Nobby not acceptable but Dick and Fanny fine: Enid Blyton for the Twenty-first Century

In Saturday’s Guardian there was an article about Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books getting a ‘makeover’ – changing some of the terminology to fit modern times, for example ‘mother’ to ‘mum’, ‘mercy me’ to ‘oh no’, and ‘fellow’ to ‘old man’. The new language is supposed to be ‘timeless’ according to Hodder, but presumably it’s as timeless as today – or rather, today’s children’s language as adult editors imagine it. Presumably in fifty years’ time the language of speech in these books will seem not only dated, but anachronistic, as the rest of the books are remaining unchanged. The reasoning is that the language puts children off reading the books, but I think this underestimates the intelligence of children.  (I like this comment from Tony Summerfield, who runs the Enid Blyton Society: ‘How can you change Nobby to Ned and yet leave Dick and Fanny?’)

Announcing such things does generate column inches – Blyton’s books have been edited before now anyway, I remember noticing, for example, shorts changing into jeans; certainly one of the Adventure series (The Valley of Adventure, I think) had the comic (but frightening because he was black) negro, complete with ‘nigger’ references, altered, but at a surprisingly recent date, at least well into the 1970s. I would read this aloud (at bedtime to my children, I hasten to add) from a 1950s hardback edition, changing such references as I went along, but I explained to my children what I was doing and that this was language which was no longer acceptable. My children also enjoyed me reading from old Rupert annuals at bedtime, and I remember having to edit as I went along (this time quite sizeable chunks of) Rupert’s visits to Coon Island.

Whatever one’s thoughts about her, by the standards of many children’s books published today, Blyton was good at constructing well-written English. I did a stint for a few years at our local primary school helping with reading and looking after the infant library, and I was horrified at the poor workmanship and abysmal quality of the written English, particularly in classic books which had been simplified for a younger audience, but in a lot of the younger fiction and nonfiction generally. Blyton’s plots were pretty poor and very repetitive, and the whole construction of her adventure books was very derivative of the early twentieth century adventure genre for adults (Dornford Yates, in particular); but she could write well, which is why she always has been, and is still popular with readers.

Personally I enjoy reading novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Fanny Burney, Smollett, and the like. Quite honestly, most of the plots of these books are pretty thin, and what was original then has been repeated over and over again since to become tropes or clichés; the picaresque stories are formulaic, all have the same plot with only slight variations. What makes reading them enjoyable is being able to immerse oneself into the period, the language being essential to that, and the language is a delight to read. If you were to update the language of Tristram Shandy, which I consider to be perhaps the greatest novel in the English language, so that you were left only with modern language and the (nonexistent) plot, it just wouldn’t be worth reading.

We also have the bringing of period dramas into the modern age – I realise it is often done, with Shakespeare, for example, being moved around both geographically and temporally; when I was at school we did a production of Julius Caesar that was set in an indeterminate mid twentieth-century central American state (my only contribution was lending a copy of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats to play as the audience arrived because the English teacher thought it sounded Latin American). This can work quite well, but often does not, particularly on television where in many cases the plot is also altered until it’s barely recognisable, and the dialogue is modernised, which raises the question ‘why isn’t it called something else?’.

Which brings me to Steven Moffat’s twenty-first century Sherlock Holmes reworking that was on television last night. I had my doubts before it started, and once it had started I didn’t bother to watch much of it, although I absorbed bits of it as it was on in one room of our house. What I did see makes me agree whole-heartedly with Sam Wollaston’s review in today’s Guardian in which he rather cleverly refers to ‘Sherlock Whomes’, although I would disagree with his use of the term ‘compelling’. By the way, the printed article refers to a ‘handsome carriage’, and I thought about this for a while in case it was intentional for a reason that, having not watched most of the programme, escaped me; it has, however, been corrected online to ‘hansom’.

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