Enid Blyton: No More Dick, No More Fanny
2 July 2006
There's something very wearisome about the recent outrage over the updating of various Enid Blyton novels. It's probably the way that traditionalists and rightwingers have been able to claim that the changes are yet more examples of (yawn) 'political correctness gone mad', accompanied by endless unfunny articles in the press lampooning the changes, e.g.
'Hello, Big Ears,' said Noddy. 'Apparently the Commission for Golliwog Equality says that it's discrimination if PC Plod arrests immigrants from Narnia for defrauding the Toytown Benefits Office...' etc.
Ho ho. Actually the Noddy stories are not being altered, and the changes to books like 'The Famous Five' and 'The Magic Faraway Tree' series don't seem to have a great deal to do with political correctness. There are some *strange* changes, undoubtedly, such as replacing the word ''biscuits' with 'cookies', apparently in an attempt to appeal to the American market. Given that 'The Famous Five' is quintessentially English, this is a jarring but irrelevant concession to our colonial cousins - it's got about as much bearing on the overall text as getting Mr Toad to drive a Ford.
Likewise, The Enchanted Wood's Dame Slap has become Dame Snap, who now scolds naughty children rather than giving them a smack. We thought about this long and hard, and can't really see that changing the behaviour of a minor character in a children's novel really has much bearing on the smacking/child abuse debate. The character is, after all, Dame Slap, and not Dame Burn Them With A Hot Iron.
Other changes are pretty understandable. In the Faraway Tree stories Fanny and Dick have been changed to Frannie and Rick. This isn't political correctness, it's just that it's finally dawned on the publishers that characters with names equivalent to Vadge and Knob are going to be objects of ridicule, kids being kids. Similarly, 'I say' has been replaced by 'hey'', and 'queer' with ''odd'. And why not? Words do change their meaning. Beware anyone who threatens to give a colleague a 'good roasting' for turning up late.
Even the supposed changes to remove 'racist' overtones are a bit obscure. According to The Times, Bessie, 'a black character with a name associated with slavery', has been turned into a white girl called Beth in the Magic Faraway Tree series. We're not actually sure Bessie *was* black, and even if she was, the Bess/slavery connection is pretty obscure, unless the average child is familiar with Porgy and Bess, so it's more likely that this change is simply an updating of the archaic shortening of Elizabeth to Bessie. The Times, in short, may be barking up the wrong Faraway tree.
This minor, minor alteration didn't stop the papers dredging up the old golliwogs/gypsies issues associated with Blyton. But we can't help but feel those particular accusations were justified. With golliwogs it's less to do with Blyton's intentions when she wrote about golliwogs menacing Noddy, it's more to do with the fact that many people feel uncomfortable with golliwogs as a concept - and let's not forget that the term 'wog' comes from 'golliwog'. In the case of gypsies, well, perpetuating the old stereotype that they're all thieves is just straightforwardly prejudiced.
It's worth noting that criticism of Blyton on similar grounds predates 'political correctness'. Last year documents were discovered at the publisher Macmillan which showed it rejected a Blyton story in 1960 for an 'unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia'.
Having said all this, what the issue boils down to is: should books from a very different era be kept strictly as they are and regarded purely as products of their time, or should they be updated?
For a publisher, this is a pretty straightforward commercial decision. Publishing companies want to sell books. They're not there to preserve books as historical documents: that's what the Bodleian Library is for. If a publisher wants to keep selling books that hark back to a considerably different past, it's entirely likely that they're going to make some changes to stop kids hooting with laughter when a character proclaims 'I'm so very gay today!', or offending potential customers. Take the example of changes in the Famous Five and Secret Seven series, where both sexes are now expected to do their fair share of domestic chores. Lots of parents - particularly the sort that want their children to develop a love of reading - *don't* want to promote outdated gender roles.
Of course, it's ridiculous to suggest that books need to be updated because children can only relate to the present day. If they can make the imaginative leap necessary to enjoy fairy tales, they can probably cope with the idealised 1940s and 50s created by Enid Blyton. But what would the critics prefer, a few minor changes, or Blyton's books going unread because they're either laughably outdated or genuinely offensive? We have to admit, it's a tough call.
What would Noddy do?