Giving Enid Blyton Another Chance: The St. Clare’s Series

The Twins at St. Clare’s and The O’Sullivan Twins
Enid Blyton
Originally published 1941 and  1942

My history with these books
As mentioned previously, I really loved Enid Blyton’s book as a child, but I hadn’t read the St. Clare’s series. After my unpleasant re-reading of The Secret Mountain, I was curious to see if I would have similar reactions to Blyton’s other books.

My thoughts
There are six books in the original St. Clare’s series, and three an additional books were added to the series in recent years (with a new author; Blyton was prolific, but not from beyond the grave). The books take place at a British boarding school for girls. I read the first two books in the series, The Twins at St. Clare’s and The O’Sullivan Twins.

As is fairly obvious from the titles, the first two books focus on twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, who are starting at a new boarding school. The girls have recently left another, seemingly more posh school, and they’re not happy about having to attend St. Clare’s, which they see as beneath them. The twins are terrible snobs, and things don’t go very well for them at first at their img_2819new school. Their attitudes don’t endear the twins to their new classmates, and they find the schoolwork much harder than at their old school.

The girls eventually figure out that the school isn’t so bad, and once they stop being so awful, they quickly makes friends. In the second book, it’s a new term, they twins are quite popular, and we see them making friends (and enemies) with several new students in the school.

I enjoyed these books. They have a sort of old-fashioned, pip pip cheerio British quality, and I felt very nostalgic reading about a boarding school, which was always a favorite topic for me as a child. The editions I read are revised, so there wasn’t anything offensive in them (except for some cringe-inducing attitudes about class). I’m not sure whether the original versions had any offensive content.

Something that struck me as interesting is how young the girls seem. Isabel and Pat are said to be 14-and-a-half at the beginning of the first book, and the older students apparently range in age up to 18, but everyone seems much younger. If their age hadn’t been specified, I would have assumed the twins were 10 or 11. Teenage hormones don’t appear to be in evidence, and except for a brief mention of one girl having a pimple, there’s no signs of puberty. I suppose their teenage hormonal urges have been channeled into playing pranks on their teachers and torturing each other. The reading level of these books seems more appropriate for maybe age 9 to 12, so it’s fine that the girls seem younger.

As mentioned above, there are some class issues I found a bit hard to take. One example is the treatment of a character named Sheila. Everyone finds Sheila annoying because she “puts on airs.” They later learn that Sheila was born poor, but her family is now very wealthy, and she puts on airs because she’s insecure. Pat says, “But how awfully silly of Sheila to pretend like that! If she’d told us honestly that her people had made a lot of money, and how pleased she was to be able to come to St. Clare’s, we’d have understood and liked her for it. But all that silly conceit and pretence!”

So, poor Sheila’s only acceptable if she bows and scrapes and tells every0ne how lucky she is to be at St. Clare’s? Ugh.

I found the second book a bit less enjoyable than the first one. Most of the characters exhibit some form of mean girl behavior, and there’s a tacit acceptance of the attitude that it’s ok to be mean to certain people because they’re “sneaks.” There are two girls who both behave very badly, Margery and Erica. Margery is good at sports and is somehow seen as worthy despite being pretty awful, while Erica is loathed by her classmates and shunned for her bad behavior, which isn’t really that different from Margery’s. Both girls seems to be troubled, but Margery ends up winning acceptance, while Erica is banished. There’s an odd scene where the headmistress asks one of the other students for advice on how to deal with Erica and then takes the student’s advice to send Erica away.

But overall, I liked these books, and I will probably read the rest of the series at some point. I think reading Enid Blyton is always going to be somewhat problematic, but I’m glad this experience didn’t leave my jaw on the floor like re-reading The Secret Mountain did.

Does it hold up?
Yes, but there are aspects that will seem dated to kids. For example, the twins have a friend named Lucy, whose family loses all their money. Since they can no longer afford to pay her tuition, Lucy plans to leave school and go to work as a secretary. It’s odd enough that she can legally leave school that young, but the idea that anyone would hire a 14-year-old who hasn’t finished high school seems nuts to a modern reader.

Is there any objectionable content?
Just the aforementioned class issues.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, the books are not too long, and the chapters are all 10 pages or less.

Would I want my kid to read it?
I wouldn’t have any objections.

Availability
The revised editions are still in print, and although not published in the US, they’re easy enough to find online (I bought the whole set, including the three new books on ebay). Older editions are harder to find, but I’ve seen used copies of the 70s paperbacks show up on ebay. The revised versions have very cute covers.

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Series Book Spotlight: Trixie Belden: The Secret of the Mansion

The Secret of the Mansion (Trixie Belden #1)
by Julie Campbell
First published 1948

My history with this book
I was a big Trixie Belden fan as a child, and I owned 8 or 9 of the books, but I don’t think I ever read The Secret of the Mansion, which is the first book in the series. I didn’t own a copy of it as a child (I’ve since remedied that), and the story didn’t seem at all familiar to me as I read it.

My thoughts
Trixie Belden was one of my favorite series as a child. Trixie is sort of the anti-Nancy Drew. She’s 13 and definitely imperfect. She lives on a farm in with her parents, two older brothers, and a bratty little brother. She has lots of chores (which she usually doesn’t want to do), she’s bright and inquisitive, and she’s also sometimes rash and impulsive.

When the book opens, Trixie is on summer break, and she’s bored to tears. Her older brothers are away working as camp counselors, and she doesn’t see her school friends much during the summer since the farm is far from town. Things start to look up when a new family moves into the estate next door. The new neighbors are a very wealthy couple with a daughter named Honey who is Trixie’s age. Trixie befriends Honey, and together, they investigate the supposedly empty run-down mansion of their neighbor, a miser who’s been hospitalized with a serious illness.

Trixie is an imperfect heroine. She’s bright and well-meaning, but she often says or does the wrong thing. When she first meets Honey, she finds the other girl stuck up and she often thinks of Honey as a “sissy” and “fraidy cat,” because Honey is more cautious (i.e., sensible) than Trixie. Honey is still recovering from a serious illness and her overprotective mother hasn’t let her do much, so she’s not as physically adept as Trixie. But Honey ends up beimg_3179ing an excellent counterbalance to Trixie’s impulsive nature, and the friendship they form is one of my favorite things about this series.

There’s something idyllically simple about these books. Trixie is 13, but her biggest problems are trying to earn enough money to buy herself a horse and having to do chores and babysit her little brother. She seems a little younger than what I think of as a typical 13-year-old, but I suppose that’s a reflection of the time the books were written. There are some serious issues dealt with in the book. Trixie and Honey befriend Jim, an orphan who’s run away from his abusive stepfather. (The book is rather matter of fact about the fact that Jim is regularly beaten by his stepfather.) Honey seems to suffer from pretty severe anxiety, as a result of her illness and overprotection from her parents. In the beginning of the book, she has terrible nightmares and is afraid of almost everything. Trixie views the elderly miser in the run-down mansion as a mean old crank, but she then learns that a terrible tragedy in his life made him into a miserable person.

I really enjoyed The Secret of the Mansion, and it made me remember why I liked this series so much. I’m not sure if the quality holds up throughout the series. Julie Campbell wrote the first six books, and the remaining 33 were written by a series of ghost writers under the name Kathryn Kenny. I liked all the books I read as child, and I’m curious to see how they hold up now.

Does it hold up?
Yes, pretty well.

Is there any objectionable content?
I was taken aback when Trixie thinks of Honey as a “sissy,” but that’s the only objectionable language I noticed in the book.

Can you read it aloud?
It’s probably a bit too long.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes.

Availability
The Secret of the Mansion is out of print, but still available in a Random House edition published in the past 10 years or so. Used copies aren’t hard to find, and it’s also available as an ebook.

 

Things Get Very Uncomfortable: The Secret Mountain

The Secret Mountain
Enid Blyton
First published in 1941

My history with this book
I loved Enid Blyton’s books as a child, and I remember this being one of my favorites, so much so that I sought out the same 70s paperback edition that I had once owned and ended up buying a much earlier hardcover edition as well. I didn’t remember much about the plot, beyond it being about a group of children who travel to Africa to rescue their missing parents and that it was very exciting.Secret Mountain new

My thoughts
Enid Blyton is a much-beloved British author of children’s book. She was incredibly prolific, writing over 700 books, and wildly popular (over 600 million books sold). She’s not as well known in the US, but her books are huge in the UK and many other parts of the world. I became a fan because I spent my childhood summers in the Irish countryside with my grandparents. The nearest town was quite small and didn’t have a lot of books available, but Enid Blyton’s books were always plentiful. My grandparents bought many Blyton books for me, and I borrowed others from my cousins. My time spent traipsing around the countryside with my cousins was not unlike the idyllic country adventures Blyton portrays in many of her books, so it makes sense that I loved these books at the time.

I’ve read a couple of Enid Blyton books since I started this project, and although they’re fairly simplistic, I enjoyed them, and I was looking forward to re-reading The Secret Mountain, which I recall liking very much as a child. So far, all of the books I’ve re-read have held up reasonably well. Sadly, The Secret Mountain does not.

It’s the story of four young children, Jack, Peggy, Mike, and Nora. I assumed the four were siblings, but later in the book, it’s mentioned in passing with not much of an explanation that Jack isn’t actually a sibling of the other three, but he lives with them. I assume this was explained in one of the earlier books (The Secret Mountain is the third book in a series, but like most of Blyton’s books, it’s not strictly necessary to read them in order). Their parents, Captain and Mrs. Arnold, are famous aviators. The book begins with the parents flying off to Africa for an adventure. Within a few days, the Arnolds have disappeared, and the children decide to go to Africa to search for them.

This would seem like a tall order for four young children (their ages aren’t specified, but they seem to be around 9 to 12), but the foursome just happen to be friends with Prince Paul of Baronia, a child who has a plane and two servants at his disposal. This book is total childhood wish fulfillment. The Arnold children are able to slip away from their guardian with no trouble, and Prince Paul has unlimited resources and servants who apparently must follow his every order, no matter how dangerous.

So, they head off to Africa, and that’s where things g0t problematic for me. The country is never named, and there’s no mention of the fact that Africa isn’t a country, but a continent with many countries and cultures. But this is a children’s book written in 1941, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect any nuance on this topic. All of the African characters are portrayed as rather simple or evil. Or in some case, simple AND evil. The general attitude toward the African characters feels paternal. It’s pretty creepy, but it’s also not totally unexpected in a book written by a British author in the waning days of the colonial era. The children are joined on their adventure by a young African boy, Mafumu. Mafumu is portrayed as very intelligent (he picks up a lot of English in just a few days with the children), and he’s invaluable to their search. But he’s also very credulous. He develops a bad case of hero worship for Jack after the British boy tries to defend Mafumu from his uncle who beats him at the drop of a hat. That episode leads to this passage:

Secret Mountain old“He says he will be your slave forever,” said Ranni with a grin. “He says he will leave his uncle and his tribe and come and follow the wonderful white boy all his life. He says you are a king of boys!”

Yes, really. My jaw dropped when I read this passage. I’ve come to expect some occasional racially insensitive language when I read older books, but this bit is beyond the pale. I didn’t remember this at all from reading the book as a child. I was probably 7 or 8 when I read The Secret Mountain. Did I not understand the implications of this quote? Did I even truly understand slavery at that age? Probably not. This book is seems to be intended for kids age 10 and up. I tended to read a few years ahead of my age, and I glossed over things I didn’t quite understand.

The Secret Mountain is the first book I’ve re-read for this project that I can’t recommend. If you’re ready to have discussions about slavery and other horrors of the world with your children, there are plenty of books with actual literary merit that would be a better place to start.

Many of Enid Blyton’s books are still in print, and the current editions have had some revisions to remove objectionable language. The Secret Mountain is currently out of print, but there have been recent editions. I don’t know the extent of the changes made to The Secret Mountain, but I would hope the above-mentioned passage has been cut or rewritten.

Does it hold up?
Sadly, no.

Is there any objectionable content?
See above.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Would I want my kid to read it?
No.

Availability
The book is currently out of print, but there were many editions, and it’s not hard to find used copies.