The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Rockingdown Mystery ~ Enid Blyton

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DNovember 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.

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26 thoughts on “The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Rockingdown Mystery ~ Enid Blyton

  1. Amazing! About Shakespeare, I mean. I never caught onto this series – my favourites were the Adventure books – Castle of Adventure has stayed with me ever since I first read it aged goodness knows how young. This one sounds great and actually more ambitious than most others of hers I’ve read.

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    1. I think that is why the introduction of Barney is so important, Harriet. Having someone who could be put into really dangerous situations without offending middle class sensibilities opened up the range of situations she could explore.

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  2. What a delightful example of the power of books to expand our horizons. If you’d never read this book as a child maybe you wouldn’t have had such a love of Shakespeare (the way it was taught in schools turns people off rather than on to the Bard). Shame on you for forgetting Blyton is best read with a pot of tea and jam and scones to ha d.

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    1. I know, and me such a tea lover as well. Mind you I draw the line at the ‘several slices of cake’ that Roger seems to need at every possible eating opportunity that comes along. He must be the like the side of a house these days.

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  3. How lovely that you discovered the trigger to a life-long passion! I have fond memories of the Malory Towers books – or rather the experience of losing myself in them. No doubt they’d make me grind my teeth if I reread them now but, as you say, they shouldn’t be judged by contemporary standards.

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    1. Not only did I love the Malory Towers books but I credit them with making me the person I am today. Without them I wouldn’t have known that it was possible for a girl to have ambitions beyond being a shop assistant or a hairdresser, which was what all the girls I knew in my very very working class background wanted to do. Blyton taught me that a girl could look further than that. When you couple that with the Shakespeare I really owe that woman a great deal.

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  4. I loved Enid Blyton as a child too and read all of the Barney mysteries, although this particular book doesn’t stand out in my memory. Her books were already very dated by the time I was reading them, but I was able to accept that, as you’ve said, she was writing about a very different world from my own. My favourites were always the Adventure series and the Five Find-Outers, which I preferred to the Famous Five and Secret Seven.

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    1. I didn’t read either of those series, Helen. She was so prolific it was simply impossible to get round to them all. I also suspect that libraries didn’t stock all of them so it depended what you had available to you.

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  5. I grew up reading Blyton’s stories too, from Willow Farm to the collections of fairy tales, from the popular series to my most favouritest, The Secret Island (picnics, oh yes!). it surprises me now, how readily I swallowed the fundamental -isms they’re built upon, but real life wasn’t open-minded either! This is one I still have on my shelf, but if I ever read it, and I might not have as I was reluctant to journey past my favourite series, it’s not one that I reread, but I wholly enjoyed your thoughts on revisiting it.

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    1. Thanks. It’s interesting how we all have our favourite books to which we return while others we pass by with just a single read. It isn’t just true of childhood favourites, either. There are still authors to whom I return when I need a comfort read, even though in some instances I could probably recite sections of their works from memory.

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  6. I loved these too as a child but find I’ve really lost the ability to appreciate Blyton now, sadly. I tried re-reading the Famous Five a few years ago and had to hastily stop before I destroyed my precious memories of them. I never really envied the middle-class kids in her books – they always seemed to have absent parents. Excellent for having adventures, of course, but it still seemed quite odd and not totally pleasant. I remembered that Barney thirsted for education but had forgotten the Shakespeare angle – how intriguing! I wonder how many of us were predisposed to like the plays in later life because of Barney and Miranda…

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    1. It’s amazing how influential a favourite character can be. It’s still true today. I can think of one or two characters who I have got to ‘know’ through series who have made me rethink the way I do things or pushed me into new ventures. None, though, have been as influential as Barney.

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  7. My 4yo is in full blown Noddy phase and I can’t bear to add any more Enid Blyton to my life right now. Have you seen the biopic “Enid” with Helena Bonham Carter? It really made a lasting impression on me.

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    1. My mom had the same relationship with Blyton, although I think it was the Little Mary Mouse books which responsible rather than Noddy. By the time Noddy entered my life I was reading for myself. I haven’t seen Enid, but I shall,definitely look out for it, if only because I am a great Bonham Carter fan.

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  8. I had forgotten all about this series, until you mentioned the monkey. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder. Boy, was I frightened when I read these books. You are right, there’s much more danger here than there was for the Famous Five. I have to say that, thankfully, I never felt pushed into any gender-specific behavior because of reading Blyton, although I would still be hesitant to either re-read the books today or pass them on to my daughters.

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    1. I can’t say I was effected in any gender way, either, but I suspect I was lucky in that respect in as much as I didn’t have any brothers. No one ever tried to cast me in the role of housekeeper in the way Roger does with Diana.

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  9. A Scottish friend had me read Enid Blyton, with a warning about how dated it can be, but without the nostalgia I wasn’t able to push through. That being said I’m glad it hasn’t lost its charm for you! I think I would feel the same way if I went back to, say, the Little House on the Prairie series. No one can take our childhood reading away from us. 🙂

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  10. Despite having a huge treasure trove of Enid Blyton stories under my belt this isn’t one I actually encountered. How lovely that it was this book that inspired you to see Shakespeare and for all the snobbishness and the attitudes of their time I really don’t think children absorb those messages anywhere as much as they make the adults wince – who can resist a good picnic after all?

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  11. What a lovely post! So nostalgic. I used to enjoy the Endid Blyton’s description of food at picnics. I was salivating once when I read about The Famous Five devouring shrimp paste and I am a vegetarian! 😊

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    1. Don’t worry about the typo -we all make them. The thing that amazes me is just where all this food came from. We were still on rationing at the time this was written and the Famous Five series began even earlier. I start to wonder if Miss Blyton’s characters weren’t responsible for some of the food shortages inflicted on the rest of us 😉

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