Wednesday 27 August 2008

Five Go To Therapy Together - by John Dougherty

The press coverage of the poll that last week named Enid Blyton as Britain’s favourite author couldn’t avoid mentioning the many criticisms of her work as “sexist, racist and simplistic”. But I’m surprised that so far no-one has (to my knowledge) seen fit to point out that the Famous Five, those four determinedly upper-middle-class kids with their equally upper-middle-class dog, are members of what is probably the most dysfunctional family in children’s literature.

‘Nonsense!’ I hear you scoff. [Oh, wasn’t it you? I’m sure somebody just scoffed ‘Nonsense!’ Well, whoever it was, let’s hear how the rest of the scoff goes:] ‘The most dysfunctional family in children’s literature surely has to be one created by, oooh, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, at a guess. Or perhaps Melvin Burgess. But surely not the Kirrin clan? Okay, George has gender-identity issues and Julian’s a bit bossy and superior, but as a family there’s nothing really wrong with them.’

I beg to differ. Take a look at the opening chapters of Five on a Treasure Island and you’ll see what I mean.

The story begins with Anne, Dick and Julian being told by their parents, ‘You’re not coming on holiday with us. We’re off to Scotland and you’re going to stay with your Uncle Quentin (Daddy’s brother) and his family.’

To me, even this seems a little strange. It’s not as if Scotland won’t let children in, after all. But it gets much weirder. You see, although the eldest of these three kids is eleven, they have never met Uncle Quentin before.

Let me just repeat that with a bit of unnecessary capitalisation: They Have Never Met Their Father’s Brother Before. Over a period of eleven years, and despite the fact that they live within driving distance of one another, these two brothers have never made the effort to get their families together. But more than that, until the holiday plans are made, the children don’t even know they’ve got a ten-year-old cousin. The family with whom the children are to spend their summer are clearly Never Spoken About.

It gets worse. A mere few days after the children are told the news that they’re being abandoned for the summer and sent to stay with people who, though blood-relatives, are complete strangers, it all happens. Off they go to Kirrin Bay, where Mummy and Daddy drop them off, scarper without so much as stopping for a cup of tea, and are Never Seen Again.

Actually, I can’t be certain that it’s absolutely never. They may, over the course of the next 21 books, pop up for half a page at some point. But effectively they are from this moment forward written out of their children’s lives. At the end of the summer Julian, Dick and Anne return to boarding school; every holiday from then on is spent either at Kirrin Cottage, or fending for themselves and dependent for survival on the kindness of rosy-cheeked farmers’ wives. They are effectively cast adrift from their nuclear family, cut off apart from the odd letter telling them they still can’t come home.

But what’s really strange is that, as a child who lapped up the Five’s adventures, I never noticed how bizarre this family set-up was. In fact, I think it was one of the things I loved about them - they got to do things without Mummy and Daddy telling them they couldn’t.

Thinking about it, much of my favourite reading as a child took place in a parent-free world. The Pevenseys disappeared off to Narnia without their Responsible Adults, for instance. James Henry Trotter lost his parents to a ravenous rhinoceros, while Mr and Mrs Bucket couldn’t take Charlie to the Chocolate Factory themselves and sent him with his Grandpa instead. And now that I’m a writer of children’s books myself, I seem to have a need to get rid of the parents as quickly as possible. In none of my own books do the parents figure hugely. Even when - as in my latest book, Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy - they are crucial to the plot, they’re offstage for most of the action.

The thing is, parents get in the way. They stop children having adventures. And what would be horribly damaging for a child in real life can be wonderfully liberating in the world of the imagination.


Lucy Coats said...

I'd never thought about the FF parent thing before--how right you are. Dysfunctional is definitely the word. I agree too about the parental presence being a pain when you're writing. I get rid of mine as soon as possible--conferences are good when they're teenagers and can fend for themselves. But it's going to be against the law if I leave my current 8 yr old boy on his own, isn't it? I'm not even going to try and get that one past the eagle-eyed editor!

Nick Green said...

I've long had a theory that World War 2 had a massive formative effect on children's literature. The evacuation of all those children to the homes of strangers provided a context for countless adventures both real and fictional; it's everywhere in the literature of the time, either directly or indirectly. The Narnia books owe their existence to it. It's hard to imagine: half an entire nation's children sent off on parent-free 'adventures'. Some no doubt nice, some not so nice. (My own father enjoyed his, I know).

Anonymous said...

Scarpering without tea is better than being killed off.

Anyway, in translation the Five improve a great deal, and very little of the poshness gets in the way, because we know for a fact that this is what all English people are like.

John Dougherty said...

Lucy: maybe this is why school stories work so well? It's much easier to have your 8-year-old escape direct adult supervision without the need for intervention from social services...

Nick: fascinating theory re. WWII - rings very true to me.

Bookwitch: "Scarpering without tea is better than being killed off." For the parents, certainly! Have you read Matt Haig's 'Shadow Forest'? I thoroughy enjoyed it, but I'll bet there were some serious discussions with his editor about the end of the first chapter!

Anonymous said...

"Okay, George has gender-identity issues and Julian’s a bit bossy and superior, but as a family there’s nothing really wrong with them.’"

This line made me snort, out loud, at work. Loudly.

Good job.