a hand across his forehead. “I’ve watched too much porn.”
At the start of Five Go To Mystery Moor, Enid Blyton’s thirteenth Famous Five novel, Anne and George are lazing around in the hay. They’re hanging out at some stables in the country for a 1950s version of spring break, UK style. George, of course, is short for Georgina. She is the single most fascinating character in any of the Famous Five books – what modern readers might call a tomboy, with severely cut curly black hair. She’s shortened her name to sound more like a boy because she wants to be one. Not for her double-X chromosomes and domesticity.
Perhaps “tomboy” doesn’t quite cut it – the bold George doesn’t just go in for what Blyton sees as typically male pursuits, like climbing trees, running, walking for miles and swimming. She is actually pleased when she is mistaken for a boy, and answers as one, too.
So there George and her cousin Anne lie, having a right good moan about another young guest at the stables, Henry. Henry being short for Henrietta; a girl who, like George, wants to be a boy, but, horror of horrors, actually has some male accomplishments like winning cups for riding. Henry is even mistaken for a boy when she picks up Julian and Dick, George’s cousins, when they decide to stay at the stables, too.
George, who hero-worships the boys, burns with jealousy. In sheer temper, she strides off into the stables and brushes a horse with some violence, cursing her rival with each brutal sweep, “grooming the horse so vigorously that it was most surprised”.
And in reading all that, I felt the tiniest wee bit like my acquaintance did on that spring night in the beer garden. Analysing good old George and Blyton’s motivation in creating her feels wrong, like telling an off-colour joke to an elderly aunt at a wedding. In appraising the character, you can’t help but fall back into an adult’s way of thinking about things, and that can be a big mistake in judging children’s books. It’s almost like something you’re not entitled to do beyond the age of 11.
All the same, George is an utterly fascinating character. I’ve known a few so-called tomboys in my life, but never anyone like George who actually wanted to be a boy, in thought and gender-role deed. She is haughty and proud, fierce and sometimes spiteful. “Confused” is a word you might have been tempted to use regarding this character, but it doesn’t apply to her in any way. She knows precisely what she wants to be.
Who or what is George? Are we looking at children’s literature’s first lesbian? Is she transgender or gender dysphoric? Should we be surprised or shocked to find that Blyton admitted that George is based on what she was like as a child?
I realise that I don’t really care. I’m going to leave this spirited little pixie just where she is, and where dear old Enid intended her to be – a magnificent creation, and a splendid character. She is maybe the biggest and best reason for looking over these books again, even ahead of nostalgia. Of which there will be a lot, if you’re reuniting with the Five for the first time in a while.
I don’t have any reliable data about sales figures for the past decade, but Blyton is still regarded as the queen of children’s fiction in the UK, with a monstrous output left behind for boys and girls to enjoy. The Famous Five books alone are still reckoned to sell in the millions each year, and are surprisingly popular across Europe, for a product so awesomely, conservatively British.
Like her contemporary, Agatha Christie, I imagine Blyton to be a slightly dotty maiden aunt, with a sharp tongue on her if she saw or heard something she didn’t approve of. Prim and precise, with napkins and towels all neatly folded and creased. Not as fond of children or noise as you might suppose. Still, her cakes would be of the highest order. And she’d pour you some of that old style lemonade, too – lots of bite to it, in a good way.
The Famous Five are two brothers, Julian and Dick, their sister Anne and their cousin George. Rounding off the Five is Timmy, George’s dog. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to recall that Timmy has lines of dialogue.
“How would you like to go to Mystery Moor, Timmy?”
The Five are fodder for gentle mockery these days, and I wonder if modern children would be able to take all the clunky, anachronistic dialogue and twee sentiments in any way seriously. Certainly I sniggered away at the names of characters like Dick and Aunt Fanny, and in fact still do. It’s very jolly hockeysticks, with a sometimes sniffy middle class tone that would get Blyton into trouble, as well shall see. So I would probably mock Dick and Fanny in a plummy BBC accent. “Eeeeew, ratherrrrr!” I might say.
But people are always affectionate about Enid Blyton. Like many of her books, the Famous Five series always have that sense of adventure and joy in being outdoors which many of us still suffer from as adults. Just looking at this bashed old book put me in the zone of the first few days of the summer holidays at school, and that’s a brilliant place to be. Camping! Taking boats on the lake! Lashings and lashings of lemonade! Going on adventures and solving mysteries! It’s all such jolly fun. Sometimes I wonder whether Blyton was simply tapping into a youthful, universal joie de vivre, or if she has helped to form our ideas of summertime fun as a child in her own image.
Gypsies. Dearly beloved of the Daily Mail, the travelling community feature quite prominently in Enid Blyton’s books. While they are never quite being chased off good white landowners’ property with burnings torches and pitchforks, we still get a stinging sense of prejudice towards people who don’t quite fit in with Enid Blyton’s rather schoolmarmish view of correct and proper behaviour.
It’s present in this book, although it’s of a more insidious kind. A little gypsy boy called Sniffer is one of the main characters, and he’s a quite pathetic creature. Constantly drawing a hand over his running nose, we are reminded time and again that he’s dirty. When he cries, the tears make clean lines down his cheeks. When it appears they are to take a ride with Sniffer on his trap, one of the Five says to him, “I hope it isn’t too smelly.”
Sniffer appears at the stables with his horse Clip, who has a bad leg and must be made well before the gypsies begin their strange pilgrimage to Mystery Moor as part of a caravan. The ragamuffin is an abused child – his father clobbers him, and Sniffer is in fear of his life when the stable owner tells him that the horse can’t be worked for a couple of days. The children are gracious towards him when it turns out he has to stay in the stables for a night, catching up with the caravan on the next day once Clip is made well, and conveniently enough he allows the boys and girls to satisfy their curiosity about the gypsies on Mystery Moor.
They’re nice to Sniffer, and the world of gypsy fairs and circus folk are seen as glamorous and exciting in Blyton’s books. But we are in no doubt that (a) he is unlike them, and (b) he is grubby, inferior and odd as a result. It makes up one of the most stinging criticisms you can make about dear old Enid, and it’s hard to argue against it – she was as sliced white bread as you can get, and her middle English values sometimes take on the mantle of pure prejudice. While you will find some who would actually forgive Blyton for writing about the now-edited-out-of-existence Golliwogs in the Noddy books – a product of a naive age where there were few black people in Britain, they might say – the evidence does tend to mount up against her.
Certainly gender roles conform to a very Edwardian sense of a woman’s place being in the home. Julian and Dick are two very rough and tumble lads, a pair of army cadet candidates who lead from the front, have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and who adore their country pursuits. When they are older, they’ll stalk the moors with their gundogs, one suspects, dressed in tweed and camouflage green, blasting away at passing pheasants and trespassing tykes from the towns. Anne, by comparison, doesn’t really like going off on adventures too much, and often acts as a surrogate mother for the group by preparing food and washing the dishes. A feminist, she is not. Thankfully, though, George boosts the innings for the girls, though she would no doubt be angered by the idea that she’s on that team.
Characterisation and plot is somewhere else Blyton gets a mauling. Philip Pullman was absolutely scathing about her in recent years, writing that her stories were “rubbish”, the characters “two-dimensional” and the plots like “mechanically recovered meat”. Going by Mystery Moor, I think he is a little harsh. There’s less plot than The Hardy Boys, but there’s enough to keep you going, and the book’s sense of whimsy as the children head off into the wilderness is charming rather than off-putting. In Sniffer, Henry and George we have plenty of interesting characters, though Julian, Dick and Anne are somewhat dull. Again, something we find in children’s literature of the past – they are blank slates, really, someone for the readership to identify with and project themselves into. As a lad I was rather irritated by George, her delusions and her temper tantrums, but as an adult it’s obvious to me that she is the most interesting character in the book – and perhaps in all of Blyton’s literature.
It’s hard to say why Blyton’s books still do so well. Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia among adults for the things they loved as children, and a desire to pass them onto their own offspring a few years later. The stories are often crushingly anachronistic, but this has a charm of its own as time passes, like a pocket watch in an antique shop.
I have to admit that the Famous Five series inspired me. One summer when I was aged eight or nine I filled a whole pilfered school jotter with my own Five-style story. It featured a guy in a motorcycle helmet who was going around peppering people in a public park with a shotgun. He blasted one child in the arm – non-fatally; I realised that murder was inappropriate for a children’s book, you see, although I did lovingly illustrate the moment the poor kid gets shot. The four children who make up a “gang” in the story (I forget their name, though there were two boys and two girls) make an elaborate plan to trap the gun maniac and disarm him by clobbering him with a cricket bat; they do so, before unmasking him Scooby Doo-style as a crazed teacher who hates children.
Strewth. I think I misunderstood the brief.
The edition I have of Mystery Moor has illustrations of children in 1970s clothing, with plump bell-bottom trousers and shaggy glam rock hairstyles. Nowadays I’d guess that Anne might look like Cheryl Cole, and Julian and Dick like they’re from JLS. Lord only knows what they’d do with dear George, though. And no matter what the clothes or hairstyles, they’d still be giving it “Rather!” and “Blow! That’s a rum deal!”
It’s all part of the charm. Our children’s stories are windows into more innocent pleasures in less troubled times, did we but know it then. I reckon that’s why we go back to them. It’s lovely to take a little trip to Mystery Moor, if you ever find yourself with an idle afternoon.
So what do you think, Timmy? What’s Enid Blyton’s secret? Why do we still love her books?