And lashings of ginger beer

“You know it’s bad manners to read a paper when someone else is reading it,” said his father. “Don’t they teach you manners at school?”

“No. They think we learn them at home,” said Roger, cheekily.

Mr. Lynton glared over the top of his newspaper. “Well, then, perhaps I’d better teach you a few these holidays,” he began. And just at that moment Diana burst into the room, beaming.

“Hallo, Mother! ‘Morning, Dad! I say, isn’t this a heavenly day—all daffodils and primroses and sunshine! Gosh, I do love the Easter hols.”

“Get your porridge, dear,” said her mother. “Roger, you haven’t taken all the cream, surely?”

“No, there’s a spot left,” said Roger. “Anyway, it won’t hurt Diana to have plain milk. She’s too fat.”

“I’m not. Am I, Mother?” said Diana indignantly. Her father gave an exasperated click.

“Sit down, Diana. Eat your porridge. If you must be late, be late quietly. Breakfast is at eight o’ clock—and it’s now half-past!”

Mr. Lynton gathered up his newspaper, put it beside his wife’s place, and went out of the room.

“What’s the matter with Dad this morning?” asked Diana, pulling up one of her stockings. “Blow this stocking. It keeps coming down. Why is Dad so mouldy, Mother?”

The Rilloby Fair Mystery

When I was 6, our next-door neighbor passed on a huge box of books from her teenage daughter. Her timing was perfect—I was ripe to read my way through my parents’ failing marriage. I read in bed at night and in bed in the morning, in the bath, on the toilet, when my Mum was drying my hair, in cars before getting nauseous, on visits to people’s homes, anywhere I could. Even punishment could be helpful—my mother frequently sent me to my room for bad behavior…where I read.

My reading was dominated for a period by the voice of one woman. So compelling was her writing that I swore I would never read another author in my life. She was prolific, publishing more than 1,300 books, including 200 children’s novels. She is loved and hated. She is racist and a snob. She is the Sidney Sheldon, the John Grisham, and the Agatha Christie of 20th century English children’s literature. She is Enid Blyton.

Enid Blyton

The middle class family breakfast scene above epitomizes the world Blyton portrayed, but belies the reality of her own life. Born to modest parentage, Enid’s father abandoned his family for “another woman” just before her 13th birthday in 1910; she divorced her first husband in 1942 to marry a second in 1943. More interestingly, rumors of lesbian affairs abound alongside stories of naked tennis matches at her suburban English home and the mistreatment of servants. She has two daughters, one of whom remembers her as a saint, the other who remembers a selfish and distant mother. She presented an idyllic homelife to her readers at Green Hedges, but reality suggests she was a powerful and challenging personality who got what she wanted in adult life in a way that she didn’t in her youth.

Blyton’s world was thrilling. In her most popular series, children (siblings, friends, cousins, blended families—perhaps a nod to her own circumstances) find themselves parent and guardian-free and have the most amazing adventures. In the most popular Famous Five series, Julian, Dick, George (Georgina), Anne and Timmy the dog are mystery-solving fiends. Tomboy George was apparently based on Enid herself and was a heroine to many a future lesbian. Ann, however, is everything a woman ought to be. In Five Have A Mystery to Solve, Ann has the opportunity to organize a cottage for the children to stay in:

Ann enjoyed herself thoroughly. This was the kind of problem she liked—fixing up this and that for the others!…I might get a small ham—the boys would like that. Goodness—this is going to be fun!

All Blyton’s children are emphatically middle class, attending boarding schools and treating working class characters with affection if they are worthy domestic servants who make delicious food, or disdain if they are criminal or black. I remember one exchange between Julian and a working class scoundrel who would start every sentence with “Look ‘ere,” to which Julian would cleverly retort “Look where? I don’t see anything!” I was greatly impressed by his linguistic swordfight and no doubt internalized the fact that working class people are both stupid and inarticulate.

Food is a constant theme in the books and an extraordinary number open with breakfast table scenes like the one above—perhaps because so many of the adventure stories start the first morning of the “hols” when everyone’s back from boarding school.

“The nicest word in the English language is holidays!” said Dick, helping himself to a large spoonful of marmalade. “pass the toast, Anne. Mother, do you feel down-hearted to have us all tearing about the place again?”

“Of course not,” said his mother. “The only thing that really worries me when holidays come, is Food—Food with a capital F. We never seem to have enough in the house when all three of you are back. And by the way—does anyone know what has happened to the sausages that were in the larder?”

Five Have a Mystery to Solve

(It’s easy to see why these books are the source of much ridicule. In the 1980s when I was a teenager and had long outgrown Blyton, the comic geniuses of our generation made a series of hilarious parodies of the Famous Five that are well worth your attention.)

Food is of course important to all children, but this generation lived through World War II or the subsequent years of rationing . Much joy comes from simple ingredients such as a loaf of bread, boiled eggs, butter, fruitcake, and ham. And Anne’s favorite for all Famous Five picnics: “lashings of ginger beer.”

Food looms particularly large in the boarding school books, where life consists of French tests, school plays, lacrosse matches, and the pinnacle of any term: the infamous midnight feast, when the girls stash food and set their alarms to wake up and eat in the night. This was enough to make me long to go to boarding school—an aspiration that was slightly above the middle class strata that my family inhabited. In the Upper Fourth at Malory Towers two lucky girls acquire a home-made tea to be shared later at the feast:

Tongue sandwiches with lettuce, hard-boiled eggs to eat with bread-and-butter, great chunks of new-made cream cheese, potted meat, ripe tomatoes grown in Mrs. Lucy’s brother’s greenhouse, gingerbread cake fresh from the oven, shortbread, a great fruit cake with almonds crowding the top, biscuits of all kinds and six jam sandwiches!

This inspired me and my friend who came for a sleepover to wake up at midnight to eat sweets. It turns out that trying to eat in the middle of a sleep cycle is just not as much fun as one would hope.

Blyton has a precise image of the ideal English schoolgirl: she rewards the characters who are smart and sensible, who work hard, who eschew weak and girlish reactions, who take duty and responsibility seriously and never rat out their friends, unless some greater issue of responsibility is at stake. She detests the vain and self-centered, the indulgent and the introverts, the girls who put their own interests before those of the community. There is no room for the weak and foolish.

Back at Malory Towers after the hols, we join Darrell Rivers:

She heard a sniff from the next bed.

“Gosh—it can’t be Maureen sniffing like any first-former,” thought Darrell, in surprise… “Maureen! What on earth’s the matter?…surely you’re not a first-night sniffer? At your age?”

Maureen’s voice came shakily to Darrell. “I’m always like this at first. I think of Mother and Daddy and what they’re doing at home. I’m sensitive, you know.”

“Better get over being sensitive then,” said Darrell shortly. In her experience people who went round saying that they were sensitive wanted a good shaking up, and, if they were lower school, needed to be laughed out of it.

In the 1970s, the guardians of education started to question and criticize Blyton’s books. There were unproven stories of library bans, a disdain for the simplicity of the writing, and an appropriate horror at the stereotyping of class, race and gender. Since then many of the books have been updated and cleaned up. Of course, I would not want the insidious values of the books taught to new generations of children; on the other hand, these books are what they are. Blyton epitomizes a certain social class of her period and accurately reflects its culture and values. Cleaning up her books feels like a whitewash.

I could probably blog about Blyton for the rest of the year. Her writing was so prolific I have barely touched on her canon. I’m sure these books would be intolerable for a first time reader over the age of ten, but I have incredible affection for them and appreciation for that neighbor who gave me the box of books. I cannot imagine how I would have gotten through my childhood without this delicious escape into a world of empowerment, adventure, and justice.

They all finished their breakfast at last, and went out into the garden. They looked across Kirrin Bay to Kirrin Island. It looked lovely in the morning sun.

“We’ve had a lot of adventures together,” said Julian. “More than most children. They have been exciting, haven’t they?”

Five on Kirrin Island Again

25 responses to “And lashings of ginger beer”

  1. marleyFAN says:

    Nice. As I’ve probably said before, I’m fascinated with things of the young mind. Would you talk more to what you found intriguing (besides the food ) with Blyton’s books? Was it the relationships, or her ability to “capture” you?

    I can remember my early favorite’s being- The Great Brain (Fitzgerald) series, The Hardy Boys series, my uncle’s Playboy magazines, and especially the books by S.E. Hinton. When I started reading an early edition Hardy Boys book to my son, I realized how many challenging and complex words were used.

  2. Eleanor's Papa says:

    Thanks for the fascinating background. The imported-from-London rector at our rural Episcopal church mentioned Blyton in his sermon recently and I realized that I was the only other Enid devotee in the room — and had also enjoyed a dreamy childhood spent largely in Narnia and Blyton novels. Growing up in Vancouver I assumed as a teen I would be off to boarding school Instead, as I remind my parents, I was permently scarred by moving to a smal-town Utah high school.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    WHich small-town in Utah?

  4. Dave says:

    Question for the Southlanders — how do you normally refer to the LA County Museum of Art in everyday speech?

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Loved this nostalgic post, Stella. I was a big Hardy Boys fan when I was a kid, too, Marleyfan, and the Great Brain series. Being a dyed-in-the-wool nerd who could never restrain demonstrating his knowledge (source of a nickname the which I will never tell you), I was also very taken by Encyclopedia Brown.

    Question for the Southlanders — how do you normally refer to the LA County Museum of Art in everyday speech?

    LACK-muh, generally, but some (older, usually) will say LOCK-mah.

  6. Marleyfan says:

    Do tell us the nickname, pullllllease. We won’t tell anyone, and we wouldn’t even use it against you…..much.

    Plus, if you haven’t read it, there’s a great book Papa Married A Mormon also written by Fitzgerald which I found similiar in many ways to My Antonia by Willa Cather.

  7. lisa t. says:

    NIce phonetics, there, Tim.

    I am a bit awed by the fact that Enid didn’t appear on the dusty shelves of my own elementary school’s library. Like you, I read my way through (and beyond) the parents’ divorce. I raced through the Ramona Cleary stories, re-read Judy Blume til they fell apart, loved the Hardy Boys (was much more fond of the guys than I was of Nancy D.)…and then, right around the time some of you were wearing black lipstick, there was the whole Stephen King thing. Anyone else?

    I enjoyed this post very much.

  8. lisa t. says:

    correction above: the ramona stories by beverly cleary.

  9. stella — posts like this are why i love TGW — and you, too, of course.

    my escape books line up with lots already mentioned — hardy boys, nancy drew, boxcar children, great brain, but i also love love loved sherlock holmes. i had this enormous volume of the complete sherlock holmes in quarto. maybe it was two volumes. i had it checked out from the town library forever. i used to lug one of them to or from school every day in 4th grade. round about then i dipped into narnia, but the real winner, of course, was tolkein. i would read the entire trilogy each summer, starting in 6th grade. luckily when i hit high school all those extra volumes of lost tales arrived. my kids love the LOTR movies but i haven’t yet got them to read anything other than the hobbit.

  10. and as for the ginger beer — jameson and ginger beer was my #1 drink this winter. ooh. warm you up.

  11. Tim Wager says:

    Do tell us the nickname, pullllllease. We won’t tell anyone, and we wouldn’t even use it against you…..much.

    Can’t. Won’t. To this day my father pulls it out to needle me every once in a while.

    Mmm . . . Jameson and Ginger Beer sounds just too good.

  12. LP says:

    Ah, yes, Encyclopedia Brown! I also loved Homer Price, too.

  13. Marleyfan says:

    Funk & Wagners *er* Wagnalls
    Mr. Smart E. Pants

    This is the best I can come up with on short notice…

    You really ought not have mentioned it if you didn’t want us thinking about it…

  14. lisa t. says:

    I like “dicktionary”! awesome.

    what about “sherman”?

  15. Eleanor's Papa says:

    MarleyFan : “WHich small-town in Utah? ”

    Brigham City, which is very unlike Vancouver. After 5 years — coinciding with the scars of junior high and high school — my parents came to their senses and moved to Bellingham WA to save my younger brothers. It was too late for me.

    The American side of my list was similar to Bryan’s, although as Canadians we also got Brit’s like Enid as well as our native Anne of Green Gables.

  16. MaRlEyFaN says:

    Elenor’s Padre’-
    Thanks, I’ve never really been to Brigham City (North of Ogden right?).

    I hear a lot of people like Bellingham; many friends left Wenatchee to go to WWU.

  17. eleanor’s papa — i’ve known (of) you for what, 20 years?, and i never knew you had canadian origins.

  18. Eleanor's Papa says:

    Bryan — you need to spend more time around me when I’ve been drinking heavily and my canuck accent gets thick. Of course, by then you’ve been drinking heavily and become less observant.

    Vancouver is practically heaven, which makes forced relocation to Utah even more evil, and explains why i now live on an island where you can see canada from the hot tub.

  19. Miller says:

    This post is soooo good. I especially like the ending: I’m sure these books would be intolerable for a first time reader over the age of ten, but I have incredible affection for them and appreciation for that neighbor who gave me the box of books. I cannot imagine how I would have gotten through my childhood without this delicious escape into a world of empowerment, adventure, and justice.

    As an English literature major, I find myself trapped in the canon of “great writing” and often forget the fiction that dominated my childhood and informed my passion for literature. I’m totally revealing my age here, but I gobbled up the Babysitter’s Club and R.L. Stein (not Goosebumps, but he legit pre-teen murder mystery stuff with tons of sexual innuendo) series of books. Later, I read my mom’s Stephen King novels and got into Shakespeare through a theater camp in the 4th grade – I feel in love with the guy even though I had no idea what it all meant. S.E. Hinton was also a major presense. This is making me want to reread some of the novels from my teenage years, like Perks of Being a Wallflower (the influence of The Smiths and mixed tapes on the characters in the novel had my thirteen-year-old self mesmerized) and Youth in Revolt (the plethera of sexual references were also quite appealing… I see a pattern forming).

    Are these references resonating with anyone, or falling on deaf ears?

    Anyway, Stella, thanks for reminding me of my roots. I’m so excited right now.

  20. Miller says:

    btw, those italics were meant for the book titles, not the parenthetical explanation. that’s what i get for writing a comment under the influence of red wine.

  21. PB says:

    Stella strikes again!! (alliteration is a lovely thing), I love this post–
    I am struck by how much all of this resonates with us, I also read through a funky, nerdy, complicated-family-of-origin childhood. I used to keep a book in my lift up desk and crack the desk open just enough to read through all my subjects. I read Boxcar Children, Mary Poppins,all things Beverly Cleary, S.E. Hinton, Naria, Nancy Drew, whatever I could get my hands on. I also look as an adult at P.L. Travers’ first book and although horrified at the racism, resist the “updated” version. I knew then on some level and believe passionately as a parent, kids can filter for themselves. The get what they need and the rest sluffs off. Often they have so much practice navigating nonsense in their homes, navigating nonsense in literature is easy and truly prefered.
    Thank you Stella.

  22. PB says:

    So obviously I have mastered the bold feature but not the italics and I am only under the influence of 3 cuos of coffee. I might do better with red wine.

  23. andrea says:

    Stella, thank you. I am a little late to comment here (don’t any of you have jobs??). I loved Enid Blyton and all of the FIVE series. I was always attracted to the English descriptions of food and when we would play, we would pretend we were trapped with “tins” of food (it sounds so WWII) and maybe a biscuit (yum! Americans would never be caught in a hole with a biscuit!). I had forgotten all about those FIVE,

  24. beta mum says:

    There are still a lot of fans out there – even kids still read her stuff, including my eight year old son. But I have had to put him right on a number of issues, like gypsies, hankies, the meaning of “Buck up” and why Ann’s such a sap.
    Here’s what I said about her…

  25. […] Maybe it was Stella’s recent post on a similar topic or my own earlier thoughts on being a writer, but I’ve been thinking lately about my interactions with books, about how readers feel about books in various situations or stages of life, about how books can and can’t change you or the world at large. Caleb Crain’s written some terrific posts on related topics over on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. I recently encountered an amazing grad school applicant (alas, we lost her to another school uptown) who’s theorizing the ways readers in certain historical situations have thought of books as extensions of the human body. And for the last few days in particular — sitting for several hours at a time in an intensive history workshop at the Huntington in LA — the notion of the “material text” has turned up again and again: what it means to study books as objects; how, as objects, they interact with people; and how those interactions, at times, leave traces on the object that almost inevitably outlast a book’s human owners. […]