Since Five on a Treasure Island was published in 1942, 100 million copies of the Famous Five books have been sold and generations of children enthralled. Crime Writer Andrew Martin remembers them, and realises that they have influenced his own writing too.
I read all 21 Famous Five books as a boy. Once, when I’d taken out six of the Fives from my local library, I realised I couldn’t fit them all into the saddle bag of my bike, and I stood for five minutes in a light rain, agonising over which title to take back.
That was in about 1973, and the castigation of Blyton as bland – or possibly offensive – and reactionary had begun a decade beforehand. My friends and I were dimly aware of this, so the books were a guilty pleasure, seemingly disapproved of by English teachers and librarians. We read the books as the Five went off on their adventures: without adult approval, we didn’t dare speak to each other about them. Nobody I knew was in the Famous Five Club, which was advertised in some of the earlier editions: ‘Wear the F.F. badge and you will know each other at once. Enid Blyton will wear one too, so you will know her.’
Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog
We would also have recognised any one of the Five instantaneously if they’d materialised before us, possibly because Blyton’s characterisation – contrary to the standard view – is strong. Julian – at 12 – is the oldest, and the alpha male. He is very confident, and gives out the orders. Here he is in Five on a Hike Together: ‘If they ask us what we’re doing, you all know what to say. Chatter nonsense as much as you like – put them off and make them think we’re a bunch of harmless kids. If there are any leading questions asked us – leave me to answer them.’ His 11-year-old brother Dick is usually his willing lieutenant, but he has a mind of his own, and sometimes a note of insubordination creeps in: ‘And now what do you propose to do, Ju?’ he asks, in Five Have Plenty of Fun, when the chief’s plan seems hard to implement.
Was Enid Blyton sexist?
Their sister, aged ten, is Anne, and she is Exhibit A for those who argue that Blyton is irredeemably sexist. It’s true that Anne is repeatedly and patronisingly described by her brothers as ‘a very good little housekeeper’, ‘a proper little housewife’ and similar. And if there is fear to be expressed in the stories, Anne will do it. Her position, stated in Five Have Plenty of Fun, is that ‘I prefer adventures when they’re all over!’ But Anne is braver than most ten-year-olds would be, and she has at least as many good ideas as Dick. In Five on a Treasure Island, it becomes necessary to light a fire, but there is apparently no paper to get it going. It’s Anne who points out that their sandwiches are wrapped in paper.
Then there’s 11-year-old George – technically Georgina – who ‘hates being a girl’. She wants to be a boy, and some of the more socially aware young readers of today might think she is destined to get her wish. When Julian wants to pull rank, he reminds her of her gender: ‘You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.’ Does her desire to be a boy refute or compound the notion of Blyton’s sexism? You could say she reinforces sexist prejudices by denouncing the gender to which she does not wish to belong: ‘It’s stupid being a girl’.
Either way she is – by her strength of will – a terrific character. When, in Five on a Treasure Island, George is ordered away from the dinner table after being rude to her parents, Anne notes that she (George) had just cut herself a piece of cheese, and she does not pop this into her mouth before departing – a great show of self-discipline, given that the Five are incessantly ravenous. (We’ll be coming to the food.)
George’s dog, Timmy, is also well depicted. In that same book, the Five are so excited about the sudden appearance of some gold ingots that they temporarily ignore him: ‘He simply couldn’t understand it, and after a while he went and sat down by himself with his back to the children, and his ears down.’
The most egregious bits of stereotyping have been amended over time. In Five go to Mystery Moor the villain is a ‘gypsy’; now he’s a ‘traveller’. In 2010, subtler modernisations were introduced: jerseys were jumpers, frocks became dresses; Daddy became Dad, but these changes were, as the publishers admit, ‘very unpopular’, and have since been dropped.
Some readers object to the prosperity of the Five. In the first book, Five on a Treasure Island, George’s parents are described as ‘poor’, but this is clearly a relative term. ‘All that’s left of what mother’s family owned,’ laments George, ‘is our own house, Kirrin Cottage, and a farm a little way off – and Kirrin Island.’ Reading Five Go to Smuggler’s Top as a boy, I debated whether I would like to be attended by a manservant, as the Five are, even if that manservant happened to be a creepy individual called Block. As usual Anne has the best insight: ‘It’s a shut face,’ thought Anne to herself. ‘You can’t tell a bit what he’s like inside…’
The Five repeatedly leave their cosseted worlds of home or boarding school in order to go off alone and encounter genuinely frightening grown-ups. Take Mr Barling, who has the sheer nerve to be a smuggler in a place actually called Smuggler’s Top: ‘Even the police know his goings on, but they can’t stop him!’
By virtue of being at large in the countryside for most of the time, the Five are both threatened and free. The books offer literal escapism. ‘We’ll keep right off the main roads, and the second- and third-grade roads,’ says Julian in Five on a Hike Together. ‘We’ll take the little lanes and paths.’
'I was more constrained by social and parental strictures than the Five, but today’s children are more constrained still: they must regard the Five as living in a sort of fantasy world.'
The stories are outdoor adventures, in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson or John Buchan. Yes, Blyton employs a limited vocabulary, but when she does use an unusual word, it is likely to reflect her love of nature: celandines crop up a lot. Mystery Moor is ‘blazing with gorse’. Anne says, ‘…I do so love the smell of gorse. What does it smell of? Vanilla? Hot coconut? It’s a lovely warm smell!’
Their outdoor life chimed in with my best childhood days. My mother ritualistically removed the twigs from my jumper when I walked through the door after a summer evening spent in the woods. I was more constrained by social and parental strictures than the Five, but today’s children are more constrained still: they must regard the Five as living in a sort of fantasy world.
Because they are constantly out roaming, they get very hungry, and thirsty. They do drink ginger beer, incidentally, but not ‘lashings of it’. That comes from the Channel 4 satire of 1982, Five Go Mad in Dorset. But there are ‘lashings’ of other things, including hard-boiled eggs. The five eat a lot of eggs – on Mystery Moor they have them with sardines in sandwiches. The aim was to get young readers salivating, eggs being so scarce during the war. That same meal includes other such delicacies of austerity as tomato, lettuce and ham – plus cherry cake and ‘a large, juicy pear each’.
How the Famous Five influenced my crime stories
Their adventures are also crime stories, and I prefer a plot to be moved forward by a series of deductions, rather than the determined pointing of a little magic wand. Here’s Dick, having a brainwave in Five on a Hike Together: ‘There must be SOME spot on the lake from where we can see not only Tall Stone, but also Tock Hill, Chimney and Steeple, whatever they are! There must be only one spot from which we can see all those four things at the same time – and that’s the spot to hunt for treasure in!’ There is an astonished silence: ‘Julian drew a long breath and clapped Dick on the back.’
I write crime fiction intended for adults, but any close student of my work will see unconscious echoes of the Five stories. One of my novels features a willing young messenger called William. I was half-appalled, half-pleased to find just such a person of that name in Five go to Mystery Moor.
I like to create characters who might or might not turn out to be sinister, like Captain Johnson, owner of the riding stables near the moor: ‘He was hot-tempered, outspoken, and stood no nonsense at all, but he was a wonder with the horses, and loved a good, hearty laugh.’ And if they do turn nasty, I find a cold politeness to be effective, as when George is told, on the Treasure Island, ‘My dear little girl, you are not going home…’
The appeal of Enid Blyton’s series is undiminished. Since 1998 alone, 1.8m Famous Five books have been sold in the UK. I for one am not losing any sleep over the fact, and I wish Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy a happy 75th birthday.
Andrew Martin’s 13th and latest novel is Soot
Remember these? Immortal quotes from The Famous Five books
‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors.’
Five Go Off in a Caravan
‘It wasn’t a bit of good fighting grown-ups. They could do exactly as they liked.’
Five on a Treasure Island
‘Ginger pop for me, thanks!’ said Julian, and everyone else said the same.
Five on a Treasure Island
‘Supper! The best things out of the larder – bought with my uncle’s money, cooked on my aunt’s stove with gas she pays for – yes, supper!’
Five Run Away Together
They stop at the village shop for lemonade. The Cornish shopkeeper describes them as ‘furriners’. Julian replies that it is not so because his ‘mother had a great-aunt who lived in Cornwall’.
Five Go Down to The Sea
‘Course we’re not going to have an adventure!’ said Dick scornfully. ‘Just because we meet two bad-tempered fellows from a circus camp, you think we’re in for an adventure, Anne!’
Five Go Off in a Caravan
The coarse green grass sprang everywhere, and pink thrift grew its cushions in holes and crannies. ‘Well, I think it’s a perfectly lovely place,’ said Anne.
Five on a Treasure Island
‘…you know perfectly well they will be out practically all day long.’
Aunt Fanny to Uncle Quentin in Five Have Plenty of Fun
‘Well, he’s an awfully chewy kind of dog,’ said George.
Five on a Treasure Island.