A New Appreciation of My Favorite Childhood Books
(Original Link: http://www.grit.com/a-long-time-coming/enid-blyton-childhood-books.aspx)
First off let me say that I know nothing about English author Enid Blyton’s personal life. It may be that she didn’t have a hearty appetite at all. I have never read a biography of the woman or combed the web for fascinating facts about her. My information comes entirely from the first-hand reading of primary texts. My conclusions about her are entirely my own, and one of them is this: Enid Blyton had a real appreciation for good, farm-grown food, and anyone that took so much care to write about every meal that her characters had, must have loved to eat.
The food in Blyton’s Famous Five books isn’t fancy. It’s just good, plain food that’s travelled a very short distance – from the hands of the farmer’s wife to the stomachs of four hungry kids. Lest you think that this means interminable passages along the lines of the excruciatingly long and boring dinner scene in the movie The Age of Innocence – it doesn’t. It’s more like this:
Nothing could be nicer than icy-cold, creamy farm milk from the dairy on a hot day like this. They all sat down to tea, and the four visitors wished they had not had such a big lunch! A large ham sat on the table, and there were crusty loaves of new bread. Crisp lettuces, dewy and cool, and red radishes were side by side in a big glass dish. On the sideboard was an enormous cake, and beside it a dish of scones. Great slabs of butter and jugs of creamy milk were there, too, with honey and home-made jam.And this:
They all sat down to dinner. There was a big meat-pie, a cold ham, salad, potatoes in their jackets, and homemade pickles. It really was difficult to know what to choose. “Have some of both,” said Mrs. Andrews, cutting the meat-pie. “Begin with the pie and go on with the ham. That's the best of living on a farm, you know - you do get plenty to eat.” After the first course there were plums and thick cream, or jam tarts and the same cream.
It’s just enough to leave you thinking – geez. That sounds really good.
By now, perhaps, you are asking, Enid Blyton? Never heard of her. Who is this woman who writes so beguilingly about food?
I didn’t want to do it, but having aroused you to the point of feeling like you need a snack, I suppose I owe you a couple of facts, and for that, I will have to do some research.
*As it turns out, a couple of facts are all that I’m going to offer you.
Enid Mary Blyton was born on August 11th in 1897 in London. She died aged 71 in 1968 and has sold 600 million books. She trained as a teacher. Her first husband worked at the London publishers George Newnes and he helped her publish her first stories in 1924. Apparently she was exactly the kind of writer that publishing houses are still looking for today – ruthlessly active in promoting an image of herself to the public, interacting with her fans, and basically turning herself into a brand. If she had lived into the age of the Internet no doubt she would have maintained an extremely active and much visited blog.
There’s a fair amount of information out there about her personal life – and quite frankly much of it is not flattering and I have no interest in repeating it here, or linking to it. This is why I’m not much of a one for reading biographies. I don’t want to know all the sordid details of the personal lives of people whose work I admire.
And anyway, it’s not relevant to this post. What is relevant is that I didn’t find any information one way or the other about Ms. Blyton’s appetite, culinary tastes or diet. Again, I must refer to the primary texts and passages like this:
“Hot scones,” said George, lifting the lid off a dish. “I never thought I’d like hot scones on a summer’s day, but these look heavenly. Running with butter! Just how I like them!”
The four looked at the home-made buns and biscuits and the great fruit cake. They stared at the dishes of home-made jam, and the big plate of ripe plums. Then they looked at Mrs. Philpot, sitting behind a very big teapot, pouring out cups of tea.And this:
The high tea that awaited them was truly magnificent. A huge ham gleaming as pink as Timmy’s tongue; a salad fit for a king. In fact, as Dick said, fit for several kings, it was so enormous. It had in it everything that anyone could possibly want. “Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radishes, mustard and cress, carrot grated up - that is carrot, isn’t it, Mrs. Penruthlan?” said Dick. “And lashings of hard-boiled eggs.” There was an enormous tureen of new potatoes, all gleaming with melted butter, scattered with parsley. There was a big bottle of home-made salad cream. “Look at that cream cheese, too,” marveled Dick, quite overcome. “And that fruit cake. And are those drop-scones, or what? Are we supposed to have something of everything, Mrs Penruthlan?”
“Oh, yes,” said the plump little woman, smiling at Dick’s pleasure. “And there’s a cherry tart made with our own cherries, and our own cream with it. I know what hungry children are. I’ve had seven of my own, all married and gone away. So I have to make do with other people’s when I can get them.”How could you take such care to chronicle every meal that goes into your character’s bellies, and sing the praises of farm life and farm food, and NOT love to eat? What I wouldn’t give to be able to crawl into one of these novels and eat my way back out of it!
*I spent most of my middle-grade reading years in Europe, and boy did we read. We took family trips to the library. There was little to nothing in English on our black and white television. We listened to old radio programs. And no trip to the grocery store on base was complete without picking up the latest Enid Blyton paperback. Because when I was a kid in Europe Enid Blyton was what you picked up while you were waiting in line at the check-out stand. She was ubiquitous. I don’t remember ever seeing an Enid Blyton book in a store or anywhere else once I got back to the states, and until I began re-reading my saved copies recently I never read another one.
I kept all of my Famous Five and Secret Seven books and also my Malory Towers boarding school series, and considered myself cultured, but it turns out that my collection is but the tip of the iceberg. For awhile when my daughter was really little I watched a lot of PBS Sprout, and one day while watching the credits roll for Make Way for Noddy, with my eyes more or less glazed over, I saw they were based on the books by Enid Blyton.
It was almost as startling a discovery as finding out that Bongo, the first cartoon sequence in Disney’s Fun and Fancy Free (Disney’s 9th full-length animated film and better known for Mickey and the Beanstalk) was based on a story by Sinclair Lewis.
Let that sink in – Sinclair Lewis. The man that wrote Babbit. Main Street. Elmer Gantry. Some of the greatest American Novels of all time and some of my all-time favorite re-reads. He also wrote a story about a bear named Bongo.
It just goes to show you. You just never know. By which I mean, there’s hope for me yet.
*I’ve recently re-read all of my Enid Blyton books. At about forty to forty-five thousand words a pop they’re easily digestible at the rate of about one a day (if you’ve got nothing else to do…I wish!). I’ve also managed to acquire quite a few more. My favorite by far is The Famous Five series. These stories are about four cousins and one awesome dog (thus, the “five”) who spend all of their “holidays” (time off from school) together, wandering about the countryside, hiking, cycling, swimming and eating, and invariably wandering into the midst of some crime being committed. Julian is the oldest, then Dick, then George, and Anne is the youngest. Their ages range from somewhere around 16 down to somewhere around 11. George is actually short for Georgina, who, ahead of her time in the women’s lib department, refuses to be a girly girl. She wears her hair like a boy, and dresses like a boy, and won’t answer unless she’s addressed as George. She’s not a feminist though – she doesn’t insist on equal rights for girls – but only that she wants to be a boy, and that she’s “as good as a boy”, and the highest complement she receives in these books is when she’s mistaken for a boy or, when she does something particularly courageous or clever being told she’s “as good as any boy”. As a grown woman with a daughter to raise this isn’t exactly the healthiest of messages to be sending young women, but hey, it was written in the 40s. To excuse Enid on this point I offer the following wise words from one of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke:
The girl and the woman, in their new, their own unfolding, will but in passing be imitators of masculine ways, good and bad, and repeaters of masculine professions. After the uncertainty of such transitions it will become apparent that women were only going through the profusion and the vicissitude of those (often ridiculous) disguises in order to cleanse their own most characteristic nature of the distorting influences of the other sex. Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper people, more human people, than easygoing man, who is not pulled down below the surface of life by the weight of any fruit of his body, and who, presumptuous and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, borne its full time in suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she will have stripped off the conventions of mere femininity in the mutations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching today will be surprised and struck by it…Some day there will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being. (From Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet).
There are other things in these stories with which one ought to take a grain of salt. The children are not always nice to other kids when those other kids are rude or annoying. The five’s respect must be earned, which is fine – but they occasionally talk to others in ways that I would never talk to someone in a million years.
And I have to admit that as a parent in the 21st century the stories strike me these days as a little unbelievable. Let my 11-year-old go wandering around the countryside un-chaperoned – and let her keep doing it when it turns out she has a penchant for stumbling onto bad guys? Are you nuts? Like so much in literature The Famous Five stories are unrealistic, idealistic and formulaic.
They are also – as unrealistic, idealistic and formulaic things can sometimes be – awesome.
*In closing, and for the upcoming gardening season’s inspiration, I will leave you with these words from the slow food movement…I mean, from Enid Blyton’s Five on a Hike Together:
“Why is it that people on farms always have the most delicious food? I mean, surely people in towns can bottle raspberries and pickle onions and make cream cheese?”
“Well either they can’t or they don’t,” said George “My mother does all those things – and even when she lived in a town she did. Anyway, I’m going to when I’m grown-up. It must be so wonderful to offer home-made things by the score when people come to a meal!”