I’m back with another very long blog to try to answer the question I set myself! (Previous part here.)
THINGS I DIDN’T REALLY CONSIDER AS A CHILD
As a child I think I glossed over a lot of the Carletons’ faults.
They are laid out very clearly in the opening pages, and reading it last night I wondered how I could have so quickly thought them the better children.
Annette was spoiled. She yelled when she couldn’t get her own way. She sulked if she was scolded. She was pretty when she smiled and looked happy, but very ugly when she frowned or pouted.
John remembered things too long. If anyone offended him or made him angry he though about it for a long time, and wouldn’t forgive them. He seldom flared up or quarrelled – he just said nothing, but went on thinking little bitter thoughts that made him most unpleasant for some time.
Margery was scared of mice and bats, moths and beetles, worms and earwigs. She was afraid of strange dogs, and hardly liked to stroke a cat in case it scratched.
Well, Margery’s isn’t particularly bad – but the other two immediately do sound like quite unpleasant children.
Blyton actually tries very hard to make them seem unappealing – “I don’t think it’s a very right thing to do,” said John, who was always rather afraid of doing anything that might not be quite right and proper. He’s talking about going to explore and play in someone else’s garden without permission. I think he’s quite right to be doubtful! The Famous Five or the Find-Outers normally only ‘trespass’ in the pursuit of finding a clue, from a sense of doing right by doing wrong. Many Blyton characters would have an unerring sense of right versus wrong as a strong point in their favour.
I think as a child I read over this so quickly that it didn’t really settle. They also don’t show a huge amount of this behaviour – except Annette. Annette is rather a brat for several chapters, though she does slowly improve. John holds one or two brief grudges but nothing particularly noticeable, and after an initial fear of Dopey Margery stops being so afraid, so it is easy to forget they have those tendencies especially when the Taggertys come charging through with their bad manners.
One other thing I dislike about the Carletons later in the book is their piousness. They are called pi, along with other things and I think it’s quite true. They don’t quite say it so awfully to the Taggerty’s faces but John instructs his sisters to try to convert the two Taggerty girls to Christianity – as they are ‘heathens’. I don’t generally have a problem with religion, it has certainly given the Carletons high morals, and they are kind enough to pray for the Taggertys’ mother (though they have perhaps missed the ‘do not judge lest ye be judged yourself’ motto) but I dislike those who think their religion, done their way is the only way to live and that they must ‘save’ or convert others to it too. It’s really rather judgemental and awful of John to say that (and that Pat is a ‘lost cause’ too).
I think Blyton could possibly have done a little more to balance out the children’s dreadfulness. For example John could have held a grudge and learned the hard way it meant missing out on a fun afternoon.
WHY I STILL THINK THE TAGGERTYS ARE DREADFUL
The Taggertys display their worst qualities a great deal right through the book.
I entirely sympathise with the Carletons when the Taggertys capture them savagely and tie them up on their first meeting. I would have hated that! It’s not so bad with friends when you know everyone is playing. With strangers you could feel genuinely threatened.
I will reiterate that they are not a bad bunch of children. They are jolly, great fun, energetic and imaginative. But they are also inconsiderate to extreme, always thinking of themselves first.
An angry voice came through the trees, and then someone appeared in a hurry. It was Bridget, the mother’s help.
“Och you naughty little ragamuffins, you, making all that din with the baby, bless his heart, just asleep after a bad tummyache….”
“Oh, sorry, Bridget,” said Pat. “I quite forgot about Michael. We’ll play Red Indians instead.”
“Indeed you won’t, not till the baby’s awake and happy,” said Bridget. “War-whoops and what-nots, and dancing around with mad things, scaring the baby into fits. And your mother with a headache too!”
I know most children have to be told to keep the noise down fairly often, but Pat at the very least is old enough to know not to play such loud games when the baby’s sleeping. They do this all the time, up until their marauding sends Dopey crashing into the pram and baby Michael falls out. This is one of the disasters that does prompt some better behaviour from them – but most of all from Dopey!
If you were to give the Taggertys some praise you could say they are very honest about their opinions. Unfortunately they have no tact whatsoever and think it’s fine to say someone’s mother seems stuck-up and that someone else had called the children prigs. As everyone knows, it’s really bad form to insult someone’s mother!
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the Taggertys like to resolve problems with shouting and hitting. I honestly cannot abide people (children or adults) who resort to violence to get a point across. I have no respect for people who find it acceptable to punch someone for a perceived slight. Anyway, Pat does just that and slaps Annette (this is a boy of at least 8 or 9 hitting a 4 year old) when she is having a bit of a tantrum. The worst part is that Annette starts to respect and look up to him after that. Sometimes someone standing up to you and challenging your behaviour can be admirable but I would find it extremely hard to made a friendship with someone who slapped me like that.
They also have little to no respect for other people’s (or really their own) belongings. The girls practically ransack Annette’s doll’s house and admit theirs is rubbish because everything in it is broken. I’d be pretty upset if someone came to play at my house and started roughly chucking my favourite toys about!
Incidentally, I think one of the criticisms of Pat is a bit unfair. At the end of his first term in a new school he is bottom of his form and his parents are hugely disappointed. He gets an unpleasant letter home and is not allowed to play in the football match.
Some of that is justified – a child that doesn’t try and doesn’t put in effort needs to be made aware it’s not good enough. However, the bottom of the form thing I despise. Someone HAS to come bottom, it’s a fact of life. I really hate that way of marking people’s work and ranking them because someone will always come last. It is like punishing an Olympian for coming last in a race, if they’ve all tried hard then where’s the problem?
RUBBING OFF CORNERS
The Carletons start to change quite quickly. After a few meetings they discover it’s fun to play loud, messy games. Annette and John both dare to climb a tree. Annette reverts back to being a bit spoilt on occasion but it’s not tolerated by the others so it doesn’t last long. John also improves vastly in his father’s eye and becomes “a real boy” but I can’t say that he had much of a problem in the first place. But then I’m looking at it from a modern viewpoint.
The Taggertys change much more slowly, they do seem to take things on board and try – but they aim to emulate the Carletons on the surface by being a bit quieter and neater but underneath are still being lazy and unhelpful.
John does make a break through with Pat, though. Pat dares him to jump a stream that John knows he could not. Pat then calls him a coward. Later, Pat lies to a neighbour and says it is not their cricket-ball that broke her greenhouse window. John points out that it is far more cowardly to lie your way out of trouble than to refuse a dangerous dare, and Pat actually goes to the neighbour and admits the lie – also giving her money to replace the glass.
It’s not until Mrs Taggerty is hit by a car that they really change, though. The children feel terribly guilty as she wasn’t feeling well that morning and begged each child in turn to drop her list off at the grocery store. All three of them refused for petty reasons – they just couldn’t be bothered and didn’t see why they should have to put in the effort when someone else could do it.
This leads to a huge change. Pat turns over a new leaf and works hard at school. Maureen starts taking care of baby Michael and helping more around the house and Biddy starts picking up after herself. They are amazed that the Carletons have been generous to pray for their mother and are very grateful too.
SO WHO WAS THE MOST DREADFUL?
I think the two older girls sum it up quite well at the end.
You showed us how beastly we were anyway said Maureen.
And you showed us how silly we were Margery said.
Both sets had flaws. The Carletons were too uptight and stuck in their ways. They had some unpleasant traits that could have grown worse over time. But the Taggertys were dishonest, lazy and inconsiderate and that in my opinion is worse.
They were all Dreadful Children at times, but the Taggertys were more dreadful more of the time. It’s not nearly as black-and-white as my child-self saw it though. It is nuanced with both sides have faults and having those faults due to their parenting.
PARALLELS TO OTHER BLYTON BOOKS
There is quite a similarity in basic premise to Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm. When the new arrivals turn up we are shown their many faults and they learn to become better people – but at the same time the other children also learn a few things along the way. The newcomers are much worse than the Mistletoe Farm lot, and I think that’s similar to how the Taggertys are worse than the Carletons. But in Six Cousins, the mother has a huge amount of learning to do, too. Mrs Carleton does relax a bit over the book, but I don’t think she is as ineffectual a parent as Rose is.
It also has similarities to many stories Blyton wrote where a family has to pull together and work hard in times of strife. House-at-the-Corner and The Family at Red-Roofs are good examples, but those children had fewer faults to begin with than the Taggertys.
Thank you for putting that together so well. Blyton certainly made us think about these characters. Reading about them as an adult rather than a child does kind of throw another perspective…
Just pointing a few inconsequential errors: Annette was five at the start of the novel, and turns six. And they were the Carlton(s), not Carleton(s). The novel was written in 1949, so Enid was most likely describing the 1940s parenting style. Other than those tiny errors, I totally agree with what you have written. I abhor the amount of violence tolerated, advocated and justified in this book. Which parent would tolerate her 5 year old being slapped around by her eight year old? Which sane parents would leave parenting and discipline to the elder sibling? If you were to read Blyton’s biography, you’d realise that was what Blyton did to get her younger siblings. Her brother (either Carey or Hanly, I can’t quite remember) recounted a tale how she threatened him violence and he just managed to escape in the nick of time. I think stories of elder siblings using corporal punishments on their younger siblings is a way of justifying her violence towards her brothers. I don’t think it was reflection of what children did at that time.
Thanks for the corrections. I spent so long making sure I was writing Taggertys and not Taggerties that the extra E in the Carltons completely escaped me.
If you are meaning the Barbara Stoney biography then I have read that, but it was several years ago. I can’t remember the story you mention, but I will have to revisit that bit (if I can find it) to see the link for myself.
I think, though, that it was reasonably common in the 1940s (and beyond) for older children in a family to care for the youngest – including a clip around the ear for bad behaviour. Without access to reliable contraceptives many families had more children than they would have otherwise chosen, and with little to no state provided childcare in poorer families it all fell on the mother who naturally would have her older children assist where they could.