Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

Published 1938  chapter 13 – The Summer Goes By





No one came to interfere with the children. They lived together on the island, playing, working, eating, drinking, bathing – doing just as they liked, and yet having to do certain duties in order to keep their farmyard going properly.

Sometimes Jack and Mike went off in the boat at night to get something they needed from either Jack’s farm or Aunt Harriet’s. Mike managed to get into his aunt’s house one night and get some of his and the girls’ clothes – two or three dresses for the girls, and a coat and shorts for himself. Clothes were rather a difficulty, for they got dirty and ragged on the island, and as the girls had none to change into, it was difficult to keep their dresses clean and mended



Peggy… was so glad she had been sensible enough to bring her work-basket with her to the secret island. She could stop their clothes from falling to pieces by keeping an eye on them, and stitching them as soon as they were torn.



observations: Talking about Monica Dickens’ book The House at World’s End recently, I mentioned this one – a much simpler affair, but similar in having that holy grail for all right-thinking child readers: their contemporaries living alone in a secret house. (There is also Blyton’s seminal 1940 The Treasure Hunters, where the children find a house in the woods to claim as their own.)

This one is high concept: four children are mistreated by relatives and run away to an island, where they manage to build themselves a house and remain hidden for ages. In a strange nod to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (see the fairies here), they know a bank where the wild thyme grows, and sleep there the first night:

Heyho for a starry night and a heathery bed! … they lay on their backs in the sand, looking up at the evening sky, listening to the crackle of the wood, and smelling a mixture of wood-smoke and honeysuckle.

And while we’re raising the tone: the children aren’t actually shipwrecked, but still they brought to mind George Orwell’s comments:

Some desert-island stories, of course, are worse than others, but none is altogether bad when it sticks to the actual concrete details of the struggle to keep alive. A list of the objects in a shipwrecked man's possession is probably the surest winner in fiction, surer even than a trial scene.

And – mutatis mutandis – this is exactly what is still gripping in this book, and was even more gripping when I first read it many many years ago. Peggy-who-sews is also the cook (it’s not a book to challenge stereotypes), and she makes rice pudding, custard and toffee on the campfire, which seems impressive, and (now) completely impossible, but it would be daft to pick at this in a book where the children live for six months in a house they have made out of willow branches.

It is also true that Blyton is the most terrible writer, and that anyone who had disabled this key - ! - on her typewriter would have been doing the world a favour. But I still have a soft spot for The Secret Island, and have always thought it foolish to try to stop children from reading Blyton – she surely encouraged more readers than any other author, in her day.

Jeopardy for children in books has long been a subject close to the heart of Clothes in Bookssee here for the evidence. More children running away in this book.


The top picture shows two children at Green Lake in Seattle, the lower one is from a church camp in Oregon.

10 comments:

  1. You've just reminded me, Moira, of what a phenomenon Blyton's work has been. Even in modern times kids are still reading those books. She did indeed bring millions of children to reading and that in itself is a good thing.

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  2. Yes - I very much feel that if children are excited about any books and reading, they'll have the chance to develop their tastes later....

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  3. I used to love this book, Moira as a kid. It was Enid Blyton ho got me into reading.

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    1. So glad to hear you say that Sarah, I feel exactly the same. I even remember discussing it with other children, we all loved the book, but one girl wondered if the poor boy - Jack - would have worn shoes, and we all admitted that we secretly wondered where they had gone to the loo! A primary school bookgroup - all reading, all excited and charmed.

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  4. Seems like a Ransome rip off.Blyton's output was so prolific no one person could have written them even allowing for the recycled plots.Unpleasant woman by all accounts

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    1. Not nearly so detailed and careful as Ransome! I know what you mean about the sheer amount she produced, but on the other hand she didn't spend much time editing or perfecting them. And yes, she sounds rather horrible...

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  5. I loved this book as a child and still think fondly of it ...Enid Blyton's books encouraged a passion for books and reading ...it created an expectation that reading was a real pleasure ...and encouraged an exploration of the World of books that awaited an avid reader ....bliss

    I'm not over keen on shining bright lights on an Author's life any more than on any other artist or craftsman...to have to approve of an Author's life might tend to be a bit limiting ...?

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    1. Thanks for visiting, and I agree: Enid Blyton must have encouraged more readers than almost anyone else. I think to rule out an author because of private life or views would be a real shame, but sometimes knowing more about an author can illuminate their work.

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  6. I don't know how you can say 'Enid is the most terrible writer...' To this day, she remains one of the most popular children's authors of all times - that is some achievement and she most certainly was a very talented writer.

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    1. Thanks for coming by. As I hoped I'd made clear in the piece, Enid Blyton was and is tremendously popular, and children love her. I was one of those who loved reading her, and grabbed any books by her I could get my hands on. I think she has done more than most authors to bring children to reading, to make them look books. But I do also think her style is not very good: that does not prevent me admiring her achievements.

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