76–96: The Famous Five

That I have a lot of time for Blyton is welldocumented. That many other people do not is also fairly common knowledge. Those people should stop reading now if they find the other point of view offensive at all.

Still with me? Good. Time for the Famous Five. For those who missed or have forgotten their childhoods, the Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. George is really Georgina, but insists on being treated as a boy. Timmy is George’s dog. Julian, Dick and Anne are siblings, and George’s cousins. There is controversy over their surname which will make me appear even nerdier than I already do if I try to explain it.

My mother used to read these books in translation when she was a girl. She was particularly confused by the notion of ginger beer – specifically, why these children were allowed beer. Later on, and much to the disapproval of a schoolmistress (one of those with a downer on old Enid), my parents used to bribe me with new books for doing well in tests at school.

The most frustrating thing about my editions is their relentless updating of imperial and pre-decimal measurements to metric and decimal ones. They’re littered with five-pence pieces instead of shillings; with metres instead of yards; with pound coins instead of pound notes. The editors clearly think children are morons – not really an auspicious attitude in an editor of children’s books. That said, they come with the original illustrations, which are worth any amount of angry translation from “twenty-five pence” to “a crown”.

My notes on this series stretch onto eight pages of Word document, so I shall have to pick and choose – to distil. I’ve chosen to do it in the form of character notes.

Julian

Julian seems to have it all. The eldest of the cousins, he’s honest, brave, decisive and forthright. He takes charge and knows what to do – a role model and a source of strength to his younger companions and to his readers, and a firm favourite of the right sort of adults. He’s often the only one able to keep George under any sort of control; his strength of personality is phenomenal, underpinned by a sense of competence, and equality to any situation. Even when he feels distinctly unequal, for that matter, he conceals it; along with his competence goes a ready acceptance of the responsibilities of being the one looked up to.

Probably his greatest talent is his ability to deal with the more obstreperous kind of grown-up. Coolly and calmly he draws their sting and confronts them fearlessly, safe in the knowledge that he has the right of things and unwilling to be cowed by bluster or age. He knows exactly how to press buttons with a smile on his face, and how to make people ridiculous. His impudence is wilful, cheery and an absolute delight.

“There’s quite a lot of people in this house going to be sorry for themselves soon,” said Julian in an irritatingly cheerful voice. “You be careful, Hunchy.”

Hunchy lost his temper suddenly and threw the shoe-brush he was using straight at Julian. Julian caught it deftly and threw it up on the high mantelpiece.

“Thanks,” he said. “Like to throw another?”

—Five Get Into Trouble

“The ruder his words were, the more politely he spoke,” says Blyton in Five Run Away Together. Possibly that is the secret. In any case, it’s beyond dispute that he’s glorious when he’s defiant.

His singleness of purpose can also make him hard-headed, even intransigent, cleaving to a path for sheer stubbornness, but he has the mastery of this tendency in the general run of things. (Also, per these original illustrations, he had some amazing clothes.)

George

George has one of the strongest moral compasses you’ll ever come across, the most undeviating sense of what is decent and acceptable and what is indecent and contemptible. She holds herself to these standards, and despises those others who lapse. She has a better understanding of the ethics of the “round” than many full-grown men and women (“If I can never give them any myself it’s not fair to take them. So I say no.” (Five on a Treasure Island)) and she abhors bad manners and entitlement (if the scene of her taking Junior his breakfast in bed in Five on Finniston Farm doesn’t have you giggling uncontrollably, I think you’ve misplaced your funny bone).

She is short-tempered and loyal and astoundingly brave. She has difficulty comprehending that anyone but Timmy could ever be completely on her side. She is rude and dismissive of Anne’s more conventionally feminine tastes. She is cool under pressure and gloriously pedantic with Americans (“Can’t you say ‘wonderful’? It’s got a D in the middle, you know.” (Five Have Plenty of Fun)). And when roused she is, in the terms of my penultimate note on the entire series, “a one-tomboy wrecking crew”.

It’s impossible not to love her, is what I’m trying to say, even when she makes you want to tear your hair out. “‘Hallo Father,” said George mildly. ‘Surely you know Anne and Julian and Dick! Don’t say you’ve forgotten them already.’” (Five on a Secret Trail.)

Dick

If Julian’s the straight man, Dick’s the funny guy. He can’t resist taking the tiger by the tail – where by the tiger I usually mean George. Sometimes he’s more or less terrible to her; sometimes it’s affectionate teasing.

“Thanks, George,” said Henry, surprised. “You’re better than a boy!”

Dick was passing the door and heard all this. He laughed, and stuck his head in at the door.

“I say, do let me share in these compliments!” he said. “Just tell me I’m as good as a girl, will you?” But all he got was a well-aimed hair-brush and a shoe, and he fled away, laughing.

—Five Go to Mystery Moor


 “That’s what I like about blackbirds,” said Dick, lazily. “They’re proper composers. They make up their own tunes – not like the chaffinch who just carols the same old song again and again and again. Honestly there was one this morning that said it fifty times without stopping.”

—Five Have a Wonderful Time

When he’s not acting as comic relief, he’s as brave and resourceful as his elder brother, though generally deferring to him. He defies people just as boldly, volunteers for danger just as readily, keeps his head just as firmly on his shoulders and acts with decision and conviction just as unhesitatingly. He learns how to cook reasonably competently, apparently. And when there’s occasion for something approaching actual detective work, his mind often works faster than anybody’s.

One last thing that bears mention when discussing Dick is Jo, the gypsy girl who harbours a really king-sized crush on him. To quote from Rules of Civility, “An act of generosity rarely ends a man’s responsibilities toward another; it tends instead to begin them”, and Jo becomes in a way Dick’s special responsibility. She’ll do anything for him, and it’s a very interesting relationship to observe.

Anne

Ah, Anne. Drippy little cowardly Anne, always getting herself into trouble that the rest of the Five have to extricate her from; happier with childish fripperies than anything; hopeless little over-prettified Anne who has to be helped over every obstacle and ruins her pretty dresses because she won’t clothe herself sensibly.

Yeah. Right. Pull the other one. Anne is hands-down amazing, and only gets more so with every passing book. She hero-worships her elder brothers, and likes to compare herself unfavourably to the brash George, but the simplistic “Anne justifies George’s rejection of girldom” attitude is just that – simplistic. By the time I was reading Five Go Off in a Caravan (#5), I was asking for a book or a film centred on the later adventures of Anne with a strong reluctant-hero vibe. “I am sick (fist to the face) to death (heel to the abdomen) of adventures (chair to the head)!” (The dialogue could use work. What am I, a screenwriter? You get the idea.)

Anne “couldn’t be a coward if she tried,” says Julian, if “cowardice is just thinking of your own miserable skin instead of somebody else’s” (Five Get Into Trouble). Of course she’s the most afraid of the Five – then again, she is also the youngest. Besides, it’s surely a commonplace by now that courage isn’t the absence of fear but the overcoming of it. And Anne overcomes it. She volunteers herself for danger, screws her courage to sticking-places, and summons up the blood more times in a single book than most people would in a lifetime. See especially Five Get Into Trouble, Five on a Secret Trail and Five Have a Mystery to Solve. The fact that she has an antiques hobby (Five on Finniston Farm) doesn’t undermine that. “You don’t know our quiet sister Anne quite as well as we do, George,” says Julian in Five Go to Billycock Hill. “She can be really quite fierce if she thinks anyone is spoiling things for others.”

As for more quotidian adventurousness – not necessarily facing down gunmen, but the more usual complaints that she can’t pull her weight – any claim that she lacks it falls down at once. “You’re just as likely to fall as I am,” she expostulates indignantly at the idea she should be left behind on one expedition (Five Run Away Together). She climbs trees and ropes, and swims, and wears an old jersey and jeans so regularly that it’s really the hair that distinguishes her from George’s boyish looks. She’s both clever and sporty at school – top of her class, captain of games (Five Have a Mystery to Solve).

In any case, the stuff she does and herself disparages with terms like “playing house” is pretty damn essential – preparing food, washing up, making beds. She keeps life tidy and organised. She’s there in the background keeping the other four safe and secure – when Dick and Julian dive for jewels in the middle of the night, she’s just behind them with warm coats (Five on a Hike Together).

Ultimately, I think Anne’s attitude can be summed up with a line she uses when George is called “more like a boy than ever” for giving in gracefully. “It isn’t only boys that can learn to give in decently and things like that. Heaps of girls do. Well, I jolly well hope I do myself.” Where George’s attitude is I can’t do that as a girl, so I’ll be a boy, Anne’s is I’m a girl and I can do anything admirable quite as well as any boy. Well, quite.

Timmy

Just a word on dear Timothy, though there’s not much to say that’s not obvious. He’s a big, powerful, affectionate mongrel who scares the everloving hell out of people he’s cross with, and you just know that you’d absolutely adore him.


Five on a Treasure Island
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1942
Pages 244
Best character Julian. All of the Five can have a turn, and this is the one where Julian goes out on the island and experiences the Sublime.

Five Go Adventuring Again
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1943
Pages 186
Best character Old Mrs Sanders, up at the farm.

Five Run Away Together
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1944
Pages 202
Best character Timmy – I have to admit, having a big and very obedient dog helps Julian in his bold defiance routine.

Five Go to Smuggler’s Top
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1945
Pages 202
Best character Uncle Quentin, who shows sometimes where George gets it from.

Five Go Off in a Caravan
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1946
Pages 216
Best character Dick.

Five on Kirrin Island Again
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1947
Pages 198
Best character Budding artist Martin.

Five Go Off to Camp
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1948
Pages 201
Best character Mr Luffy. You’ll understand if you read it.

Five Get Into Trouble
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1949
Pages 185
Best character Aggie, the old housekeeper.

Five Fall Into Adventure
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1950
Pages 202
Best character Jo, the untamed and unkempt but delightful ragamuffin with the crush on Dick.

Five on a Hike Together
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1951
Pages 196
Best character Willis and Johnson, the “awful swotters” who made the whole thing possible.

Five Have a Wonderful Time
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1952
Pages 201
Best character The fire-eater’s wife: “Fredo, you have no brains, not a single brain do you have.”

Five Go Down to the Sea
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1953
Pages 196
Best character Clopper.

Five Go to Mystery Moor
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1954
Pages 182
Best character Young William, although he does require a bit of uselessness from Henry to get his chance to shine.

Five Have Plenty of Fun
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1955
Pages 250
Best character The big, bluff American scientist.

Five on a Secret Trail
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1956
Pages 180
Best character Aunt Fanny. “‘Mother, you don’t seem at all interested in our adventure,’ complained George. ‘Oh, I am, dear,’ said her mother. ‘But you do have such a lot, you know. What have you been up to this time?’”

Five Go to Billycock Hill
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1957
Pages 185
Best character Toby.

Five Get Into a Fix
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1958
Pages 200
Best character Sweet little quiet Aily.

Five on Finniston Farm
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1960
Pages 181
Best character Great-Grandad. There are several wonderful characters in this one, but none who put me in mind quite so much of Beowulf.

Five Go to Demon’s Rocks
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1961
Pages 200
Best character Old Jeremiah.

Five Have a Mystery to Solve
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1962
Pages 170
Best character Anne, revealing her inner tigress.

Five Are Together Again
Author Enid Blyton
Published 1963
Pages 218
Best character George. Hard-headed, cards to the chest, and wonderful.

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