Author: Enid Blyton (website)
UK Publisher: Hachette Children’s Group
Genre: Children’s books
Darrell Rivers is off to boarding school for the first time. She quickly settles down and makes new friends, including the clever and mischievous Alicia, who delights the form with her practical jokes. But the first term is not all fun and Darrell has some tricky problems to cope with: her dreadful temper, the mystery of Sally Hope’s odd behaviour, and the spiteful tricks played on Mary-Lou.
When I was a kid, I adored the Malory Towers books. I read them again and again – I remember getting a new one whenever we went on holiday, until I had the whole series. Sure, I liked The Famous Five and The Magic Faraway Tree, but there was something about Malory Towers which really tapped into something for me. I found my books in my parents’ loft and, in that strange period of time before going away on holiday and trying to save all my new books for the trip, I took the opportunity to re-read the first one. It seemed doubly-apt given the recent announcement that a new TV series based on the books is being made, and the discussions about Enid Blyton’s legacy.
There’s no denying that Enid Blyton was a racist. There’s plenty of evidence of it, alongside perhaps her tendency towards misogyny (poor old Anne never gets any respect). It wasn’t just the mores of her time, she had stories rejected by contemporary publishers for being inappropriate, letters were published in newspapers complaining about some of the ideas in her work. The Famous Five books seemed to have some racism in every third book or so, while The Magic Faraway Tree has golliwogs lurking in the corners of the narrative. As a child I didn’t realise quite what they meant – and I was probably reading fairly edited versions even then – but in some ways it makes Malory Towers one of the easier works to adapt in a modern society.
The idea of an isolated all-girls’ boarding school in Cornwall, for Blyton, was obviously that of a specific type of person – upper middle class, and white. But because of that she makes the assumption that she doesn’t need to specify race in the way she does in other books. The nature of the bubble she establishes actually gives freedom to fill in the blanks however you want. The Hachette Children’s Group, who own the Blyton estate, are releasing a book containing short stories of students from other cultures, exploring how their social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds can be represented in the Malory Towers universe, which is great and an important part of representation. But I think it’s also a story where you could very easily just change the races of the main characters and it would have no impact on the story told. Sometimes a story with BAME characters can just be a fun story, without being about race (even though a survey of children’s books published in 2018 showed that there were more animal main characters than there were characters from a BAME background, even stories removed from race are inherently political simply by providing much-needed representation). I hope the adaptation is brave enough to do this.
These issues were there in my mind during my re-read. In light of my growth in understanding as I’ve grown, I had worried slightly that maybe these things would become more obvious as an adult, that I had just glossed over them as a kid. Would these still be the books I loved? Would they hold up? Can you separate the work from the creator?
I’m pleased to say, yes, absolutely. Never mind that I am a big proponent of Death of the Author (in some creative works more than others), in re-reading First Term At Malory Towers bringing my own experiences to the table, I found different things leapt out at me, and I got enjoyment from new threads that I wasn’t even aware existed when I was a child, but which Blyton certainly didn’t intend to be read in the way I was reading them.
Principally, Darrell and Mary-Lou are in love and are going to turn up to the school reunion in twenty years time actually married. The love story basically wrote itself. If you don’t believe me, I shared some snippets over on my twitter.
I think what I loved as a child was the idea of a whole new camraderie based around this family formed together in a house. As an adult, I read it and became aware of how uncomfortable it must be for Gwendolyn, but also for all the others sharing a room with her. How isolated she must constantly feel, because she has no allies at all in the school, not a single close connection, which is tragic even if she is set up as the antagonist with no redeeming qualities. I know in the final book she does get a sort of happy ending, but that’s seven years of isolation and unhappiness. Bit bleak.
Another thing that cracked me up as an adult was Sally’s mother’s utter bafflement that Sally might resent being shipped off to boarding school as soon as her baby sister is born. “But why would she think that we don’t want her, we only sent her to a remote part of the country after we got a new baby girl, and didn’t even bother to turn up on visiting day to come see her.” The ultimate in lacklustre parenting.
There was also some… questionable attitudes to education, as espoused by the house mistress early on in the book:
I noticed the writing more too. For example, Blyton talks about how there are ten girls in the North Tower dormitory, including one girl, Violet, who is so quiet and shy that most people forget she is there most of the time and she doesn’t mind that. And, true to form, Violet is never mentioned again after that line. You have to wonder why Blyton bothered to include her in the first place. Surely there was no-one twisting her arm and forcing her to ensure there were ten girls in North Tower. If you didn’t want to use Violet, or talk about her, why even create her? Just say there were nine girls in North Tower and have done with it. Also, poor Mam’zelle, who has wonderful news about a new baby, but doesn’t get to share it and talk about her family – who we are clearly told she misses – because the kids decide to prank her instead and spoil her morning. This is like watching a Disney film and knowing you’re a grown up when you sympathise with the parents. “I’m sixteen years old, I’m not a child!” Yes, yes you are.
However, one thing that hasn’t changed since I read the books as a child – I’m still utterly baffled as to how Darrell and her mother can think Malory Towers has a really lovely school uniform, when it sounds like the students are dressed as a chocolate orange:
- Free from the worst of Blyton’s personal views (although this is entirely because she has assumed white as the default), this book still provides a view back to a time that many are nostalgic for, even though reading about it makes it slightly ridiculous even as you’re fond of it.
- I’m really looking forward to the TV adaptation to see how it is brought to life. The school’s location and facilities still sound as idyllic as they did when I was little and wanted to go there myself (awful uniform notwithstanding).
- You do sometimes get the impression that adults really just didn’t care all that much about what kids did when they weren’t in immediate sight.
- My editions were published in the 1990s, so I’m not sure if the new editions have been tweaked in terms of content (although I will admit to not being in love with the new covers, but I think everyone loves the covers they grew up with).
Rating: 4/5 – It’s not a laborious read, but it’s fun and nostalgic for me as an adult, and I wouldn’t be too bothered by some of the opinions and ideals espoused in it for modern girls to read. There’s nothing about being seen and not heard, or girls not being as good as boys. There’s even talk of girls potentially leaving school to become – gasp! – doctors! What a notion.