I’m sure I’m not the only person who grew up with Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories as well as Enid Blyton’s stories and still loves and re-reads them both. Yet both Jennings and Buckeridge are much less well-known than Blyton and many of her characters. There seems to be only one, not very active, Jennings fan site. Therefore I expect that some readers of this blog don’t know the stories at all. So I thought that discussing how Jennings compares with some of Blyton’s stories might be of interest to those who know them both and to those who only know Blyton’s work.
Anthony Buckeridge OBE (1912-2004) was a near contemporary of Enid Blyton and, apart from wartime service as a fireman, was a school master for most of his career. He was a far less prolific writer than her, producing ‘only’ twenty-four Jennings books between 1950 and 1994 (almost all of them 1950- 1973), which started life as a series of BBC radio plays in 1948. He also wrote five books in the much less successful ‘Rex Milligan’ series.
The Jennings books are school stories, set in Linbury Court School, so the most obvious comparison is with Blyton’s St Clare’s (six books, 1941-1945) and Malory Towers (six books, 1946-1951) series*. However, Linbury Court is a boys’ ‘prep’ school (i.e. preparatory to Public school or independent school) whereas St Clare’s and Malory Towers are girls’ Public or independent schools, so the ages of the children are different. Even so, they are all boarding schools for mainly middle or upper-middle class pupils. It’s easy to imagine that if Jennings had an older sister, she might have gone to St Clare’s or Malory Towers.
Unsurprisingly, Jennings (John Christopher Timothy) is the central character throughout the series, more so than any one character in the Blyton series, even Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers. Almost as central is Jennings’ ‘side-kick’, Darbishire (Charles Edwin Jeremy). The extent to which Jennings (and Darbishire) hold centre-stage is probably why it isn’t called the ‘Linbury Court’ series whereas Blyton’s series are named after the schools. Another aspect of this is that Jennings and Darbishire are really the only characters who are well-defined. There is a recurring group of school-mates, especially Venables, Temple and Atkinson, but they are hardly described at all. This is very different to the Blyton series which both have a large ensemble cast of well-drawn characters, as well as the regular introduction of new and dramatic ones.
Another big difference with the two Blyton series is that Jennings and his fellow-pupils never get older or progress to more senior forms. Instead, they are permanently locked in their eleven or twelve year old incarnations. So the reader has to suspend disbelief as, say, yet another summer terms comes round and, by the end of the series, Jennings ought to be well into his twenties! This also means that there is no character development at all in the stories. In the same way, the main masters, Mr Carter and Mr Wilkins, appear throughout, whereas in the Blyton series they change to some extent. The headmaster, Mr Pemberton-Oakes, rather like Miss Theobald in St Clare’s and Miss Grayling in Malory Towers, is a consistent but remote figure of whom the pupils are rather in awe.
One minor difference is that, although we do know their Christian names, Jennings et al are routinely called by their surnames whether by masters or fellow-pupils, as was common in such boys’ schools at the time the stories are set, and indeed later. In Blyton’s stories the girls are known by their Christian names.
In Jennings, although again we do know their Christian names, the masters also address each other by surname, but use ‘Mr’ when speaking about each other to the boys, just as the boys call them ’Mr X’ or ‘Sir’ to their faces, or by nicknames such as ‘Old Wilkie’ behind their backs. In Blyton’s stories, the school mistresses are also referred to by title, with some, such as ‘Potty’ Miss Potts, also having nicknames amongst the girls. I can’t be completely sure without re-reading all the books again if they ever use first names amongst themselves when out of the girls’ hearing. I think not.
Blyton also has a couple of male teachers at her schools but there are no female teachers in Jennings, where the only regularly recurring female character is Matron who, as with the matrons in the Blyton stories, is unnamed. In all the series there are various members of domestic staff of both sexes, who sometimes play a minor role in the plots. It strikes me, now, that in both Buckeridge and Blyton stories all the teachers appear to be unmarried. That might have been the norm in girls’ schools of this type and time, but don’t think it was the case in boys’ schools
Like Blyton’s school stories, the Jennings books are not adventures in the sense of the Famous Five or Adventure series, although very occasionally in both there are adventurous episodes. Instead, the plots concern the ‘low-level’ excitement of school life. That includes things like the midnight feasts found in Blyton’s school stories, but is more often to do with Jennings’ confused understandings of the world around him, for example mis-concluding that a burglary is in progress or that a teacher is leaving, or Darbishire’s incompetence and impracticality, for example his boasts of swimming technique when, in fact, he is unable to swim.
In the Jennings series, there is none of the ‘moralism’ of the Blyton stories where snobbish or spiteful girls get put in their places, and almost none of the inter-personal conflict or jealousies that give her school stories much of their plot. There are no suggestions of social class differences between the pupils at Linbury Court, although there are passing references to some of the local people and domestic staff being of a lower class. Nor are there any references to ‘dramas’ or tragedies at home, and there are no ‘exotic’ characters like Carlotta or Claudine in St Clare’s, or even any ‘jokers’ like Alicia Johns in Malory Towers.
Instead, and far more than in the Blyton series, there is a huge amount of humour based on word play in the form of puns, double meanings and often quite complex metaphors. There is also an extensive jokey schoolboy language, some standard for the time (e.g. ‘flying into a bate’ when someone, usually Mr Wilkins, loses his temper) but much of it invented. Examples include ‘fossilised fishhooks’ (expression of surprised alarm), ‘addle-pated clodpoll’ (fool, idiot) and ‘ozard’ (meaning something bad, deriving from ‘Wizard of Oz’ because ‘wizard’ means good, so ‘ozard’ is its supposed opposite).
In fact, the whole tone of the Jennings books is of gentle good humour, including the wry amusement of Mr Carter, who is based on Buckeridge himself, at the strange logic and bizarre enthusiasms of Jennings and his friends, and the farcical situation this gives rise to. Actually, although all the series are told in the third person, there’s an intangible feeling that Jennings is being narrated by an adult – Buckeridge originally told them as stories to his pupils – which isn’t present in the Blyton stories.
There is also, to a greater extent than in the Blyton school stories, some sense of what is going on in the wider world (such as space travel) and also a sense of the place, the Sussex Downs, where Linbury Court School is located. By contrast, although we know that Malory Towers is in Cornwall, the location of St Clare’s isn’t even mentioned and nor, extraordinarily given when they were written and set, is the fact that there is a world war going on!
Whilst having all these differences and similarities, I think there are some underlying connections. A minor one is that all the series appeared in many editions, but the early ones in particular have some fantastic and atmospheric illustrations. They’re just pleasing books to hold and look at. More importantly, although all these stories are very much of their time, primarily the 1940s to 1960s, they all have a timeless quality. And although they are set in a very particular kind of educational institution, the English boarding school, they still manage to capture some of the universal experiences of childhood.
*Note: I haven’t made comparison with the Naughtiest Girl series partly because I haven’t read them and partly because, as I understand it, Whyteleafe School is very different to the others.