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Never trust a man with thin lips. It is entirely legitimate to dislike someone for being plain, spotty and stupid. Girls, do not sully yourselves with adventure when there are chores to be done! Children, if you meet a middle-aged man living alone in a cliff-side hut, trust him immediately, and ask to see his pictures of rare birds.

This is the wisdom of Enid Blyton. It is an entirely shocking experience to read Blyton again after an absence of nearly thirty years. Every evening, as I read her stories to my five year old, a phrase or an attitude jumps out and gives my nice, pesto-loving, middle-class sensibilities a desperate blow. ‘”Look here,’ said Joan, ‘ ..think of how it must be to be plain and jealous and dull, as Kathleen is.’” This, for example, comes from the Naughtiest Girl Again.

In the Island of Adventure, the two girls cower on the sidelines while their brothers take the lead on exploring caves and jumping into secret passages. The girls cook a mean bacon and eggs, though, when the boys’ sleuthing makes them hungry. Jack and Philip may be drawn to the Island of Adventure; Dinah and Lucy-Ann are still tethered to the Hob of Crushed Ambitions.

Yet Blyton remains hugely popular, and is enjoying a mini renaissance. An Enid Blyton book is bought every minute in the UK.  Hodder bought the rights to her works last year, and celebrated 70 years of the Famous Five with new editions illustrated by Quentin Blake. The Secret Seven will be re-issued next month with drawings by Tony Ross. Digital editions of some books are out already with more to follow. On holiday, I read the books on my iPad – a technology so wondrous to children of Blyton’s day it could only be found at the top of the Faraway Tree.

Blyton’s genius lies in the power of her story-telling. Every night we face the same battle. “Just one more chapter. Please, Mum. I have to know what happens.” My daughter does not want to know what happens, she has to know. It’s an imperative.

Her characters are alive to small people, and have a strange persistence. What devotee of the Famous Five does not, as an adult, divide the female world into George and Anne tribes? (Kate Middleton is a definite Anne, for example. Hilary Clinton is pure George.) I want my children to be readers, to know the joy and comfort of books. Blyton was utterly formative to me as a reader; and I am not alone. I have passionately defended her ever since, without ever actually re-reading her as an adult.

But readers, she is weird. The books are replete with snobbishness, sexism, and a strange determinism about looks. What of the lives the children lead? The four children in the adventure series befriend Bill Smuggs, a man who lives alone as a cliff-side hermit yet seems suspiciously anxious to make friends with them. Should I pass this off to my children as a story, a fantasy, or accompany it with paranoid instructions to beware strangers who want to take them sailing? Perhaps it is a fear founded on a false premise: our children, sadly, lead such constrained lives, that the adventures of Blyton’s characters must seem as unreal as Narnia. Our children are perpetual muggles in a bookish world of magic and adventure.

As adults, we are equipped to deal with historical attitudes we find unpalatable. We can put sexism, racism and other isms into context. We do not dismiss Anthony Trollope because of his shocking, causal anti-semitism. “She was very unlike the Jewess that is ordinarily pictured to us,” Trollope narrates in The Bertrams. “She had no beaky nose, no thin face, no sharp, small, black, bright eyes.”

The historical misdemeanours in adult fiction can be managed, mediated by our own self-conscious lack of prejudice. We shift the perspective where possible - making Shylock a hero, for example, in spite of the text. We excuse where necessary – forgiving Joseph Conrad his racism because his white characters are as venal as his black characters are crude and two-dimensional.

We re-invent Jane Austen as a feminist icon, on the basis of Lizzie Bennet’s wit, forgiving her women their tendency to contract life-threatening illnesses at the merest spatter of rain. We skate entirely over the insufferable and wet Fanny in Mansfield Park, in our rush to celebrate Austen as a writer of strong women.

But children cannot be the sophisticated readers we pride ourselves on being. They are too busy finding out what happens next to congratulate themselves on their very modern approach to race and gender. Sub-text is an adult concept.

How far, then, should we mediate for them? Should we allow them uncensored, unfettered access to opinions from the past which are so very different to our own?

Most children’s classics have now been expunged of racism. The oompa-loompas have long been green oddities, rather than the original African pygmies wrested from the jungle by Willy Wonka. Pippi Longstocking’s father is no longer King of the Cannibals. The Golliwogs have been retired.

It is hard to argue against such changes. Racism can be edited gently out of most of these books. The problems posed by Huckleberry Finn are different – the whole book revolves around slavery. There can be no discreet editing of Huck Finn. Changing its nature amounts to censorship not editing. The line is fine, and subjective.

If we allow for some editing around issues of race, why not of gender? Why can’t we edit Anne to stop being such a drip, or get Philip and Jack to do the washing-up for a change? Women have fought long and hard for equality, and yet we tuck our daughters up with tales of princesses and drippy, domesticated girls written in an age of patriarchy.

Perhaps the answer lies in a balance of dangers. The danger of crossing the line into censorship outweighs the dangers of sexism, or incitement to Potter-esque witchcraft, or of not liking someone because they are plain and dull and spotty. But racism is so dark, so dangerous, that the line between editing and censoring can and must be pushed.

 This column does not have a moral. I do not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Individually, we mediate reality for our children all the time. At the farm in France where I am reading these tales on holiday, a sheep died last week. The forthright farmer told the kids he would leave the corpse in a field for the foxes. Parents objected, and a sheep funeral was hastily invented. Different parents have different notions of how much reality is acceptable

Personally, I fudge it. I allow uncensored access to any books which might be read voraciously, accompanied by lectures on the feminist struggle which will be ignored. Perhaps some of my tedious homilies about millennia of female oppression will get through. Five is an impressionable age. After all, thirty years after I first read Five Go Adventuring Again, in which George guesses the villain’s nature by the shape of his mouth, I still find it impossible to trust men with thin lips. Villains, the lot of them.

 


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