Tag Archives: oliver twist

Enid Blyton Removed From School Library

I have happy memories of my grandfather reading Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five as I sat on his knee. As a child it never crossed my mind that Blyton’s books could be construed as being racist. Today however a number of reprints of the author’s works have been published with certain words and passages having been amended to avoid giving offence. Today’s Daily Mail has an article concerning a school who removed Blyton’s books from it’s shelves, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2519806/Enid-Blyton-Famous-Five-childrens-classics-axed-school-win-race-equality-award.html. If you read the entire article it becomes clear that most of the books which where deemed to be unacceptable have been replaced by versions with the language which some deem offensive, having been removed.

Racism is ugly and it is right and proper that children are taught that all ethnic groups possess equal worth and everyone, irrespective of their origin should be treated with respect. Having said that, would it not be possible for teachers, parents etc to explain the historical context in which Blyton was writing to youngsters, explaining that words and phrases which where once deemed acceptable are now (rightly) not so deemed. Blyton as with Kipling was a product of her time. Even great authors such as Dickens used language which we now view as unacceptable, for example his reference to “the jew” in Oliver Twist. I love Dickens, Kipling and Blyton, however to say this does not imply that I or any other reader shares their views on race or any other issue. We need, as I said above to judge authors in accordance with the historical context in which they wrote. Obviously it is easier for adults to make such judgements but, with sensitive and appropriate explanation it ought to be possible for children to continue to enjoy The Famous Five.

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

In his poem, In Memory of W B yeats, the poet, W H Auden wrote

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.”

 

Auden is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, I do, however take issue with his view that poetry (and writing more generally) makes nothing happen.

In Oliver Twist Dickens portrayed the English poor law in all it’s brutality. He laid bare the cruelty of the workhouse and the corruption of those who, like the fictional Mr Bumble the Beadle grew fat by abusing the system. Oliver Twist is unremitting in it’s highlighting of the abuses perpetrated by Bumble and his ilk, however Dickens humour also helps to ensure that the novel remains widely read to this day. Who can forget his description of little Oliver daring to ask for more gruel in the workhouse? Dickens was not responsible for bringing about the abolition of the workhouse, however Oliver Twist undoubtedly stirred the conscience of Victorian England, indeed the novel continues to move our conscience in the early years of the 21st century.

To take another example, George Orwell’s terrifying portrayal of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a world in which much of the population of Oceania is constantly observed by the telescreen, influenced and continues to influence those who oppose totalitarianism. Although a man of the left Orwell has been cited by people of both left and right in defence of pluralism. Auden’s view that “poetry makes nothing happen” was not shared by the regimes who banned Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his much shorter novel Animal Farm. The former Soviet Union and other authoritarian states believed that writing can make things happen, why else would they have prohibited the works of Orwell and other critics of authoritarianism?

Doubtless the greater prosperity enjoyed by democratic societies had a profound impact on the populations of Communist societies. Despite the attempted jamming of western media pictures of life outside the Communist bloc did penetrate behind the iron curtain. The inhabitants of Czechoslavakia, Poland and other states which came under Soviet influence wanted consumer goods, however the intellectuals among the populace desired freedom and the writings of Orwell, Kafka and others kindled in them this desire for democracy.

In conclusion it can be said that Auden is right in the sense that writing in and of itself makes nothing happen. However the influence of authors such as Dickens and Orwell should not be underestimated. When combined with political and economic forces words can (and are) powerful tools  for good or ill.