Updated Feb 2018
Children’s author Enid Blyton helped shape my gender identity as a “tomboy.” Her Famous Five series included a girl who called herself George, dressed as a boy, and was always delighted to be mistaken as one. In contrast, her cousin Anne liked dolls and dresses and always leaped at the opportunity to keep house. Both characters were sympathetic, but Blyton clearly favored George.
I liked dolls and was offended to be mistaken as a boy, but if I could have chosen, I’d have been George. She ran around getting dirty and she could row a boat all by herself, to the island she owned. She didn’t take nonsense from anybody. She was powerful.
I read every single Famous Five book I could find. The library didn’t carry all of them, but most libraries carried at least a couple. So any time I found myself at a new library, I went straight for the card catalog.
I returned to Blyton in adulthood, once again scouring libraries for her books. The minute I found her books online, I ordered them all straight from the U.K. Now I own every single one Famous Five book, and my spouse and I have been reading them to our kids off and on for several years.
I enjoy them as an adult now, and not uncritically. Blyton wrote in the 1940s-1960s in the U.K., and back then people had much different views of race, class, and gender. So I take note of those aspects in her books.
Let’s start with gender. George is powerful, but Anne is disempowered. She’s a scaredy-cat and her love of dolls is “babyish.” She goes along with the group but never initiates anything. Her love of traditional feminine activities is looked down upon. It’s not all bad, of course. Her caution makes her a good spy and often keeps her from getting captured so she can run for help. But on the whole, I absorbed the message that girlishness made you weak.
Next, class. The Five were solidly middle-class. The villains were mostly working class. The Five often hooked up with another child in their adventures, and those children often tended to be working class — often the unwashed masses who were in need of shoes or a pocket handkerchief, but once given them, used them wrong. Sometimes their parents were the villains and they had to be sent to a civilized home after the Five landed their parents in jail.
On the other hand, the working class status of the friends gave them spunk, critical climbing and exploration skills, a range of animal companions, and the freedom to sneak around. So long as they were willing to conform to the middle class standards of the Five, they were accepted as equals.
And finally, race. I saved this one for last because it’s most interesting to me. One of the books featured a possibly* mixed-race boy nicknamed “Sooty” because the kids at his school thought his black face looked like soot. (Side note: I edited this to say “possibly” because in the comments, J makes a good case for Sooty being mixed Anglo/Mediterranean or “Black Irish” with dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin.)
My spouse and I had a heck of a time with the name “Sooty”! We were worried that if we read the book as is, our kids use the nickname on the playground and we’d get called into the principal’s office. Nobody wants to get called into the principal’s office! So we explained to the kids that “Sooty” was rude nowadays and substituted his actual name, Pierre, which was quite tricky to do on the fly. I kept saying “Soo-Pierre.” (We did well enough, by the way, that there weren’t any playground incidents.)
Pierre’s nickname was offensive by today’s standards, but the kid himself was cool. He invented nifty gadgets, he was a star student at school, and he was clever and brave. With Pierre, Blyton subverted a whole bunch of racial stereotypes. Nicely done.
The other people of color that the Five run into are “travellers,” which in modern terms would mean Roma. (The term “gypsies” is actually a nasty racial slur). The color of their skin is not important to the narrative and is rarely called out — the books focus on the Roma characters’ class status much more strongly.
One Roma girl, Jo, appears in many adventures. She’s one of the barefoot and dirty people, and also one of the most admired. Most fascinating to me, though, is that in more than one adventure, she is George’s doppleganger. (Check out the excerpt below.)
What does that make George?
I have no answer to that question, so I have to leave it hanging.
So I have no definitive answers to the question of race in Enid Blyton’s work, but quite a bit of curiosity! I updated this post today because of the recent Guardian article, “First modern Britons had ‘dark to black’ skin, Cheddar Man DNA analysis reveals.”
But I will say that I enjoy her books. Give them a try. You might too.
Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Jo,’ said the girl.
‘But that’s a boy’s name,’ said Dick.
‘So’s George. But you said she was a girl,’ said Jo, licking the last bits of ice-cream from her fingers.
‘Yes, but George is short for Georgina,’ said Anne. ‘What’s Jo short for?’
‘Don’t know,’ said Jo. ‘I never heard. All I know is I’m a girl and my name is Jo.’
‘It’s probably short for Josephine,’ said Julian.
. . .
‘It’s really strange,’ said Anne, at last, ‘but Jo is awfully like you, George – same short curly hair – only Jo’s is terribly messy and tangly – same freckles, dozens of them – same turned-up nose . . .’
‘Same way of sticking her chin up in the air, same scowl, same glare!’ said Dick. George put on her fiercest glare at these remarks, which she didn’t like at all.
‘Well, all I can say I hope I haven’t her layers of dirt. . .’
For Further Reading
“Primary school removes Enid Blyton’s Famous Five children’s classics so it could win a race equality award”, Craig McKenzie, The Daily Mail, December 7 2013.
Blyton, who died in 1968, wrote some 800 books. They have been translated into nearly 90 languages and sold more than 600million copies worldwide.
One of her best-known characters is Noddy, although her greatest output involved adventure books such as The Famous Five and The Secret Seven.
Many contained references that were commonplace at the time but were later deemed racist, sexist or anti-Semitic and subsequently cut or altered.
“Are the Famous Five as racist and sexist as I remember?” by Anna-Marie Crowhurst, Xojane, May 29, 2012.
. . . erm yes, yes they are. They’re still amazing though.
“Jo, the gypsy,” Serge, from the website serge-passions.fr.
Jo is the most recurrent secondary character in the Famous Five series. We see her again in “Five Have A Wonderful Time” and then in “Five Have Plenty of Fun”. Enid Blyton often calls on Travellers (gypsies) in her books. The Galliano Circus series shows us young Carlotta [?], a circus rider, whom we also meet in the “St Clare’s” series. Those characters give the author the opportunity to get us closer to people of a different background, who are often critized, and whose talents and qualitites she underlines.
An attaching character, Jo loves her freedom, and refuses any constraints. She loves walking barefoot, singing and dancing in front of the fire. It’s the rebellious, free, primary side of childhood that Enid Byton makes us feel, and we are not insensitive to it.
“They are not black (I mean here of African descent)”.
As I understand it, we are all of African descent.
Hi Kristin, I loved your post on the Famous Five. I’m enjoying reading the books again as an adult. There are some things that are quite jarring, especially the gender roles.
However I couldn’t see your interpretation of Sooty as a mixed race character. Unless you mean just French-English mix? In which case, an Anglo and Mediterranean background…
These quotes are taken directly from the book:
“He’s awfully dark! Hair as black as soot, eyes like bits of coal, eyebrows that look as if they’ve been put in with charcoal. And his name means the black one doesn’t it? Le-noir – that’s French for black.”
“He certainly was very, very dark! Black hair black eyes, black eyebrows and a brown face.”
To me, the ‘awfully dark’ just means his hair/eyes/eyebrows in general.
From my interpretation, the nickname ‘Sooty’ seemed to be more to do with the colour of his hair rather than his skin.
The ‘brown face’ was likely to just mean olive skinned or tanned. Certainly the very white, middle class Famous Five comment to each other that they have become very ‘brown’ in the sunshine. (I guess these days we would say tanned instead).
I had in mind the ‘Black Irish’ (think Pierce Brisbane or Colin Farrell) who have dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. They are not black (I mean here of African descent) rather are thought to have their ‘darker’ features due to influx of other races such as Vikings and Spaniards. Also, France is geographically close to or part of the Mediterranean, where darker hair/eyes and skin tone are the norm.
So, for me Sooty was half-French with very black hair, black eyebrows, very dark brown eyes and olive skin. I didn’t think the nickname was that bad as it was based on his hair colour, as per the quote. And, as far as English schoolboy nicknames, in this context it was pretty tame! Of course, I am going to teach my kids that it is inappropriate to make up a nickname based on appearance in any case!
Anyway, as I said really enjoyed reading your post!
Thank you so much! It’s good to have that perspective.