18 November 2011

The iron fist in the velvet glove

I can hardly believe that chapter five is reached and Elizabeth STILL hasn't got past her first day.

I could rant about the mixed philosophy of the school yet again, but I think it would be better just to let the principals of the school tell you themselves (for some reason there are two - I don't know why, they don't seem to actually do anything except lollop about in their drawing room). Elizabeth goes to see them this chapter (can I say that I NEVER went to see a principal when I started a new school - and I started at new schools four times in high school). Here's what they have to say to Elizabeth (after laughing delightedly when she said that she was going to be naughty):

"We never punish anyone, Elizabeth," said Miss Best, suddenly looking stern again. "Didn't you know that?"
"No I didn't," said Elizabeth in astonishment. "What do you do when people are naughty, then?"
"Oh, we leave any naughty person to the rest of the children to deal with," said Miss Best. "Every week the school holds a meeting, you know, and the children themselves decide what is to be done with boys and girls who don't behave themselves. It won't bother
us if you are naughty - but you may perhaps find that you make the children angry."

A cold shiver ran down my spine when I read that passage. I pictured them sitting there with sneaky hip flasks getting quite squiffy during their conversations with the new brats (it's what I'd do). And that is all I'm going to say about it (there must be something terribly wrong with me today if I'm not running at that red flag).

This chapter "Elizabeth is naughty" exposes Elizabeth to the true brutality that Whyteleaf School authorities (by that I mean the students) are capable of.

Basic plot: Following that not very encouraging meeting with the principals, Elizabeth goes to supper where she is still in food coventry, makes a joke (Enid never did have a very good sense of humour, so I won't try to repeat the joke), then finds out that she has an assigned bed-time.

Elizabeth, predictably, objects to going to bed at 8 p.m.

Irish Nora's response?

"No wonder you're such a cross-patch! my mother says that late hours make children stupid, bad-tempered, and slow."

I rather love that response: it's supremely arrogant (in that Nora has known Elizabeth for less than half a day) and slavishly apes an absentee parent all in one. Nora, however, is a true daughter of Enid: she doesn't stop her parent aping there. No, she takes it to its logical conclusion and decides become an absentee supervisor herself, expecting Elizabeth to do as she's told while she buggers off back to the playroom.

In a massive piece of perversity, Elizabeth doesn't go to bed (gasp). She instead goes to play on the swings (honestly, playroom, swings? If you're going to be naughty, steal some cigarettes and go sit behind the bike shed!). Honestly, this girl is made to be a rebel. I mean, we all know the dangerous effects of swing sets, don't we? It's a slippery slope to slides (I tried not to make the pun, really I did), then merry-go-rounds before she's a full-on jungle gym junkie. Tsk tsk ...

Fortunately for Irish Nora, back-up is at hand to save Elizabeth from this slippery slope. A boy comes along and orders her to go to bed or he'll dob her in to the other kids (fittingly, we're not told which boy - and neither is she - what she doesn't know, she can't dob. Gotta love corrupt government).

"Pooh!" said Elizabeth, and she swung herself very had indeed, put out her foot and kicked the boy so vigorously that he fell right over. Elizabeth squealed with laughter - but not for long! The boy jumped up, ran to the swing and shook Elizabeth off. He caught hold of her dark curls and pulled them so hard that the little girl yelled with pain.
The boy grinned at her and said "serve you right!"

That fight scene started so promisingly. Finally, I thought, Elizabeth is going to actually do something worth her title. Then it was matched and bettered by the other kid and my hopes were dashed.

It would have been so much better if he had hit his head or done some actual injury that would REALLY get Elizabeth in to trouble. All that happened was that Elizabeth came out second best in a fight, and we got a glimpse of the iron fist inside the velvet glove. How is Elizabeth supposed to be naughty when the corrupt system in which she is operating allows right-minded individuals to commit violence with impunity while punishing the minority for the same infractions? This is so unfair to we readers ...

Because of course Elizabeth is going to be dobbed in to the authorites by this unknown boy. And did I mention that he's a monitor?

Here ends Elizabeth's first day in Blytonia. The score? Elizaeth 0, Blytonia 4 (perhaps 5). We'll see how day 2 goes next time.

11 November 2011

Shrimp paste and bullying

Blast Enid – she’s gone and annoyed me again.

You may well be thinking well there’s a news flash, but you have to understand that even though I may rail at the old girl, even though I am fully aware that I am not going to agree with a thing she says, even though I read the books with an eye to ripping their guts out, I still open one of her books hoping that this book will not disappoint me. I’m all grown up and I still want to believe Enid when she tells me that if you do this and this and this you will be pretty and successful and everyone will like you ...

So then, when I open a book and read something as stupid as I read in this chapter, I just get annoyed.

Chapter 4 is called “Elizabeth gets in to trouble”. And it annoys me because it’s so very very stupid. The basic outline of the chapter is Elizabeth trying to break every rule that happens to come her way, or to make herself obnoxious, and coming up against the Irish bouncer Nora each time (mixed in is the obligatory oohing and ahhhing over classrooms, but classroom decor porn is more Enid’s thing than mine – seriously, only food is described in more detail). She does things like put too many items on her dressing table (apparently punishable by drawing and quartering) not sharing her food (which sends a person to food Coventry), and having messy hair. I mean, the scope of this girl’s villainy is beyond compare.

Of course, she doesn’t like doing any of these things, and she’s quite upset when she gets punished for them. When bouncer Nora takes her stuff, she instantly wants to redeem it, and she belatedly tries to share her food (but being in food Coventry, she’s turned down ...) and she’s horrified that her hair is messy. You really get the impression that she’s really not trying too hard (and, being a Blyton character, she is smitten with the classrooms – what is it with Enid and big square rooms with desks in it? They aren’t really that exciting ...), which of course gives you the SUBTLE hint that perhaps Elizabeth will stay ...

Seriously, the girl is trying to get expelled and she’s making a fuss over food sharing? If it were me, I’d be sneaking around trying to find what I could burn down. Or perhaps I would look at a fake bomb threat, or taking a classroom full of students hostage. I’d be home again in a day or two – a week, tops (you know, once the police got through with me). Problem solved.

Of course, Elizabeth's problem with disobedience may have something to do with the entirely unexpected form of discipline. I think I mentioned in an earlier post about the bullying aspect of this school. Nora the Irish does like to ‘shove’ her way past a recalcitrant student in her charge, but more insidious is the fact that the students go straight to ridicule the moment someone steps out of their pre-conceived notion of good behaviour. They mock Elizabeth over EVERYTHING she does. And remember, Elizabeth has been at the school for perhaps two hours at this point. She’s tired, her parents shipped her off to school with no notice and no proper goodbye, and ridicule is the most appropriate way to deal with her? Welcome to Blytonia people: this is where sanity comes to die.

I got to the end of the chapter thinking that there was very little that a box of matches wouldn’t solve at that school ...

I forgot to mention the food, which is the only redeeming feature of the chapter. It appears that first day is the day all the students eat the ENTIRE swag of food sent on by their parents. There is an orgy of chocolate cake, jam, shrimp paste, currant cake and other assorted fish pastes. I kept imagining that the fish pastes were contaminated with some sort of salmonella – that would have made the story soooo much more interesting.

03 November 2011

The greatest disappointment

I went shopping today.

I was going clothes shopping, but as invariably happens I got sidetracked by all the pretty books in the bookshop. And then I remembered that there is a new Jasper Fforde book out this month and the clothes were forgotten ...

Anyway, I came across the most wonderful sight whilst I was browsing: A large picture-book hardback version of the Magic Faraway Tree.

I was instantly besotted. It took me right back to a similar version I had growing up (I think that they just changed the cover and re-released the version I had as a child). I grabbed the book, all ready to buy it and put it aside for the grandchildren (perhaps not my own grandchildren, just some poor benighted souls who may not be exposed to the glorious wrongness of Enid) when I had the foresight to open it.

I was instantly confused. The story was about Joe, Beth, Frannie, and their cousin Rick. For a moment I thought that this was a new story or one about characters I had not come across before - I mean, Enid DID write well over 800 books, I may well have forgotten one or two. But then I realised what the abomination really was: it was a re-worked version.

Joe, Beth, Frannie, and their cousin Rick were the updated versions of Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick. Dame Slap became Dame Snap and no longer hits people (thus losing all of her menace).

It was terrible. My beautiful picture book had been vilely defaced. I'd heard about such a travesty occurring, but to see it was worse than heart-breaking. I departed that place, the burning gall of disappointment threatening to choke me as I went ...

Let me know if you have had similar disappointments with the works of the great lady.

27 October 2011

Venus Fly trap

So we come to chapter three: Elizabeth makes a bad beginning.

We left our abandoned puppy spurning the affections of a teacher (that sounds sooooo dodgy) as she stared up at the kennel she was to call home. I assume it had kennel-like aspects to it, as Enid never bothers to describe the place (not like the castle of Malory towers, where you were subjected to a minute description every time Enid ran out of storyline).

Predictably, the first thing they do is eat. This is an Enid Blyton story, after all. And I have it on good authority (Enid's) that not liking rice pudding makes you a bad person:

“There was hot soup first, then beef, carrots, dumplings, onions and potatoes, then rice pudding and golden syrup. Elizabeth was so hungry that she ate everything, though at home she certainly would have pushed away the rice pudding.”

That kinda makes me wish that I didn’t throw away the rice pudding I bought the other week when I was shopping (although in my defence, it was artificially sweetened and tasted like crap – I’m not bad, honest I’m not).

So all the kids sit around eating and discussing the inappropriate and irresponsible presents that their parents gave them at Easter (what kind of moron gives a child a PUPPY, when the child lives at boarding school and can’t take the pet with them? Call the RSPCA!). Elizabeth, eating rice pudding (which makes you good) remembers that she wants to be thought of as bad, so takes the opportunity to compare a teacher to a guinea pig.

Whoa – living life on the edge, aren’t we?

Anyway, all the other kids get all pissy about that, then the fun comes. Elizabeth gets shown to her dorm. We’re given, of course, a lengthy description of polished floor boards and blue rugs and trunks that the menials have lugged up the stairs for these little brats.

And we meet Nora.

Do you want to know what Nora is like? She’s Irish. Seriously, that’s Enid’s most used adjective with Nora O’Sullivan (Irish name – check). I am not kidding. The first time there is any description of her, it’s a description of her “blue Irish eyes”. Because all blue eyes are automatically Irish, of course. Of course this sly little adjective colours the way you see Nora (later on, she’s described as “the angry Irish girl” and another time Elizabeth is frightened of her because she’s “big and strong” – so I see a rugby forward with anger management issues). She is, however, heart and mind part of the establishment.

It’s Nora who tells the new girls what form the establishment takes. The school’s co-ed, which is a rarity, Enid liking her children segregated and all.
Anyway, we learn rules like:
- Only 6 things are allowed on your dressing table
- No matter how much money your parents give you, you have to put it in a box and the school shares it out by way of set pocket money
- The sharing of extra funds is determined at school meetings,
- Bad children are fined at school meetings
- School meetings are run by students (teacher participation is sporadic and rare – they’re probably off on holidays with Elizabeth’s parents ...)

You know, I thought the indoctrination by students was bad at Malory Towers where you had strict teachers doling out punishment. But trial by (Blyton) students? No ... just, no.

The school is a progressive school, based on an actual independent school in the UK called Summerhill. Summerhill is a democratic community, governed by school meetings run by the students, and where all classes are optional. The ethos of that school is “freedom, not licence”. The whole idea is that the child is meant to know best what how to learn. Incidentally, the school still runs.

I can see how Enid would be attracted to such an idea - kids governing themselves without pesky parents. I can also see where Enid struggled with it. She is a traditionalist at heart, with her school having compulsory uniforms, compulsory classes, and a militaristic feel from the student body that is slightly alarming. It’s as though the students are inches away from starting a cult or something, there’s just this menacing feel that I can’t quite like, as though all they need is one student to come along and promise more pocket money, harsher penalties for offenders and the extermination of the Jews or something ...

You know what it is? It’s the shadow of Lord of the Flies. There is this bullying feel to the whole place that dresses up as school spirit. The children feel obliged to teach each other lessons all the time, so they’re ALWAYS on other student’s backs to conform conform conform. And then there’s public humiliation – because ALL punishment and trials take place in front of the WHOLE school, which of course is the best way to deal with adolescents ...

In real life, Summerhill School apparently runs quite well, but we are in Blytonia, where, at the end of the day, children DON’T know best unless they are parroting what their absentee parents tell them (in an effort to win their love). And Blytonia, don’t forget, has the angry Irish girl working as an enforcer. The whole thing is just an endorsement of Enid’s idea of (lazy) parenting really – it’s taken it beyond mere absenteeism to actually having the children do all the work. Quite frankly, it’s Enid’s own personal wet dream.

Anyway, we end the chapter with Elizabeth saying to the others that she isn’t going to share her food. DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNN .....

25 October 2011

Quick Clarification

I can't believe that I have to do this, but I am going to anyway.

It's come to my attention that there's a troll out there who decided to use the name of my blog in order to start creepy conversations with people online. They don't only use my name, they use a few aliases, but they've started a google+ account and a wordpress account in the name of Blytonly Obvious

Two things you should know:

1. I have this page and a Facebook page. One day I may get round to having a twitter feed (but I am essentially lazy and really just rely on you adding this blog to your RSS feed to find out when I post). No other site with the name Blytonly Obvious is run by me (and really, who would pick such a name? Even I think the name is bad, and it's my name).

2. I never comment anywhere using the Blytonly Obvious name. I have a life outside of this blog, and it doesn't involve creepy spruiking of this blog and starting inappropriate conversations with strangers.

If you want an idea of what I'm referring to, this blog post is where I found my explanation. (As a side note, if you do check it out, look down at the comments - I am vain enough to be flattered by someone calling my blog "reasonably well known". It's a step up from "my flatmate doesn't even read it")

Anyway, I'm off to wash my hands thoroughly. The whole thing makes me feel a bit icky, and I saw Contagion tonight, which has left me completely terrified contracting a random bat/pig virus ...

20 October 2011

Sartorial Child Abuse and Dull Train Chapters

With a visit by the establishment underway in Canberra at the moment (and Australians suddenly deciding that yes, we do like wearing hats your Majesty, this one may look like I just bought it from Myer, but I’ve had it for years – honest!), I thought I should get back to Enid’s latest establishment.

Chapter two is imaginatively called “Elizabeth goes to school”. I’m so glad Enid clears this sort of stuff up for us – I’d never understand what was going on otherwise.

We open with Elizabeth trying various things to convince her mother to let her stay at home. She tries being good, then she tries being destructive (those cushions never saw that ink coming), then she tries – well, nothing else actually. That really is the extent of Elizabeth’s repertoire. You might argue that she didn’t try very hard to stay out of boarding school, but perhaps she realised that if she was going to play games, so was her mother. You see, it seems that mumsy had really cottoned on to this kennelling idea for Elizabeth. Once it caught on, everything the poor girl did was an excuse to send her to school. She’s being good? Excellent, she’ll fit right in; she’s cutting holes in the curtains? Oh dear, she really does need school to teach her some manners ... you see how this would go on - mummy darling would just concoct more and more outlandish justifications for sending her precious angel away for other people to rear (she killed the gardener? They'll soon cure her of that at school ...).

So it comes time for Elizabeth to go away. They don’t have a travelling cage big enough for her, so they send her off in a taxi to catch the train with all the other strays. She doesn’t go quietly though. No, she promises freedom to all of the other captive animals in the house – her horse, her dog, her canary. She’s going to be so naughty she’ll be sent home and then the Revolution shall begin!! My money is nanny will be the first beheaded - don't EVER say 'nyer nyer' to a spoilt child ...

We come to an important part here on going away day. I say it’s important and I mean it. This passage is the one that nearly had me calling DOCS (even though I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t have any power over a 1940s fictional school in England – it’s just a little out of their jurisdiction). I’ll quote the whole paragraph:

The outdoor uniform was a dark blue coat with a yellow edge to the collar and cuffs, a dark blue hat with a yellow ribbon round it, and the school badge at the front. Her stockings were long and brown, and her lace shoes were brown too.

You see what they’re doing to the poor children? In the first sentence, I thought the uniform sounded not-so-brilliant, but it was tolerable in a school uniform sort of way (I mean, it’s no Malory Towers brown and orange – now THAT was a fashion statement). Then you hit the second sentence. And you stop. You go back and read it again. It still reads the same.

Brown stockings. Brown stockings with a blue and yellow uniform. That’s borderline child abuse right there. Seriously, is the woman colour blind? What sort of moron subjects their students to such an horrific combination of colours? And don’t mention that private school in Sydney that changed its uniform to aqua and pink to benefit from an old lady’s will, because I know that story.

Here’s a thought: if you’re going to have a blue uniform, why not make sure that the stockings MATCH THE REST OF THE UNIFORM. Have you ever worn brown shoes with a non-brown outfit? It is truly an uncomfortable experience. That nice dull brown that you put on when getting dressed suddenly pops out in public as brightly as hot pink would. I find it such a colour clash distressing to wear, and yet here’s Enid merrily doing it to her faithful followers. And passing it off as the height of school-yard chic. GAH!

I digress. My apologies for that. Elizabeth is in the taxi going to the station to catch a train to London to meet the school train. Jolly good. Who’s taking her? Her governess. OK ... ummm ... have her parents gone on holidays? Nope, her mum just can’t be arsed going to London to at least meet her only daughter’s new kennel masters ... (sigh) I’d rant, but I’ve been there, done that.

Next: the obligatory train ride. Of course there’s one – british rail services have nothing better to do with their time than put on chartered trains for right thinking children at isolated upper class schools. And of course Enid has to detail the trip. Nothing much really happens. There’s this fat girl called Ruth handing around sweets and Elizabeth refuses one (I would too, the chances are that the other person would think you grasping ...). So Ruth starts teasing her in front of all the other children. Up to this point the only thing Elizabeth has said is words to the effect of “I’ll be back home soon”, and refusing to take a sweet is hardly a cardinal sin, so this treatment, meant to make Elizabeth seem sulky, just makes me not guilty about calling fat Ruth “fat Ruth”.

Of course, Enid ends the chapter at the front door of the school. You have to remember that she was writing in the 40s, when rationing was in – so one mustn't give the children too much description in one go – they’ll ruin their appetite.

I'm sorry if I skipped over some stuff in this chapter, but a lot was just filler to suck you in. I can't really be bothered with it. Next time: Elizabeth and the Lord of the Flies school.

10 October 2011

who do you blame when your kid is a brat?

OK, this has been shamefully late in coming, but I have an excuse – I have been busy bettering society. Really, I have. I have a new job, and it involves dispensing JUSTICE!!! (at least, that’s what I put on my census form, I couldn’t figure out a better description of my job. It gave me this awesome feeling of power just writing it). What with all my making the streets safe to walk again, Amelia Jane got dumped in a box in my room and forgotten. So it's time for a new story.

Anyway, I was going to do a Famous Five thing, but I ran into a problem: I don’t have the first book in the series. It’s a grave oversight, one which I intend to remedy at the earliest possible moment. In the meantime, I’ll give you the gems to be found in another of Enid’s school time classics:

The naughtiest girl in school.

Chapter 1

Enid has this fault of blaming all of the behavioural traits of a child on its disposition. The title ‘the naughtiest girl in school’ conjures up images of untold horror, a right little cantankerous ... sandwich, who is attacking the other children with her lacrosse stick and trashing books in the library because she feels like it. The reality, as you will soon see, is not so grave. Remember kiddies, we're dealing with Enid-esque naughtiness here: this is upper-class naughtiness ...

So here’s the set up. Elizabeth is a spoilt little rich kid, who has had a number of governesses to look after her. What her mother has been doing, no one knows (because of course she wouldn’t be working, that’s only for nasty common mothers) but she obviously needed help to look after her one child. Anyway, governess number six is going to go, and mummy’s at her wits’ end to know what to do, because, you see, mummy and daddy are going away on a holiday, and mummy can’t possibly be expected to look after the little brat while they’re away.

The solution? Pack her off to boarding school. Not just that, don’t tell her until you’ve organised the enrolment, got all her uniforms, given the staff notice and booked your non-refundable holiday tickets ... you only tell her when there’s less than a week before term starts. Then goad her when she, quite understandably, says she doesn’t want to leave the one place she has ever lived. That will show her how much you care.

I mean seriously, her parents are abandoning her to go gallivanting off ... somewhere. (They never say where they’re going, and as they’re grown-ups, Enid doesn’t much care. That’s not important: JK Rowling may kill her parental figures off, Blyton just packs them on a boat and hopes that they drown.) AND, they’re only going for a few weeks (they’re going to be back before half-term). How do you jump from “I need someone to look after my child while I’m away for a few weeks” to “let’s send our pre-pubescent child, who has had little to no contact with other children, to boarding school”. My own theory is that the parents attacked this issue while they were looking for accommodation for the family pets: the horse gets stabled, the dog is sent to a boarding kennel, the child goes to school where she’ll be fed and watered (presumably) and the parents can pick her up if and when it suits them ...
Wow, and we wonder why the kid is messed up?

Things to note:

Elizabeth is pretty, which means she’s set for Enidificaication (or indoctrination), because Enid cannot bear to have an ugly good person. People’s characters are determined by their looks.

The things Elizabeth will miss at home: Her dog, her canary, her pony. Some people have it tough. Show some sympathy for the poor dear.

Mummy: completely helpless. Looks to others to raise her child. Primary emotion is despair: when Elizabeth shows how naughty she can be by pinning stockings to the governess’ skirt, mummy despairs – “what are we going to do with her?”.

Daddy: mentioned, but completely absent – obviously he doesn’t want to deal with the brat either. Like most of Enid’s father figures, he wouldn’t dream of getting involved in a family cat fight.

04 May 2011

The Slap

Sometimes I really don’t get the way Enid’s mind worked. After reading this story, I have to conclude that she had some very odd notions of discipline (I already knew that, but Enid is the one person whose odd notions never fail to exasperate me – it’s like trying to teach my grandmother how to use a mobile phone: surely she’ll get it one day …). Her un-ironic grasp of the Orwellian concept of "Might is Right" seems to completely miss the point he was trying to make.

In this second story, we get an idea of how discipline works in the nursery. Amelia is playing pranks on everyone. She throws water at the other toys, then chases them around a bit, threatening to poke them with a pin. The toys decide to punish her by waxing her shoes so that she slips and falls while wearing them. This "harsh but fair" treatment apparently does the trick: Amelia suddenly realises the error of her ways after the toys effectively dance around her yelling "nyer nyer, we got you!" and promises to be good.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Let me repeat: Amelia pulls a prank, the toys pull a prank back, Amelia realises the error of her ways. Huh.

I know we’re not meant to have any sympathy for old AJ, but this stretches the credulity just a little. I fail to see the difference in behaviour of the two sides. Pulling a prank to punish a prank just isn’t really all that smart. If you think about it, someone pulling a prank on you is more likely to cause you to pull a prank on them, which in turn will make them pull a prank … you get it.

Maybe I’m a little slow, but I fail to see the moral in this story. It sounds like it’s meant to be "be nice to others or they’ll be mean to you" or something along those lines, but I’m just not feeling it. What this story is really about is peer pressure. This is not a story about the evils of prank pulling. No. In Enid’s world, pranks are the measure of a person’s intelligence (unless of course, Enid doesn’t like the person, then it’s just a matter of them being wicked). This is a cautionary tale about upsetting the moral majority.

Let’s look at the two sides:

Amelia Jane:

Amelia Jane is doing what she always does – she plays. It might be not to everyone’s taste, but nonetheless it is what she was made to do. She’s pretty open about it; it’s not her fault that the other toys aren’t fast enough to dodge the flying water or avoid the big toy with the pin. AJ just doesn’t really know her own strength – that comes with having no physical brain …

The Toys:

The toys, on the other hand, connive, sneak into a dark cupboard to carry out their dastardly deed, and then congratulate themselves on their cleverness. It annoys me because it is so smug and self righteous and I just can’t stand the smug way in which the toys carry out their social cleansing. They give no justification for their actions other than the fact that they don’t like AJ – but is that a good reason?

You know what it’s like? It’s like killing Osama bin Laden (look at me, bringing current events into Enid!). Organising a hit on a wanted criminal is not "bringing someone to justice", no matter how many times the President says so. No matter how much he might deserve to be brought to justice, execution in that manner is an abuse of the Rule of Law. I did not hear a word that indicated that the US was trying to apprehend him and he died in the fire fight – this was a hit. Even Nazi leaders got a fair trial and due process. (Sorry – but this is something irks me – how can you fight for a system of governance by breaking one of its fundamental rules?)

Similarly, playing a prank to "teach someone a lesson" does not allow for due process for the accused. It was simply the self-righteous and extra-judicial actions of the Teddy Bear and his cronies. I don’t trust that Teddy Bear: he seems to me like a sinister sort of figure. He’d push you off the toy shelf to get the prime spot, I just know it.

There is no point where they say "See AJ – this is what it feels like to have a prank played on you". I’m fine with the idea of an object lesson if it is explained – you know, you hurt our feelings when you throw water on us kind of shtick. Cloying, but instructive. Humiliating for humiliation’s sake? That’s just bullying.

So I don’t really like this story very much.

By they way, one small point: the toys are afraid of being pricked with a pin? They’re TOYS. They don’t have nerves, they can’t feel anything. Amelia Jane is a hand-sewn toy herself – so presumably needles went into her construction. Was there a point in time when needles went from being part of her creation to an anathema to her? It doesn’t add up. I'd go into it more, but I have a whole post saved up just on how toys are not really people ...

17 April 2011

The question of appeasement in the nursery

Amelia Jane was published from 1937 (first book in 1939), on the cusp of WWII. Enid was famous for never EVER referring to the war, but re-reading the first AJ story, I couldn’t help wondering whether AJ sprang from the idea of an anarchic outsider threatening “Our Way of Life”. Though unschooled in the ways of polite society and a nuisance to “Our” day-to-day life, AJ (the outsider) mayn’t be all bad in enid’s eyes ...

The Plot of the story: Amelia Jane is running around the toy room with a pair of scissors, cutting holes in everything she finds, including bunny’s tale. The toys get angry and get the brownies to lock her in the toy cupboard until the toys feel like letting her out. After a while though, the brownies get attacked by goblins and only Amelia Jane can fly the toy plane to attack the goblins and save the brownies. When she does so, she promises not to be naughty again …

Where’s the politics? Well, I found it on Wikipedia. What’s happening in Europe when Enid writes her first story of the naughty doll? It’s 1937, and Europe is gearing up for WWII: Hitler is building up the German Army in the Rhineland, Spain is degenerating into civil war, and Ideology is the governing principle of the day.

I will note that the Anschluss and the occupation of Czechoslovakia did not happen until after this story was written, but the remilitarisation of the Rhineland had (an event in 1936 that pretty much did what it said on the box. Germany armed itself; Europe debated it but eventually stood back, lacking funds and/or will to demilitarise them again).

Enid could not have failed to hear about the debate. In the UK, the Rhineland topic was much debated (understandable, given recent history). Further, Enid’s first husband, a WWI veteran, was working on a book with Churchill and becoming increasingly depressed by the prospect of a new war (he began drinking as a consequence, which was part of the reason the marriage ended), so it would have been a topic that interested him, particularly in light of another crucial event taking place ...

In a nasty foreign country that Enid never visited, there was a civil war going on. Now, children, we all know that the Spanish are fiery people who are sometimes very badly behaved (Carlotta in St Clares anyone?), but some of them were almost good enough to be considered English (or at least they would be if they weren’t so Spanish). The bad Spanish people won an election, so the good Spanish people under a man called Franco decided to take over the country and make sure all the people were part of the right-thinking element. Well, the bad people didn’t like that at all and so they started a war in Spain. Nasty, unwashed people from all over the world went to help the good Spanish and the bad Spanish, and there were lots of newsmen covering the story too. Even that strange little artist Picasso painted a picture with a foreign name about the people dropping bombs in the war (the Guernica was displayed in 1937).

That charming German fellow, Mr Hitler (the Germans are so very orderly and clean and white, aren’t they?) sent the good Spanish people help: he sent planes to bomb the bad Spanish people. And that was after everyone got so annoyed at him building up his army the year before … wasn’t it silly of them to worry?

I think you have an idea bout where I’m going with this. Look at the significance of the imagery in the story: AJ, the perennially naughty doll, has armed herself and is playing with her new weapon = Germany arming itself. The toys and magic brownies (side note: magic brownies sound like something from Amsterdam) disarm her and lock her up: one option for the international community (alternately, these two elements symbolise WWI and the consequences for Germany. Brownies attacked by goblins? Well all good international people think like Enid, and bad ones are … communist (communism was fearfully on the nose). Amelia Jane rearmed and sent in to help … do I need to spell the whole damn thing out for you? This is not a children’s story, this is as close as Enid could get to joining in the grown-ups’ discussion.

What do I draw from this? Well, it’s not a big leap to say that Enid had fascist tendencies. Xenophobia, Uniforms and Discipline (or at least, marching)? Totally up her alley. Aryan race over foreign looking people? Give her a black shirt and introduce her to Oswald Mosely. If Hitler had made her books required reading, she would have led the army across Europe.

Enid was famous for not ever mentioning the war in her stories. She drew a lot from her own life, however, and so it isn’t surprising that there may be hints of the world around her in the stories she writes. After all, you can’t divorce yourself entirely from the era in which you live.

Or I might just be reading too much into this. I really do like the idea of Amelia Jane as Hitler …

04 April 2011

When the revolution comes, the teddy-bear will be the first against the wall

I’ll admit that I’ve been lazy, but that ends now. I have a shelf of Enids to get through (and more coming in every week, not to mention the possibility of more lost Enids to play with), and a big red-dressed doll breathing down my neck.

Amelia Jane.

The text is double sized, there is an over-abundance of exclamation marks, and brownies are name checked in very the first paragraph. Enid has told you in 50 words that you are 5 years old and will be ready to swallow any pap that she deigns to tell you.This is a book for younger readers, dressed up to look like a novel (my version is a hard back thing of about 180 pages with about 100 words per page and an illustration every 3-4 pages).

This series of short stories was first published in Sunny Stories, EB’s magazine, then bundled up into a book in 1939 (there are three sequels, and a wanna-be sequel written by someone else). Europe was plunging once more into war and our Lady Enid was starting to work on securing enough printing paper as she could from as many publishers. So she cobbled together some stories about a big red doll in a nursery.

Who is Amelia Jane?

“This was Amelia Jane, a big, long-legged doll with an ugly face, a bright red frock, and black curls. She hadn’t come from a shop, like the others, but had been made at home. Shop-toys nearly always have good manners, and know how to behave themselves – but Amelia Jane, not being a shop-toy, had no manners at all, and didn’t care what she said or did!” (page 1)

Oh dear, boys and girls. AJ does have some problems. She’s a working class doll stuck in an upper-class world! She lives in the nursery of the house, and with all the references to the nanny, the nurse and the maids - well, it’s no wonder she’s an agent of anarchy. Disbarred from being either feminine or clever in one fell swoop, AJ is relegated to a grotesque caricature, the charity toy with delusions above her station.

Three things to look out for in this passage:

- Enid’s trick of making appearance indicative of character
- Enid’s insistence that institutionalisation is the only path to social success
- Enid's insistence on the maintenance of social class system, even in War-time England

So why is AJ so very naughty? Good question, I say. And there’s a simple, very Blyton answer: because she did not come from a store. You see, store bought toys all know how to behave, but Amelia Jane was made. Enid’s love of institutionalisation runneth over, subtly indoctrinating those impressionable minds as to the joys of hair brush spankings and behaviour modification. I've spoken before about Enid and brainwashing children - she's just getting in early with AJ.

Further, Enid’s indoctrination has a hidden motive. Note that it’s the store bought toys that are acceptable. Enid is instilling a sense of consumerism in her young audience, which is self serving – particularly as she had a living to make from selling things to children. There was her books, the newsletters, magazines, two fan clubs ... so she had to get the little darlings to go all Aldous Huxley - you know, ‘spend don’t mend’ and all that. I think it’s a reasonable argument to make that all the evils of advertising to children can be laid at our lady Enid’s door. She raised, in effect, a generation of institutionalised spenders.

Amelia Jane is stuck in the middle of all this fascist web of ideology and indoctrination. She feels the effects of the regime, bowing to its harsh dictates from time to time, feeling the heat of its wrath (being sent to Coventry is a severe blow to anyone...). And yet! Time after time she manages to fight her way through the mire of the moral majority and return to her true calling of exposing the hypocrisy of the nursery by reducing it to anarchy ...

What I do like about this story is that, to the invisible children who own the toys in the nursery, Amelia seems to be a prime favourite. She gets played with a lot, is taken on holidays, and generally is shown favour. I love this, as it shows good taste on their part. They are unswayed by appearance or any idea of consumerism. This does seem to not fit with the story, as in a true Enid story, AJ would have been a present from your working class grandmother (whom your social climbing mother takes good care not to associate with) made by her own work-roughened hands.

I also adore Amelia Jane. She sees the self-righteous toys of the nursery and lifts two seamed fingers firmly in their direction. If there were to be a revolution in Blytonia, Amelia Jane would be the Che of that land. Truly she would. And then ... there would be blood ...

08 March 2011

Mr Tumpy and his Caravan

Who else but Enid could come up with such an ... Enid title? (I confess, you could substitute the word stupid in there and it wouldn't go amiss)

Anyway, the Guardian has been reporting that a new Enid story has been discovered in a bundle of old papers. It's ever so exciting. Any new Enid is exciting - with over 850 books to her name, there just isn't enough of her work for we fans to read!

What I particularly like about the story is the comment made by the group that found the manuscript. Did they talk about the plot? or the characters? No - what they thought we all needed to know was that the manuscript had "no spelling mistakes".

Gold star for Enid!

12 February 2011

On Marilla ...

So I hinted mysteriously (well I hope it was, it felt kind of crass, in a ‘stay tuned, we’ll be right back after these messages’ sort of way) about the fact that I didn’t think a certain ranga heroine was the real protagonist of Anne of Green Gables. Then I promptly disappeared for a month. Sorry.

I’m ready to back my claim.

BTW, for those who have privately expressed consternation as to my maligning of Anne’s character, never fear. I am not going to trample your dreams too much (mostly because I don’t think that it’s necessary).

My claim:

Anne is Not the True Heroine of Anne of Green Gables

Pish, you say, not to mention poppycock. We all know the story is about Anne. It’s right there in the title! Well, yes, I suppose, there is a name in the title – in fact there’s two – but it’s the latter of these that holds the clue. You see this is not a story about how Green Gables changes Anne; as I wrote rather incoherently in the post, Anne doesn’t change – she just ignores any past issues in her life. This is a story about how Anne’s presence changes those around her.

The real heroine of this story? Marilla. She is hands down the best character in the book. Matthew is sweet, Anne is a funny idiot, but this is Marilla’s story. Anne is just a bit player with delusions of Grandeur.

Look at the way the story is structured. The first chapter is all about Marilla explaining to Rachel what she and her brother had decided to do and Rachel tsking something chronic over it. Anne is not chosen in person; in fact it is never explained how Anne was chosen from an entire orphanage of children. What does that tell you? Who she is is not that important. That she is what she is is merely details. This story is about Marilla learning some humanity by caring for another human being.

Anne herself doesn’t come into the story until the half-way through the second chapter, and even then she is seen through Matthew’s eyes. Indeed, the vast majority of the stories about Anne in the book are told from Marilla’s point of view: she watches Anne and we watch along. We see what happens to Anne, but we also see Marilla’s reaction to the events of the story.

Failing Marilla, there is always a sense that we are watching the action of the story as a bystander, or as though someone is recounting the anecdote to us at a later date. Anne is never the absolute centre of any story – she may be the subject, but she is not its purpose. We never see very far into Anne’s head – never more than could be surmised by just guessing – so we are never given leave to really embrace Anne as a true heroine, just a character involved in the action.

In the course of the story, Anne goes off to school, a period interspersed by letters home (as read by Marilla) and Anne worrying about making Matthew and Marilla proud (so they are still front and centre of the story). Anne gets the fairy tale ending – scholarship to university, class honours. But the camera is on Matthew and Marilla as Anne gets them, and this one event shows brings about the primary example of why Anne is not the heroine of this piece.

The scholarship surrounds the main climax of the story. If this book were really about Anne, she would take that scholarship and run, cheered on by her ailing but supportive Marilla. After all, we all know that the fantasy ending always goes to the Heroine, after much sacrifice and trouble. This does not happen. Instead, Anne’s glory is undercut by a series of calamities for Marilla. She loses her brother, her saving and is in danger of losing her house and her eyesight. Anyone who reads the book forgets about Anne’s achievements the moment Matthew dies. She’s like the BFF who gets the token moment in the sun (hence Diana’s relegation to bit player) before the real action takes place.

So Anne (as a character) doesn’t gain or lose any status in her decision to not take the scholarship she’s offered. She’s just submitting to her role as supporting actress – and then things fall into place so that Marilla gets her dream ending. Hooray! I actually rather love watching that particular character slap-down. There’s something so heartwarming about seeing Anne get one ...

Anne is, dare I say it, the Mary Sue of Green Gables, the ideal that LM wishes she had been growing up with her grandparents on PEI. Anne, for all her flaws, manages to charm those around her into what she imagines life should be. Reality would make short work of a real Anne. Marilla is the real author behind the Mary Sue, well aware that the little girl is her fantasy and laughing at herself for indulging in said fantasy.

I love Marilla much more now than I did as a child. She is so dry, so deadpan, that you don’t realise that she is laughing at first until you go back and read carefully. She goes right over the heads of the children reading the story, so dazzled are they by the red hair and big words. A return visit to Avonlea as an adult ...

I’m going to have a few more posts on Anne – but I really want to start Amelia Jane, so I’m going to intersperse them a bit (and try to make them shorter ... Look at me, under 1000 words!)

Next stop – the Nursery, where we get to meet the one of Enid’s greatest creations ... Amelia Jane!

04 January 2011

Why Anne is not my Favourite Character in the World

I lost my copy of Anne of Green Gables. Actually, I lost most of my set of the AoGG series. This tends to happen a lot with me; I lend out books left right and centre and never keep track of them. Then the lendee moves to another state and loses all of her (my) books in a monsoon flood or some such tragedy and I find myself stuck with an incomplete set of LM Montgomerys. I picked me up an old yellow hardcover with a wallpaper-like cover (complete with coffee mug stains) in order to scribble in should the mood take me

I mention this because the AoGG covers are the ones that I would say truly affect my enjoyment of a book. The late 90s versions that had Anne with fluoro red hair made my eyes bleed; later versions are dull and uninspired. Give me the kitsch and quaint cover of the 80s (pictured) – it’s the only one that doesn’t look like a damn romance novel or look so gloomy that no child would ever wish to read it. There’s something about the cover that feels homespun – it feels fun.

To me the cover is important. I need the cover to sway me in this book, because I have a love/hate relationship with the garrulous heroine of the piece. There are times when I truly do hate Anne, and I’m going to favour you with a (long) explanation as to why.

(Sigh: a re-cap for anyone who has not read this classic: an elderly brother and sister wish to adopt a boy to help on their farm, but are sent a girl who has a big mouth and a knack of getting into scrapes. Hilarity and drama ensue.)

I’ve always had a curious disconnection with Anne. I don’t get why Gilbert likes her (but then he always seemed a bit sappy to me), I don’t get why everyone puts up with her stories (which owe a lot to Mrs Radcliffe and those of her persuasion). I really just don’t get Anne these days. Perhaps I’m getting old.

Yet I still love the book. LM Montgomery is a masterful raconteur. Anne sparkles throughout, but only because the retelling buffs her up from a tiresome over-sentimental child with a superiority complex to a truly unique gem of a girl. My problem is that all Anne is is sparkle. There’s no substance behind it.

Seriously, read the second chapter. It’s our introduction to Anne as a character. In it, Anne barely draws breath for seven pages. We’re treated to a monologue of all her thoughts and feelings about everything. In a modern book, you’d call this lazy characterisation: we get told everything we need to know about the character in their first chapter and judge them from thereon in based on that information.
Here’s what she says:

She imagines stuff
She likes trees
She likes belonging to someone (Orphanages are bad)
She likes reading stories
She doesn’t like being skinny
She wants to be rich
She imagines more stuff
She likes trees
Do I talk too much?
More about trees
Her hair is red – her no likey
Imagines more stuff
Trees are pretty (renames tree lined avenue)
Ponds are pretty (renames pond)
Imagines even more stuff
Hooray! A new home!

Right there is pretty much everything you need to know about Anne – you accept everything she does after that because, well, she told you she right at the beginning! The only impression one gets of her is that she talks a lot. That in and of itself does not a character make. She’s a cardboard cut out – merely the means of propelling the real action of the book – but I’ll talk about that in the next post.

My opinion of Anne is a recent thing. I did worship her when I first read the book (at about eight years old – I saw the 80s TV version and was hooked). I think that this is a brilliant example of a story being told on two levels. As a child, I loved the make-believe stuff she went on about; now the thought of the ‘lake of shining waters’ is more than faintly ridiculous. Then I got Anne’s need for a different name and identity to go with it; now … well I still get the whole identity thing – I just don’t bother with the names. Then I thought Marilla was boring and skipped her parts; now I realise that the moments when Marilla is laughing at Anne are the best moments in the whole story. Now I find Anne just a bit tiresome, and as she grows up and becomes ‘normal’, she loses even the charm of childhood.

Anne is the favourite of all Montgomery’s heroines, but she is not her best. Montgomery is at her best when she writes about downtrodden heroines growing a pair and overcoming the strict and/or cruel guardians – usually through passive aggression, sneakiness or outright rebellion.
Anne doesn’t fit the type. You know she’s had a hard upbringing – it’s outlined for you – but it’s like it happened to another person. Anne is keen on melodrama, so her anguish over not being able to stay at Green Gables is ridiculous rather than affecting; you don’t even stop to think that she had no family and no home – even when she is telling you that. Then after that first incident, her past is treated as though it never happened.
No one is that well adjusted. Not after being subject to an abusive alcoholic, borderline slavery, neglect, institutionalisation and lack of education. You don’t just spring back and say ‘oh well, that’s done. I don’t have to think about that ever again’. Anne does, and it makes her feel, I don't know, a bit ... two dimensional. Perhaps I’m asking too much of Montgomery, but surely an acknowledgement of her past
The only moment any such acknowledgment is given is in chapter 6, when there is the possibility of Anne going to the nasty sounding Mrs Blewett. Marilla looks over to see Anne upset

“the misery of a helpless little creature who finds itself once more in the trap from which it had escaped”.

That’s it. That’s the only bit of the past that comes back to haunt Anne. After that she never feels a moment’s worry about her entitlement to stay a GG. Which is why I’m firmly of the opinion that this book is not about Anne. And I’ll write about that next time ...

Reading this back, I’m beginning to realise that Brideshead Revisited is taking its toll on me. You know, underlying tensions and family issues causing psychological damage and all that Freudian stuff. All I need now is to determine which of Anne’s cronies is Aloysius and spank them with a hairbrush. How very Enid ...