Editing puts a blight on the Five

Back in the dark ages, before the invention of X-Box, Gameboy and other electronic childminding and sedating toys, children had to use something called their imagination to keep themselves amused. I was born in the early 60s, and had a golden childhood in terms of imaginative games and imaginary friends.

I had real friends, too, and one of them, whom I’ll call G, was my best friend when I was 8 or 9, 10, 11 years old. I have a memory of us playing the detectives Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in my neighbour’s swimming pool. She got to be Hopkirk. Hopkirk was cool because he was a ghost. G usually got the cooler characters in our playacting because she was a stronger personality than I.

Which brings us to the characters we playacted for – well, it must have been a year: The Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Naturally G got to be Julian, because he was always the leader and came up with clever solutions. I was delighted being George, the girl who pretended she was a boy. As I was a tomboy (and G and I were both tomboys really) I really identified with George. G snagged Dick, and I got stuck with Anne, who was wimpy. Sigh. The dog Timmy was, well, an invisible dog. Somehow the two of us played all four characters, created our own adventures and villains, and laughed ourselves silly. Our Five was a bit more irreverent than the original.

By the time I was an adult Enid Blyton was out of favour as a children’s author. She’d been accused of racism with Noddy because of Golliwog and I think his relationship with Big Ears was considered suspect, and her writing in general was considered un-PC. I’ve growled before about understanding that books are a product of their time, a capsule of language and behaviour that doesn’t necessarily reflect our ‘careful, don’t tread on anyone’s toes’ world that we now live in.

From being a childhood library staple Blyton and her books were on the outer, with the Famous Five last reprinted in the 1980s.

Famous FiveBut lo! the editors have been busy, and now ten of the 21 Famous Five books have been re-released and updated to make them more palatable for modern children. Publisher Hodder is ditching the more antiquated and non-PC words in the books in favour of what it calls ‘timeless’ language in order to introduce new readers to the series (and make more money out of it, obviously). Farewell then, tinker. In with traveller. No more swotting; it’s studying. Julian, Dick and Anne call their parents Mum and Dad rather than Mother and Father.  Circus boy Nobby in Five Go Off In A Caravan has been renamed Ned however Dick and Aunt Fanny still retain their names (which made G and I giggle at the time). The plots, thankfully, remain unaltered and updating the language doesn’t mean that modern inventions such as computers and mobile phones make it into the books; the stories are still set in their original timeframe. The first Five book was written in 1942, by the way.

Why alter the language in the Famous Five books? Other children’s classics don’t get edited; Black Beauty, What Katy Did, Little Women, The Phoenix and the Carpet etc are all reprinted and available as they were written. Children aren’t stupid. They understand that those books were written in a different time and that language and behaviour has changed since then.  Will Blyton’s original books become real classics only when they are one hundred years old? Answers on a postcard please! Or leave a comment below.

I downloaded a sample first chapter of the edited version of Five on a Treasure Island (available as a freebie on iBooks) earlier this week and was saddened to read Anne musing about how good it was going to be to wear her jeans again after a term at school. Anne? Jeans? As if! (In the original version she’s delighted to be able to wear shorts again – it is, after all, summer).  Anne is teased by Dick about wanting to take her fifteen teddy bears with her on their previous holiday. In the original, it’s fifteen dolls. Obviously big strapping girls of ten don’t play with dolls any more. In general there’s a change every few paragraphs – a tea-house becomes a cafe, some of the dialogue has changed but kept its original meaning. You can see some of the free pages for yourself here.

Thankfully the original editions are also in reprint, for those of us who want to revisit the books of our childhood. Or you can read the whole lot for free here.

All that being said, if you’re feeling very irreverent and in need of lashings of ginger beer, why not watch The Comic Strip’s classic Five Go Mad In Dorset? Dawn French as George is superb!


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