We’ve just had a very long and very cold winter, and I think just abut everybody I know succumbed to an illness at some point. This got me thinking about the all the times characters in Blyton books fell ill – and were quarantined or sent away to recover. I wish I could have gone away somewhere nice instead of going back to work after being ill!
The idea of these holidays wasn’t Blyton’s, but they were popular in the Victorian era when it was believed that sea air had health benefits. Sea air, or indeed any fresh air, was undoubtedly better for them than breathing polluted air in industrial cities. Blyton didn’t just send her poorly characters to the sea-side though, they got trips to the mountains, farms and even abroad to recover.
Nowadays holidays just to get over the flu are pretty much the preserve of the rich and famous, though I’m not sure if they were as common in Blyton’s day as her books might imply. It is worth remembering though that many illnesses were much more prevalent and serious in her lifetime for several reasons such as a lack of immunisations and treatments.
I’m going to start with the flu as strikes in a few of Blyton’s stories and allows the children to have many an adventure on their convalescing holiday.
THE CHILDREN OF CHERRY TREE FARM
The four children have had the flu – after the measles (there’ll be more about measles in another post) and before two of them have a bad cough – and are thin, pale and don’t eat enough. So on doctor’s orders they are sent to Cherry Tree Farm for a six month holiday. Mother says you have all had such a lot of illness so there must be no more school for you for some time. Just the country air and good food and lots of walks. When they arrive Aunt Bess notes their pale cheeks and Benjy’s sticks of legs. The children develop good appetites quickly at the farm though for several days they are tired out by their explorations.
THE RING O’ BELLS MYSTERY
At the opening of the book Dinah, Roger and Snubby are supposed to be going back to school – but Dinah and Snubby have temperatures. Mrs Lynton says Snubby must be ill as he can’t eat even a sausage for his breakfast. Snubby himself says I do feel bad… do you think you could possibly take Loony out again?… He’s such a scrapey dog. Poor Dinah says she couldn’t possibly get up. I got up in the night to get a drink and could hardly stand.
The doctor diagnosis it as the flu – and a pretty nasty one at that. He recommends they stay in bed for several days and after that they shouldn’t go back to school for ten days or so, suggesting they get away somewhere to recover. Mrs Lynton says the doctor wants them sent somewhere inland, but not too low – and somewhere fairly warm. They head off to Ring O’ Bells village and are quite tired out by their car journey, though are all able to eat well at tea-time. They have a long sleep that night and eat heartily at breakfast before going exploring – but Dinah suddenly goes pale and the boys walk her back home. They’re all tired out and can’t eat much lunch before going for a nap. The holiday must do them good though as they all seem fine after that!
THE RIVER OF ADVENTURE
The Mannering/Trent/Cunningham children all have the flu at the start of The River of Adventure, and poor Kiki has been kept away from the boys as Philip couldn’t bear her noises. When the book starts the boys are still unsteady on their feet but the girls have managed out of bed to play cards. The next day all four are up and about though all are still not feeling quite themselves. The doctor stops by and says they must go away somewhere for convalescence – ten days or a fortnight, say. Somewhere warm and sunny. This flu they’ve had is a bad kind – they will feel very down all winter if they don’t go away somewhere. Conveniently Bill is to be sent somewhere warm and sunny to spy on someone and having his tired wife and four children recovering from illness with him would be a great cover. The children are a touch pale when they arrive on their holiday, and are tired by bed-time that first night but after that they seem to be recovered.
There are also a few unfortunate occasions when characters catch the flu yet don’t get a holiday.
The Five Find-Outers have all caught the flu by the start of The Mystery of the Strange Bundle, with poor Bets apparently being the one who caught it first and then gave it to the others. She also recovers first and so spends her time visiting the others, still stuck in bed, to cheer them up. They’re all better in a few days and can start looking for a mystery to solve.
One of the background characters in Holiday House is Ruth, the daughter of the woman who runs the house. She’s rather snappy with the visiting children and one of them suggests it was because she had influenza so badly and couldn’t go to school this term. Presumably the fact Ruth lived by the sea already meant a holiday was unnecessary. The main characters, though, are actually at Holiday House as they’ve been ill, but there’ll be more about them in part 2.
SOME FACTS AND FIGURES
A bit of background information on flu makes for interesting reading. There were several flu pandemics which affected Britain during Blyton’s writing career. There was an outbreak of Spanish Flu from 1918-1920 which killed around 250,000 Brits and anywhere from 20 to 100 million people worldwide. In 1947 and 1951 (the year Ring O’ Bells was published) there were further Swine Flu pandemics (Swine Flu is the same strain as Spanish Flu) – the outbreak in 1951 reportedly having a worse weekly death toll in the UK than in 1918-20. There was a further flu pandemic in Britain in 1957, and by December 3,550 people in England and Wales had died from influenza, due to it being a new strain from China. Despite there being no pandemic in 1956 there were still over 1,000 flu deaths in England and Wales that year.
Nowadays most people will catch the flu at some point and be stuck in bed for a week or so. There have also been some nasty flu outbreaks in recent years; such as the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009. However the death toll was relatively low in comparison to the outbreaks mentioned above: in Britain just over 450 people died.
I don’t want to stray too far into anecdotage territory (my fellow forumites will know exactly what I mean) but I’m interested in the notion of Blyton using a real and current illness as an excuse to send the children to a new location where they can have an adventure. Whether it was something that came from her under-mind or a more conscious thought I wouldn’t be surprised if reading the flu pandemic reports in the newspapers had influenced her in using the flu to start these stories with – just a wild theory though! A list of relevant events might make my point clearer:
- 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic
- 1940 The Children of Cherry Tree Farm is published.
- 1947 Flu pandemic in Britain
- 1951 Flu pandemic in Britain and The Ring O’ Bells Mystery is published
- 1952 The Mystery of the Strange Bundle is published
- 1955 River of Adventure and Holiday House are published
I’m mostly basing my theory on a few of the books published in the year of or years following large flu outbreaks, but even if the outbreaks themselves didn’t overly influence Blyton her giving the characters flu so frequently was still a wholly believable situation for the times.
I had planned to cover all the books featuring convalescences in one post but I’ve gone on too long and probably bored you all to tears already so I will leave the rest to another day. I’d be really interested to hear anyone’s stories of being sent away to recover in their childhood – or if you know of anyone who was.
Also, I apologise for the lack of actual Blyton content in this post! There wasn’t an awful lot to say about each book other than “they had the flu and then went on holiday” as the illnesses really were just a convenient excuse for an adventure!