Six years ago, the publishers Hachette took the well-meaning yet preposterous step of making ‘sensitive text revisions’ to Enid Blyton’s classic Famous Five books. So ‘tinker’ was changed to ‘traveller’, ‘mother and father’ to ‘mum and dad’ and ‘awful swotter’ to ‘bookworm’. The suggestion that tomboy George needed ‘a good spanking’ became ‘a good talking to’, while girly Anne’s assertion, ‘You see, I do like pretty frocks — and I love my dolls — and you can’t do that if you’re a boy’ had its final clause removed, rendering the sentence throwaway rather than poignant. Unsurprisingly, given that all the charm had been stripped out of them, the revised editions flopped, and last weekend it was reported that Hachette were reverting to the originals. The publishers conceded that the updates had proved ‘very unpopular’.
But Hachette isn’t the only culprit. Earlier this year, I bought my five-year-old daughter one of the Blyton titles I had enjoyed most as a child, The Magic Faraway Tree. I read it aloud to her, expecting to feel warmly nostalgic, but I merely felt baffled and irritated to discover that the publishers, Egmont, had also made several unnecessary changes. The names Fanny and Dick had been changed to Frannie and Rick. At first, I thought this was a misguided effort to avoid schoolchildren giggling at unintentional innuendo, but then I found that the names Jo and Bessie had also been pointlessly updated to Joe and Beth.
Even more annoyingly, the disciplinarian Dame Slap had been renamed Dame Snap, and in the new version she merely shouted at her unfortunate charges rather than hitting them. Despite my distaste at experiencing regular corporal punishment as a child, I couldn’t help but feel that this modification was ludicrous. Dame Slap was meant to be frightening, and her students’ terror was far more plausible when she was given to meting out painful violence rather than simply vocalising her displeasure. This is prudish editing at its most confused, as though mentioning an old-fashioned, outlawed practice were condoning it or advocating that it should be part of modern British schooling.
Decisions to amend old, politically incorrect texts are based on a myth: that children are malleable, delicate creatures. Let’s eradicate anything remotely contentious! But anyone with a child over five knows that to edit the past is to insult both their intelligence and their resilience. My little girl is astute, tough and robust, and gleefully recounts gruesome fairy tales she has heard from friends. A colleague’s young sons delight in reading Old Testament stories of massacres and murders in their 1960s version of the Bible. These parables won’t turn our children into serial killers, and nor will Blyton’s unreconstructed slant on the world adversely influence their characters. I spent ages five to 12 engrossed in Blyton’s novels, and am yet to be branded sexist, racist or classist.
Children are not marooned on the island in Lord of the Flies, detached from the rest of civilisation. They grow up listening to parents, teachers and (especially) their peers, so are not in thrall to the world-views of characters in fictional books. If a child does comes out with a word or phrase from a book that is socially unacceptable today, they are generally told in no uncertain terms not to repeat it.
In fact, older books’ anachronisms can prompt useful conversations about changing attitudes towards race, sex, sexuality and class. The comedy writer Nathaniel Tapley recently encouraged his young son Thomas to read the 1967 children’s book Lion Adventure by Willard Price, remembering the boys’ adventure series as being rip-roaring fun. When his son asked: ‘Daddy, what does, “This is black man’s country’ mean?”’ they went on to discuss how differently people think about race these days, and whether or not people should live together.
So I shall be seeking out the original, unadulterated Blyton novels, free from ill-advised modern-day edits and full of antiquated delights, to read to my little girl. Not only are these books valuable artefacts of their time, they are entertaining miniature history lessons that shouldn’t be whitewashed.
Children should not be patronised or mollycoddled — they should be free to read all about the amusingly quaint ideas, thoughts, words and names from the olden days, however sexist, unpalatable or wrong these may be considered now. They can learn from the past — but only if it remains uncensored.