November has been a busy teaching month and so I decided to take the easy route into my exploration of the literature of 1949 and start with my chosen children’s book, Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery. I was apprehensive about re-reading this, the first in what had been, as a child, one of my favourite series. Was I going to destroy all my happy memories of time spent with brother and sister, Roger and Diana, their cousin, Snubby and their wandering friend, Barney, not to mention the mad little dog, Loony and Barney’s monkey Miranda? Well fortunately, no. I suspect that I have spent too long working in the world of Children’s Literature to be in anyway shocked by the all too transparent snobbery and sexism that was the norm in the novels of the period. I don’t like it, I wouldn’t give the book to a child today, but I can accept it as a product of its time and consequently read the book simply for the plot and enjoyed a thoroughly nostalgic Sunday afternoon. (It strikes me now that I was remiss. I should have combined it with a suitable decorous afternoon tea. Miss Pepper would have approved.).
Miss Pepper is the old family retainer charged with looking after Roger, Diana and the orphaned Snubby when Roger and Diana’s parents have to go to America during the summer holidays. Ensconced in the lodge belonging to a deserted manor house, the children look forward to long days amusing themselves in the local countryside only to have their hopes dashed when Miss Pepper tells them that they are to have tutoring every morning in order to catch up with school work missed during a prolonged illness. Worse news follows when the tutor they know is unable to come and Miss Pepper has to employ a stranger, Mr King. All is not lost, however, because as they wait for Mr King to arrive, they meet up with Barney, a wandering teenager, moving from fair to circus to whatever job he can pick up as he searches for his missing actor father. Barney is not only a figure of delightful mystery, he is also accompanied by his mischievous little monkey, Miranda; what child, fictional or the solitary reader, is not going to fall in love with them both immediately?
As you can no doubt imagine, adventures appear around these children like magic. No sooner have they found their way into the deserted manor house than they discover that it is being used as a base by nefarious wrongdoers who have to be brought to justice. But what is the mysterious Mr King’s role in all this? Is he friend or foe? This becomes a vital question when Miss Pepper is called to the bedside of her ailing sister and the tutor is left in charge of the household.
Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that everything comes out all right in the end, or that it is the monkey, Miranda, who valiantly saves the day. Blyton began the Barney Mysteries after The Secret Seven and The Famous Five were already established and in terms of the social situation she describes there is little to choose between them. We are firmly ensconced in a middle class world which was probably as alien to most of her readers as it was to me. We accepted it, however, as an example of a fictional world we knew initmately because most of us would have learned to read from books inhabited by exactly the same sort of children. In my case it was dear old Dick and Dora, but it could just as easily have been Janet and John or the ubiquitous Peter and Jane (not forgetting Pat the dog). It wasn’t how I lived, it wasn’t even how I wanted to live, but it was how children in books lived; I accepted it and just enjoyed the adventure. I probably even accepted poor old Diana being the one who automatically cleans up after everyone else.
The rooms were in a dreadful state now. It would need a good morning’s work from Diana to get them straight again.
Feminism hadn’t reached inner city Birmingham in the 1950s.
And, I would have enjoyed then, as I did now, all the wonderful descriptions of food. No Blyton story is complete without at least one picnic and Miss Pepper’s saving grace in the eyes of the children is that she knows they like things like sausages and salad and cold meats and potatoes in their jackets and ice cream. Oh that ice cream! One is never enough. They always have at least two and often three. I’m surprised that close to the end of the war there was so much ice cream to go around. Perhaps the rest of the country went without just so that Miss Blyton’s characters could indulge to their hearts’ content.
One thing that did cross my mind as I re-read this story was the dilemma that Barney poses for the writer. The adventures in this series are all rather more dangerous than those encountered by either the Secret Seven or the Famous Five and the introduction of Barney is what allows this to be the case. Nice middle class children could not be put in life threatening situations, but a wandering showman, whose antecedents are questionable to say the least, is a different matter. Bring a Barney into the story and you can widen the scope of the dangers your characters face considerably as long as he is the one actually facing them. However, he has to be a respectable wandering showman and so Blyton makes Barney almost too good to be true, with impeccable manners, a thirst for learning and a desperate desire to read more Shakespeare.
And that was what shocked me most as I re-read a story that I must have last encountered nearly sixty years ago. I had completely forgotten that this was the book that first turned me onto Shakespeare. If Barney was going to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream so was I. If Diana could play Titania, what was to stop me doing the same? When we were offered the chance to see the play at Stratford in my first year at secondary school my name was top of the list. I’ve never stopped going since. The Rockingdown Mystery might be snobbish, sexist and completely fanciful, but I discover that I owe it a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.