As a little girl growing up in the thin-walled, red-bricked ‘burbs, The Famous Five books were my chief escapism. Every book (and there were 21!) opened up a paradise where children roamed the countryside, free of interfering grown-ups and camped in tents during the “hols”. They “pulled on jerseys” and munched on gorgeous picnics of “potted meat” and juicy tomatoes, supplied by jolly farmers wives. They were intoxicatingly posh and went – oh envy – to boarding school. They perennially glugged something called ginger beer, (which I admiringly assumed was alcoholic).
Even though they were aged between ten and 13, Julian, Dick, Anne, George (and Timmy the dog) were very sensible. They solved mysteries, found secret passages and foiled nasty crooks trying to steal Uncle Quentin’s secret formulas (which were created for “the good of the country”). The nasty crooks were always easy to spot, being “queer-looking”, swarthy and/or bearded and resolutely not dog-lovers. Not only were the Five allowed to have a dog, it could understand humans and be “set on” strangers (who were usually unwashed gypsies and suspicious foreigners brandishing revolvers).
I loved all the paraphernalia of adventuring, the “field glasses”, the torches, the “rubber-soled shoes”. I loved the expressions, the “going off for a bathe”, the “I say!”s , the “Blow”s the “Pooh!”s and the “Wizard!”s. I noticed the sexism – Anne always had to do the washing-up and there was a lot of discussion about girls not being “as good as” boys – or girls wanting to dress “like boys” – but thought it silly. I would ask my mum for a special picnic to accompany each delicious reading – I would devour each book in one, breathless frenzy and I needed a Prince’s shrimp paste on Sunblest to sustain me (the closest thing we had to potted meat). With the 70th anniversary of Enid Blyton’s best loved children’s series imminent, I thought it high time I revisited the FF to see if the books were as good as I remembered. Here is what I found.
Five go to Smuggler’s Top (1945)
What I leant: Baddies might pretend to be deaf manservants who signal with flashing lights from secret towers in order to steal Uncle Quentin’s secret inventions because they involved draining the marshes which would impede “smuggling”. Sample quote: “Queer people come here, and they come secretly without anyone knowing.” “Well, sir – I think this is a queer house, with lots of queer things happening in it,” said Julian.
Five Fall into Adventure (1950)
What I learnt: Hooting like an owl is a universal signal. Gypsies and their caravans “pong”. Child kidnappers can be easily fooled with the help of the simpleton paper-boy. Ransom notes can be surprisingly erudite. Sample quotes: “That ragamuffin girl gave me a good bang,” he said, half admiringly. “Little demon, isn’t she! A bit of a live wire!” “We want the second notebook, the one with figures in, and we mean to have it.” “They’ll put me into a Home for Bad Girls and I’ll never get out again – because I am a bad girl and I do bad things.”
Five Go Adventuring Again (1943)
What I learnt: Bearded men can’t be trusted. Artists are queer folk. Baddies might pretend to be teachers to steal Uncle Quentin’s secret formulas. Timmy the dog will know better. It’s ok to use the word “queer” 16 times in a 171- page story. Sample quotes “The pony went at a spanking trot.” “It’s most terribly thrilling,” said Julian. “Absolutely super!” “He makes me feel all prickly down my back. I don’t like his nasty mouth,” said George.
Five are Together Again (1963) What I learnt: Scarlet fever must be quarantined. Professors are always forgetful. Circuses often shelter criminals. Chimpanzees can be trained as burglars. If you act like a fathead, you will get a jolly good thrashing. Sample quotes “…Monty and Winks the clowns – the Dancing Donkey – Mr Wooh the Wonder Wizard – gosh, it sounded quite a circus.” “If danger was about, he could deal with it better than George could. After all, she was only a girl!” “Are you mad, Tinker,” demanded Julian. “Didn’t you guess that foreign fellow was trying to pump you about your father’s hush-hush job?”
Five Go to Mystery Moor (1954)
What I learnt: Gypsies communicate with patrins and wear gold earrings but don’t know how to use handkerchiefs. Some people are “bricks”. Counterfeiting is bad. Gorse bushes are very prickly. “Julian stood and thought. “The gypsies wont come after us in this mist, “ he said. “I’ve a good mind to hide this money somewhere, and then walk back to get the police.” “Timmy was licking George as if he would never stop, and his tail waved to and fro, to and fro.”
Five Go Down to the Sea (1953)
What I learnt: Cornwall is a peculiar place. Shipwrecking can be lucrative. Being locked in a cave is beastly. Crawling through secret passages is filthy. When Timmy puts his tail down, he is gloomy. Sample quotes: “You be the folks that old Mrs Penruthlan be having in?” said the village shopkeeper. “She do be expecting of you. Furriners, bain’t you?” “Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radishes, mustard and cress, carrot grated up…” said Dick. “And lashings of hard boiled eggs.”
Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946)
What I learnt: Gypsy children are dirty and ragged. Girls love washing up and cooking. Wizard foods include boiled eggs, tomato sandwiches, potted meat, plums, hot buns, ham, scones, ginger cakes and home-made toffees. Sample quotes: “Well, you’re only a girl,” said Anne indignantly. “You’re not a man, not even a boy!” “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!”