Why is the Famous Five series no longer a jolly good read?

I grew up with Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (George) and their dog, Timothy (Timmy). I feel like I explored Kirrin Island with them under the watchful gaze of the nurturing Aunty Fanny and the detached Uncle Quentin.

My 6-year-old nephew, Ethan, adores old books in their original format and prefers his Enid Blyton well-worn. He spends many happy hours in second-hand bookstores and at charity sales poring over books that have been loved by many before him. When I paged through Ethan’s old copies of the Famous Five, memories of long afternoons curled up with the books came flooding back. So, I was eager to start reading them with my book-crazy 6-year-old son, Sam.

He was given a few for his sixth birthday so, rather than borrow Ethan’s, I took Sam’s out the cupboard and started paging through them. Excitement turned to disappointment when I found our versions differed from Ethan’s originals.

I’ll give you a few examples. The ‘house mistress’ is now a ‘teacher’, ‘fellows’ are now ‘old men’ and George, rather than being ‘jolly lonely’ now ‘get(s) lonely all by herself’. In short, the words and expressions which so aptly captured the flavour of their era are gone and in their place are bland alternatives.

Shocked but intrigued, I searched Google to find out more.

According to the Guardian, the publisher, Hodder, announced in 2010 “that it was ‘sensitively and carefully’ revising Blyton’s text after research with children and parents showed that the author’s old-fashioned language and dated expressions were preventing young readers from enjoying the stories.”

Hodder assured the public that the stories would remain unchanged and only the language would be modernised. “The intention is to make the text ‘timeless’ rather than 21st century, with no modern slang – or references to mobile phones – introduced.”

I can see the justification for removing words that have come to mean something other than what they originally did, particularly if they have evolved into terms of abuse or ridicule. Tony Summerfield, who runs the Enid Blyton Society, told the Guardian that we should change “language which has perhaps become offensive or has different meanings, or any racist references”.  So, I can stomach that the Famous Five no longer have “gay days” and tricky situations no longer elicit a “How queer”.

But is it necessary to sanitise language to such an extent that our kids need not learn that certain teachers were called housemistresses? The rewriting of the Famous Five also involves replacing the word “peculiar” with “very strange”. Why? Are we worried our kids won’t understand the longer word? If so, I think we underestimate them. Surely we want our children to understand the origin and evolution of that ever-changing construct we call language? And to have a sense of the past while living in the present?

The fan site enidblyton.net points out that all references to corporal punishment in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood/Faraway Tree series punishment have been changed to reprimands.

Who are we trying to protect? Corporal punishment was an acceptable form of discipline until fairly recently. I have vivid memories of friends returning to class unable to sit down after a visit to the principal’s office. What is wrong with our children knowing this? It provides a good basis for a discussion about children’s rights and what is considered acceptable today.

(Incidentally, the fan site also notes that in some Blyton revisions black villains are now “ordinary white men”. Perhaps the fan site itself needs a bit of a rewrite.)

Not content with simply updating the language, the characters in the Faraway Tree series have also been given a makeover. Modern reprints have characters named Joe, Beth and Frannie. But my companions in the Enchanted Wood were Jo, Bessie and Fanny.

Wikipedia offers the following explanations for these changes –

  • Joe is the more commonly used spelling for males;
  • Bessie is now a less common nickname for Elizabeth than Beth;
  • Fanny is slang for vagina in several English speaking countries;
  • Similarly, cousin Dick is now Rick as the former is now slang for penis;
  • Dame Slap is now Dame Snap as her punishment of choice has graduated from slapping to snapping.

I’m not convinced. Those of you who read my previous column on names and our emotional attachment to them will have guessed that these gratuitous rewrites anger me.

What’s in a name? Go on, ask the many Dicks and Fannies who are insulted by this unnecessary change.