Jolly hockey sticks (or rather, lacrosse sticks)! We returned to 1940s England for some middle-class girls' boarding school fiction this month when we read First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton.
Well, our sour faces said it all! What a change from the joyful cheers that had been raised last month when we agreed on this favourite book! (Please note the elaborate use of exclamation marks here, in tribute to the favourite chapter-ending style of the author.) What a shock to read about Darrell Rivers and her classmates with 30+ years' hindsight and through 21st century eyes. The endemic bullying, the violence (euphemistically described as 'scolding'), the stereotypes, the priggishness, the underlying theme of relatively low expectations for 'first-rate girls', the lack of character development, the celebration of mothers if they were 'sensible' and 'pretty', the general feeling of being drowned in saccharine ... it seemed that no-one really enjoyed the school on the Cornish cliffs this time around (apart from the description of the wonderful swimming pool by the sea). In fact, several of us who had loved Malory Towers as children - despite the secret-code language of 'hols' and 'dormies' and 'beastly' girls - had discovered that we were very reluctant to read it again, all too aware that our precious memories would be unpleasantly shattered. And so they were.
Blyton herself said: '[M]y public, bless them, feel in my books a sense of security, an anchor, a sure knowledge that right is right, and that such things as courage and kindness deserve to be emulated. Naturally the morals or ethics are intrinsic to the story—and therein lies their true power.' Her recurring theme was that good children are rewarded with friends and honours, while naughty children are given a precious chance to repent and become worthy. Problem children are reformed, simply by being part of the school and absorbing its special atmosphere. From our modern perspective however, the judgements are harsh and the treatment of unfortunate or noncomformist children is downright cruel, while gender and social stereotyping makes the reading even more uncomfortable.
Much has been written in the academic literature about Enid Blyton which will not be repeated here, but one of our group was lucky to have had Sheila Ray as a tutor: her 1982 book The Blyton Phenomenon examines the controversy surrounding her work and the reasons for her effective exclusion from the BBC and from public libraries over the years, meaning that her books were often bought as treats or given as gifts. We discussed the negative authority-figure responses to a diet of Blyton, and so we were particularly delighted when another of us brought along a very competent short story she had written aged about eleven called First Term at Riverton Manor: clearly entirely based on Malory Towers!
We also discussed the re-packaging and modern re-editing of the original stories, as well as the spin-offs by Pamela Cox, and we mentioned in passing modern books on the school theme such as Beswitched by Kate Saunders and J K Rowling's Harry Potter series.
Well, we've had enough of middle-class children for the moment, so we're going to tackle David Almond's My Name is Mina this month, the book he published in 2011 as the prequel to his 1998 success, Skellig (which won both the Whitbread Children's Award and the Carnegie Medal).