17 April 2011

The question of appeasement in the nursery

Amelia Jane was published from 1937 (first book in 1939), on the cusp of WWII. Enid was famous for never EVER referring to the war, but re-reading the first AJ story, I couldn’t help wondering whether AJ sprang from the idea of an anarchic outsider threatening “Our Way of Life”. Though unschooled in the ways of polite society and a nuisance to “Our” day-to-day life, AJ (the outsider) mayn’t be all bad in enid’s eyes ...

The Plot of the story: Amelia Jane is running around the toy room with a pair of scissors, cutting holes in everything she finds, including bunny’s tale. The toys get angry and get the brownies to lock her in the toy cupboard until the toys feel like letting her out. After a while though, the brownies get attacked by goblins and only Amelia Jane can fly the toy plane to attack the goblins and save the brownies. When she does so, she promises not to be naughty again …

Where’s the politics? Well, I found it on Wikipedia. What’s happening in Europe when Enid writes her first story of the naughty doll? It’s 1937, and Europe is gearing up for WWII: Hitler is building up the German Army in the Rhineland, Spain is degenerating into civil war, and Ideology is the governing principle of the day.

I will note that the Anschluss and the occupation of Czechoslovakia did not happen until after this story was written, but the remilitarisation of the Rhineland had (an event in 1936 that pretty much did what it said on the box. Germany armed itself; Europe debated it but eventually stood back, lacking funds and/or will to demilitarise them again).

Enid could not have failed to hear about the debate. In the UK, the Rhineland topic was much debated (understandable, given recent history). Further, Enid’s first husband, a WWI veteran, was working on a book with Churchill and becoming increasingly depressed by the prospect of a new war (he began drinking as a consequence, which was part of the reason the marriage ended), so it would have been a topic that interested him, particularly in light of another crucial event taking place ...

In a nasty foreign country that Enid never visited, there was a civil war going on. Now, children, we all know that the Spanish are fiery people who are sometimes very badly behaved (Carlotta in St Clares anyone?), but some of them were almost good enough to be considered English (or at least they would be if they weren’t so Spanish). The bad Spanish people won an election, so the good Spanish people under a man called Franco decided to take over the country and make sure all the people were part of the right-thinking element. Well, the bad people didn’t like that at all and so they started a war in Spain. Nasty, unwashed people from all over the world went to help the good Spanish and the bad Spanish, and there were lots of newsmen covering the story too. Even that strange little artist Picasso painted a picture with a foreign name about the people dropping bombs in the war (the Guernica was displayed in 1937).

That charming German fellow, Mr Hitler (the Germans are so very orderly and clean and white, aren’t they?) sent the good Spanish people help: he sent planes to bomb the bad Spanish people. And that was after everyone got so annoyed at him building up his army the year before … wasn’t it silly of them to worry?

I think you have an idea bout where I’m going with this. Look at the significance of the imagery in the story: AJ, the perennially naughty doll, has armed herself and is playing with her new weapon = Germany arming itself. The toys and magic brownies (side note: magic brownies sound like something from Amsterdam) disarm her and lock her up: one option for the international community (alternately, these two elements symbolise WWI and the consequences for Germany. Brownies attacked by goblins? Well all good international people think like Enid, and bad ones are … communist (communism was fearfully on the nose). Amelia Jane rearmed and sent in to help … do I need to spell the whole damn thing out for you? This is not a children’s story, this is as close as Enid could get to joining in the grown-ups’ discussion.

What do I draw from this? Well, it’s not a big leap to say that Enid had fascist tendencies. Xenophobia, Uniforms and Discipline (or at least, marching)? Totally up her alley. Aryan race over foreign looking people? Give her a black shirt and introduce her to Oswald Mosely. If Hitler had made her books required reading, she would have led the army across Europe.

Enid was famous for not ever mentioning the war in her stories. She drew a lot from her own life, however, and so it isn’t surprising that there may be hints of the world around her in the stories she writes. After all, you can’t divorce yourself entirely from the era in which you live.

Or I might just be reading too much into this. I really do like the idea of Amelia Jane as Hitler …

04 April 2011

When the revolution comes, the teddy-bear will be the first against the wall

I’ll admit that I’ve been lazy, but that ends now. I have a shelf of Enids to get through (and more coming in every week, not to mention the possibility of more lost Enids to play with), and a big red-dressed doll breathing down my neck.

Amelia Jane.

The text is double sized, there is an over-abundance of exclamation marks, and brownies are name checked in very the first paragraph. Enid has told you in 50 words that you are 5 years old and will be ready to swallow any pap that she deigns to tell you.This is a book for younger readers, dressed up to look like a novel (my version is a hard back thing of about 180 pages with about 100 words per page and an illustration every 3-4 pages).

This series of short stories was first published in Sunny Stories, EB’s magazine, then bundled up into a book in 1939 (there are three sequels, and a wanna-be sequel written by someone else). Europe was plunging once more into war and our Lady Enid was starting to work on securing enough printing paper as she could from as many publishers. So she cobbled together some stories about a big red doll in a nursery.

Who is Amelia Jane?

“This was Amelia Jane, a big, long-legged doll with an ugly face, a bright red frock, and black curls. She hadn’t come from a shop, like the others, but had been made at home. Shop-toys nearly always have good manners, and know how to behave themselves – but Amelia Jane, not being a shop-toy, had no manners at all, and didn’t care what she said or did!” (page 1)

Oh dear, boys and girls. AJ does have some problems. She’s a working class doll stuck in an upper-class world! She lives in the nursery of the house, and with all the references to the nanny, the nurse and the maids - well, it’s no wonder she’s an agent of anarchy. Disbarred from being either feminine or clever in one fell swoop, AJ is relegated to a grotesque caricature, the charity toy with delusions above her station.

Three things to look out for in this passage:

- Enid’s trick of making appearance indicative of character
- Enid’s insistence that institutionalisation is the only path to social success
- Enid's insistence on the maintenance of social class system, even in War-time England

So why is AJ so very naughty? Good question, I say. And there’s a simple, very Blyton answer: because she did not come from a store. You see, store bought toys all know how to behave, but Amelia Jane was made. Enid’s love of institutionalisation runneth over, subtly indoctrinating those impressionable minds as to the joys of hair brush spankings and behaviour modification. I've spoken before about Enid and brainwashing children - she's just getting in early with AJ.

Further, Enid’s indoctrination has a hidden motive. Note that it’s the store bought toys that are acceptable. Enid is instilling a sense of consumerism in her young audience, which is self serving – particularly as she had a living to make from selling things to children. There was her books, the newsletters, magazines, two fan clubs ... so she had to get the little darlings to go all Aldous Huxley - you know, ‘spend don’t mend’ and all that. I think it’s a reasonable argument to make that all the evils of advertising to children can be laid at our lady Enid’s door. She raised, in effect, a generation of institutionalised spenders.

Amelia Jane is stuck in the middle of all this fascist web of ideology and indoctrination. She feels the effects of the regime, bowing to its harsh dictates from time to time, feeling the heat of its wrath (being sent to Coventry is a severe blow to anyone...). And yet! Time after time she manages to fight her way through the mire of the moral majority and return to her true calling of exposing the hypocrisy of the nursery by reducing it to anarchy ...

What I do like about this story is that, to the invisible children who own the toys in the nursery, Amelia seems to be a prime favourite. She gets played with a lot, is taken on holidays, and generally is shown favour. I love this, as it shows good taste on their part. They are unswayed by appearance or any idea of consumerism. This does seem to not fit with the story, as in a true Enid story, AJ would have been a present from your working class grandmother (whom your social climbing mother takes good care not to associate with) made by her own work-roughened hands.

I also adore Amelia Jane. She sees the self-righteous toys of the nursery and lifts two seamed fingers firmly in their direction. If there were to be a revolution in Blytonia, Amelia Jane would be the Che of that land. Truly she would. And then ... there would be blood ...