In ‘The Famous Five,’ Clothes Unsettle The Same Traditions They Uphold

Clothing is part of Enid Blyton’s sleepy iceberg approach to literature: surprising depths beneath calm waters.

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Jan 23 2019, 4:05pm

You don’t need to pack much for a trip with the Famous Five. Over the course of the series’ 21 books, the four children—two boys, two girls, and their dog—scramble over deserted islands, eerie moors and verdant camping greens solving mysteries with barely a suitcase. Clothing appears rarely and always in practical form. “There’s nothing much to get ready for them,” their mother announces, “just bathing suits and jerseys and shorts. They all wear the same.”

Enid Blyton wrote the Famous Five books between 1942 and 1963 cramming them with old-fashioned language, food, clothing, and customs. Already nostalgic by the time they were written, the Five tramp around a countryside pulled straight from an idyllic version of British childhood. When I first read the series as an Australian child, I was both geographically and chronologically remote, and part of the fun was in puzzling out exactly what these mysterious items of clothing were: jerseys (sweaters), macs (raincoats), sou’-westers (big fishermen’s hats).

Clothing is part of Blyton’s sleepy iceberg approach to literature: surprising depths beneath calm waters. Like Blyton’s food, the practicality of the Five’s clothing — so simple as to be boring, each item nearly indistinguishable — is the point. The Famous Five series was conceived at the height of World War II rationing, and austere wartime meals like tinned tongue, plum cakes and hard boiled eggs sit side by side lavish descriptions of scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Part of Blyton’s trick is to make this plain food aesthetically appealing, and her clothing descriptions follow suit.

In Eileen Soper’s illustrations, the lines of clothing are simple: buttoned shirts, shorts, the occasional skirt. Clothing is meant for scrambling over rocks and sneaking through tunnels. It’s allowed to become dirty or ripped, but it must always be cleaned and repaired, nearly always by dutiful femme Anne, who in one scene offers to sew on a button, “and at once [finds] herself overwhelmed with requests to mend this, that, and the other.” The spirit of the Famous Five’s clothing follows British wartime propaganda: Make do and mend!

While Anne will happily troop around in shorts or skirts, George is the subversive hero of the series. “The strange cousin,” George is introduced in the first adventure, and “badly want[s] to be a boy and not a girl”. She scorns perceived feminine weaknesses and wears only shorts and jeans. Clothing shortages and a growing equality of working roles between men and women during WWII provide George her excuse, but her obsession with masculinity goes much deeper than practicality.

George is not a consciously queer character; Blyton veers between deriding and respecting George’s gender play. Yet reading the books now—or even twenty years ago, as a queer child—still allows for a kind of queer identity to be found in George’s fierce bravery and discomfort with traditional gender roles. And George is not the only girl who experiments with gender presentation: Jo, the “gypsy girl” who appears in several of the books, is at first detested by George, but Jo becomes “the bravest girl [George] ever knew”.

For George and Jo, gender is tied up in the ability to access bravery and strength via wearing “boys’ clothing.” When Jo reappears in a later book, having been adopted by a “very nice family”, she complains that “they won’t let me wear jeans or be a boy.” The two concepts are synonymous, clothing and gender performance tied so closely together that they cannot be separated.

Despite their close, tense relationship, George and Jo are divided by class and race. Blyton’s novels are suffused with xenophobia that plays into a wartime fear of invasion, but extends to the perennial British fear of lower and foreign classes. In the Famous Five, this manifests most obviously in the series’ villains, who are frequently travellers (Blyton calls them “gypsies”) and characterised by dirt and disorder. One villain is described as wearing “enormous gold rings hanging from his ears,” and when Jo appears, both she and her father wear “torn dirty shorts and a filthy jersey. No shoes at all.” In the Famous Five, the racist portrayal of travellers is threaded right through to the “filthy” clothing they wear, in opposition to the Five’s clean, practical, “British” aesthetic.

Consequently, in order to become a legitimate hero, Jo must be sanitized: adopted into a presumably white family and forced into girl’s clothing. When she asks George to lend her some jeans, George refuses, deciding that “Jo was quite enough like her as it was”. There is an element of internalized misogyny here—George distrusts any other girl who “wants to be a boy”—but it is also unmistakably a symptom of George’s privilege. George is unwilling to break rank and assist Jo to break the same gender norms George rails against.

The aesthetics and style of the Famous Five are thrifty and resourceful, born of a wartime culture that prioritised grit and scorned luxury. But within its conservative soil lie the seeds of a British social revolution that would emerge in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and both George and Jo offer the possibility of deviation from the norm, not fully realised but visible all the same.