11 November 2010

Don’t say Peculiar, that’s just strange: The Obfuscation of Enid

This is the essay about editing Enid that I alluded to a few posts ago:

A couple of months ago, the dedicated rose up. Cardigans fuzzed and tweeds burred. Battle lines were drawn in ink. It was an outrage, they cried, it was a travesty. Forums het up until they became incandescent as the dedicated protested that it would never be done to Dickens or Shakespeare.

The unthinkable was happening. Enid was being tampered with.

Again.

Hodder Childrens Books had announced that they were re-editing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books to remove all traces of mid-century slang and render the text ‘timeless’ for generations to come. The announcement was one of those ‘moving forward’ type of actions so loved for their pretence of progress; it was meant to show that Blyton would be well placed for the new millennium.

The devoted said Shucks to that.

This, of course, is not the first time that the first lady of children’s literature has been violated. Of all the classic writers of the English tongue, Enid Blyton is the one author against whom the blue pencil continues to be wielded. Classic English literature is generally considered sacrosanct, each work a product of its time and thus part of shared cultural history. But Enid? Enid is the anomaly, belonging to none and every generation simultaneously.
It has been half a century since the last of Enid Blyton’s books were published, and in that time Her books have rallied a legion of followers. This latest renovation of Blyton’s works has opened up that particular can of worms in a way that none of her previous revisions have done. The battle over who truly ‘owns’ Enid and how that ownership is to be displayed has developed into an increasingly heated conflict as the various generations of her readers mass and take sides. With several decades of copyright left to run, this partisanship will only escalate in the coming years.

On one side, we have the devoted Enid-ites, epitomised by the aging and be-cardiganed man who teeters just this side of creepy (and possesses more information about girls’ boarding schools than is seemly). Joining him is the middle-aged and ostentatiously artistic lady, and the pseudo-retro and over-opinionated gen-yer and their ranks of clones. Arrayed against them is the mindless, soulless publishing machine, whose single aim is to world domination and the compete obfuscation of Our Lady Enid.

And then there is the battlefield: Enid Blyton’s body of work. The terrain is rocky, as there is no author with such an ability to engender adoration and embarrassment in equal measure. She drew all manner of un-PC matter under her wing and nurtured it, leaving her followers unsure as to how to deal with her. She’s that great aunt who regales your friends with stories of her bowel movements but who gives you the best Christmas presents.

Enid’s writing really taps into the whole idea of how each generation thinks they should raise the next. Because she remains so amazingly popular (Hodder states that they still sell half a million copies of her Famous Five books every year), her work is constantly adapted to suit whatever the current child rearing trend happens to be. You can see the progress of ideas from generation to generation through the various stages of assault on her body of work.

The first campaign Enid withstood was an attempt to silence her. In a two decade stand off, the BBC maintained an unofficial ban on her works, dismissing her as a “competent and tenacious second-rater” (the BBC’s archive has a page devoted to their letters from, to and about Enid – the reviews are quite brilliant, for example “There is rather a lot of the Pinky-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm”). By the fifties, however, Enid had become such a leviathan of children’s literature (churning out 12 books per year at her zenith) that even the behemoth of the BBC was forced to capitulate and consent be dragged along in her wake. The first Blyton story was read on the Beeb in 1954. Round one the lady.

The next assault was, most would concur, a sensible one; it was certainly the most successful. It was felt that if Enid could not be stopped, she had to be censored: the racism had to go. Blyton was famous, even in the fifties, for her parochialism and her rampant racism. French people were selfish, Spanish bad tempered, Americans were crass and “Gollywogs” … well, they don’t even print those books anymore so I’m not sure what they were supposed to have done. Only proper English people were capable of true goodness in Enid’s mind; society didn’t agree and she was overruled (to an extent … French bashing is apparently still in vogue). This victory levelled the score, although it was a bit of a one-sided battle: Enid had succumbed to Alzheimer’s and opposition to PC-ing her unfeasible in the face of such reforming zeal.

It was the nineties that saw the next sharpening of the blue pencils. We were all looking to the future, so Blyton’s works were accordingly modernised: girls drank coke, not tea, had central heating rather than fires and were called Zoe instead of Betty. Decimal currency was in, so all those old duodecimal references were out. It was all very new millennium and forward looking, but it dated quickly. Tea turned out to be healthier than coke and sitting around the central heating really held no appeal. As for Zoe, well, the next generation of girls was called Mackenzie, so the name dated awfully quickly.

The response to these last changes was not so favourable as previously. Blyton societies had begun to gain traction; the internet emerged as powerful rallying point for the knights of Enid. Objections to alteration ‘for alteration’s sake’ began floating around along with the idea that enough time had passed that Enid could be classified as a set historical entity. These new changes ended in a draw: new ‘classic’ editions of the books were put out to placate the growing number of the followers of the True Enid. But the schism between the true and false Enid had begun.

Flash forward to today, and we have the latest stoush in the long-running war.
Hodder’s press release flashed across the world, bouncing off satellite and burrowing through cable, planting itself firmly in news sites and discussion forums. The hounds of Enid bayed, blogged and commented, crying for today’s children and the rich cultural experience that they would be losing. This was change for change’s sake and as such we were called to revile it and hold faith with the true Enid.

So what were the changes? On the face of it, it sounds innocuous enough. Hodder announced that the times were a-changing and that Enid’s language had to change with them. If it were just a matter of replacing a few nouns or adjectives there might not have been much of an issue, but even in the small excerpt Hachette Australia provided above, you’ll notice that there is more going on. Judgement calls are being made as to content. The edited version removes reference to ‘the boys’ in relation to climbing and swimming. The female empowerment of this omission is certainly very PC, but misses the point of the passage – that Anne’s major companions are ‘the boys’ and they are part of all she does. It is gendered whitewashing, ensuring that no parent could possibly be upset by anything Enid may have to say.

Which brings me to a question that I’ve not seen answered, or even addressed, in all this: what do children think of this development? Who knows? And really, who actually cares? Certainly not anyone involved in this discussion. This latest bout of fisticuffs in the battle for Enid is between publishers and the readers of news reports and press releases. Parents weigh in, literature critics have something to say. The actual readers of the books are silent over which version they would prefer; the battle rages over their heads. Enid is the domain of the grown-ups. There is almost a belief that Her stories cannot truly be enjoyed until one is an adult, childrens’ tiny heads being incapable of recognising Her genius. She is the ultimate nostalgia: brimming with wholesome, innocent adventure that allows us to point back and say with a sad, smug smile that yes, life was better when we were young.

So what scarring would there be to little Johnny who doesn’t understand what a swotter is (or why it’s awful)? And how would children really react when faced with something beyond their ken? We fear failure for the next generation, so the latest changes attempt to make things easier for them. These efforts, however, intended to render the books age appropriate, have resulted in a solution that appears quite ridiculous. Enid’s stories involve technologies, institutions and ideas straight from post-war Britain. How is it that this aspect can remain relevant to readers yet the vocabulary used is not? She either is relevant or she isn’t. Her stories of upper-middle class children at boarding school solving cold war crime are not precisely tapping into the current affair issues of eight-to-ten-year-olds – so why must the language do so?

Enid is a product of her times and no amount of editing is going to make her more relevant or more readable to her audience.

4 comments:

  1. That's the funny thing, isn't it? You can change her work in little ways to make it modern but it doesn't work. It's like changing the paint on the outside of a house, really. Sure, it looks a little different on first impressions, but the inside of the house is just the same as ever.

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  2. Enid was a product of her times, you are right.
    But, whitewashing the past - erasing the racism, sexism and parochialism - is ultimately dangerous - its also foolish as most people do not go to museums or read history books, therefore their views and opinions of the past will be based upon the modernised and sanitised version in TV, films and modern edited versions of old books - you can easily see a situation where a "lefty" is trying to get support for helping a minority group for things that happened in the past and most people just point to the PC-ed version of the past as that's all they know.

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  3. And, of course, the latest generation of girls is called Sydney and Paisley. So much for renaming Mary and Jill to Pippa and Zoe...

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  4. Zerelda Brass has lost her Victory Rolls in modern reprints. She now has a vague and unspecified elaborate hairstyle, an attempt to make Malory Towers less "1940s".

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