Malcolm Saville

by Harry on January 29, 2007

I was a late reader, only really mastering the basics as I approached 8, by that time having been designated a dullard by most of my teachers (reasonably enough given that I also couldn’t tie my shoelaces or put on my clothes, and spent a lot of time staring aimlessly into space). So I missed most of Enid Blyton’s books for little kids (you know, the racist ones (but also scroll down this page)). But I read almost every single one of her books for older kids (you know, the sexist and class-ridden ones) – the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Adventurous Four, the Adventure Books, the Mystery books, the R books, even, oddly, Mallory Towers (for some reason I spurned the St. Clare’s books, even though they must have been almost exactly the same as the Mallory Towers books).

And I never once, in my whole childhood, read a word by Malcolm Saville.

Enid Blyton, for our American readers, is still the most widely read and widely translated children’s author the British Isles has produced, and stunningly prolific – at her height producing a book a week. And you can tell. While in one sense hardworking, as a writer she was lazy – there are endless repetitions of plot devices, adverbs, and events, and even her best characters are, well, wooden. If out-loud-readability is a test of good writing (and I think it is) she fails miserably – you’re constantly tripping over the sentences, your attention drifts, and you find yourself repeating whole phrases several times in the course of a passage, and then realizing that you have not got lost, its just there on the page. But I can completely see why kids love the books. They have all the key ingredients of a good yarn, anr more. The adults are almost absent, and when present are frequently dolts (with the one, strange, exception of Uncle Quentin, who may be psychotic; a “scientist” without a job or a lab, who is often visited by rather sinister characters and seems to despise children violently). The protagonists enjoy an implausible degree of freedom, sibling relationships are described as being fond but rivalrous, there’s always a boy and a girl for the reader to identify with (except, obviously, in the girls school stories, but presumably she assumed that only rather effeminate boys would read those). Crucially, there is a lot of food, and frequent breaks for picnics and midnight feasts, indulged without adults present, and described in more detail than the motivations off the characters. The kids are forever coming out on top, engaging in great feats of daring, and defeating wicked criminals that the stupid police are unable to catch.

I didn’t only read Enid Blyton. I read all the greats, too – Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, Ronald Welch, The Family from One End Street, Penelope Lively, Nina Bawden, John Rowe Townsend (when I was old enough), Peter Dickinson, you name them, I read them. And, of course, Jennings and William. I had a lot of catching up to do. I used to make my mother spurn friends who came to ask if I could play so that I could get on to the next book.

But nothing by Malcolm Saville. What a waste! I just finished reading my first ever to my eldest. All Summer Through is not a mystery story (unlike the others) but the story of, well, a summer holiday. The publication date is given as 1950. The story focuses on Sally, a girl on the cusp of puberty, who leads her younger brother and his best mate, and her own friend home from boarding school, in a series of minor adventures. Her city-dwelling snobbish cousin, Tony, is foisted on them for the whole summer, and, in the first contrast with the Blyton books, his snobbery is a clear moral defect (from which, of course, they wean him) in contrast with their completely democratic outlook. (His mother, Sally’s aunt, is also despised for her snobbery, though she redeems herself partially by the end of the book) The class structure of a market town and the rural society that surrounds it is depicted clearly (and I think accurately) and not exactly indicted; but any sense of superiority those with higher status might have is frowned upon. Even Sally’s father (Wilfred, gosh I wish I’d thought of that for the baby) comes to acknowledge that he has not shown due consideration for his spinster employee, when she is taken ill.

The second startling contrast is that adults are pretty much ever-present, and interact more-or-less realistically with the children, if giving them, perhaps, a little more freedom than is appropriate. The narrator (not the kids, you’ll be glad to know) even refers to Sally’s parents by their first names, inviting the reader to see them as real people central to the story, something that must have been very rare in that era I’d have thought.

Third, one of the central dramas actually focuses on an adult. During a family vacation to the Cornish coast there are dark hints that Sally’s mother is seriously ill; and just after they return she is rushed to hospital with an undisclosed, but apparently life-threatening, condition. Both my daughter and I are accustomed enough to recent children’s literature that we really expected her to die (which, I’d guess, the 1950’s reader might not have expected). In fact she has an appendectomy (a familiar Blyton plot device, if I remember correctly – didn’t one of the Mallory Towers girls have one?), and the anxiety about the operation forces both Sally and her father to re-assess their relationship with her. The final contrast, then, is a degree of emotional complexity unfound in any of the pre-John Rowe Townsend books I remember – they don’t just experience joy, jealousy and fear (Mallory Towers was big on jealousy, I remember), but anxiety about impending adulthood, fear and concern for others, confusion about their relationships with each other and the adults.

It’s not as if there is nothing childish about the story; a little girls gets lost, the snobbish cousin discovers, and alerts the locals, to a huge barn fire; the older kids save the life of a little boy and his dog (endangering their own lives in the process) during a massive storm, they organise part of a fete, and there are plenty of cream cakes, buns and the like (no ginger beer, unfortunately). My daughter (10) was gripped, and it clips along at a good pace. I’ve no idea how typical it is of his work, but I’m looking forward to reading more. A glance at suggests that most of his work is out of print (I picked up my handful of Savilles at various charity shops during my last visit to the UK) but also, if you look at the used prices, several seem to be in demand from collectors. I regret having missed out, and recommend them if you’re looking for something different to read to your kid and can get hold of them.



Jimmy Doyle 01.29.07 at 2:29 pm

I loved the Lone Pine adventures when I was about 10, but I haven’t revisited. I even tried to join the Lone Pine Club but I think it was defunct by then.


otto 01.29.07 at 2:30 pm


Would I be out of place to mention Andrew Taylor’s Lydmouth series here? It’s a detective series, written since 1995 or so, set in a 1950s village, but with all the class and gender conflicts left in, which the ‘classic’ ‘cozy’ detective stories of Miss Marple etc leave out. Not children’s books, but with something of the same alteration to the received version of post-war Britain as Harry mentions here.


paul 01.29.07 at 2:37 pm

what, no Arthur Ransom/Swallows and Amazons? I read all but one of these to my two enthusiasts and I found them to be very readable (I started them with We didn’t mean to go to sea, the best of the lot for adventure, resourcefulness, and a meaningful resolution). Adults are resources to be drawn upon, willing co-conspirators, at times. The children are smart, brave, and work well together, despite diverse backgrounds. They are dated, as they were written in the 30s, and that world no longer exists. But they are still well worth a look.


y 01.29.07 at 3:42 pm

I loved the Ransome books as a child, but as an adult I managed to do a little more research into their making, and I found out that the world depicted didn’t exist even then–for example, the real-life model for the British naval officer’s son was actually a Syrian doctor’s daughter. Neverthless, I am still quite fond of the books–Swallows and Amazons itself, in particular, I think of as something of a narrative gem.


Adelheid 01.29.07 at 5:25 pm

Actually, while certain plots are repeated, there is a distinct difference in quality of the St Clares’s in comparison with Mallory Towers. (MT series is better). But Blyton in general is completely trumped by the Big Four of school stories: Angela Brazil, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Elsie J Oxenham and (my favourite) Elinor M Brent-Dyer.

There was indeed an appendectomy in the Mallory Towers series – Sally Hope has her appendix out in “First Term at Mallory Towers”.


Frances 01.29.07 at 5:29 pm

I found the swallows and amazons books amazing because they were the only books around that i can remember in the early 60s that had girls as equal protagonists with absolutely no fuss. OK Susan kept making boiled eggs and sanwiches but no argument – Nancy really was the wildest character around. The lead boy was so much more sensible and tame. Sadly, teacher friends tell me that as one of the lead characters is called titty (short for elizabeth in the thirties but totally snigger material now) its just not readable out loud now.

And one of my friends lived downstairs from the daughter of Barbara Altounyan who was really John in true life – in Newcastle on tyne in 1980s.


grackel 01.29.07 at 8:45 pm

I read a series of these books as a child from a small library in Colorado. I remember little except that the boy and girl siblings, summering in the country, meet a free-spirited ‘wild” girl named, I think, Tansy. I fell helplessly in love with her but to this day have no idea who the author was or what the series.


dearieme 01.29.07 at 10:57 pm

Richmal Crompton’s “Just William” series: none better, surely?


magistra 01.30.07 at 3:02 am

My (hazy) memory of Malcolm Saville’s books is of them as adventure stories. (I think several were set around Rye, in East Sussex). So I’d say in plot they were more like Enid Blyton than the one you’ve read, though they still have the combination of children and adults working together, unlike Blyton. I can’t remember any aspects of social commentary, but they did so inspire my brother as a boy that he wrote several books in the same style (whereas I’m not sure whether he ever read Enid Blyton and he certainly wasn’t a big fan).


chris y 01.30.07 at 9:18 am

I found out that the world depicted didn’t exist even then

Well, they were fiction, y’know, like made up stories?


ajay 01.30.07 at 9:31 am

In the first Swallows & Amazons book, I always admired the response of the (absent) father who is asked, by telegram, by his wife whether he thinks the children should be allowed to go sailing:



Andrew J King 01.30.07 at 10:26 am

What I liked about finding out about the real-life background of Ransome’s work was that his real world was much more cosmopolitan than the stories, even though those contain a lot of his libertarian tendencies. I guess he was toning down the real world for the sensitivities of his audience -being a drinking buddy of Lenin’s, married to Trotsky’s administrative aide and a friend of Syrian professionals didn’t sit easy with his conservative public.
On another angle, I was raised on Kipling’s Puck stories -dark dark dark! -But not the simple imperial jingoist he is usually painted as. Too much in love with Carlyle’s hero-worshipping but too much an anglo-indian to buy the Empire propaganda -and clever enough to write in a conservative voice with a message of equality and tolerance. Most of his audience never got the point. For example he uses his experience of the Raj to depict the Roman occupation of Britain -superb irony in every sentence. Throughout, an amazing education in history, realpolitik, and cultural communication -told in a way that rips your own immediate reality away from you and wraps you in another time so intensely you can hardly believe it was just a book. There are moments in all of the stories that come back to me over and over again because they are so apt to situations met in real life, and the historical characters, from an iron-age shepherd, through a norman conquest Jewish financier to a tudor craftsman feel like people I know personally. Hot and dangerous stuff, but my god what an education . . .


paul 01.30.07 at 11:28 am

Sadly, teacher friends tell me that as one of the lead characters is called titty (short for elizabeth in the thirties but totally snigger material now) its just not readable out loud now.

Well, my sheltered children don’t know that yet ;-) Another character being named Dick is going to provoke giggles later, as well.

The self-reliance was what I liked most, and the more egalitarian status of boys to girls. Yes, Susan fussed like a mother but she had responsibility.

My father grew up around that same time in England and while the world’s ills may have been glossed over a little, it’s a pretty accurate representation. Kids did go off and have those adventures and kindly adults looked out for them without worrying too much.


Doug K 01.30.07 at 5:35 pm

I have a 1930s edition of the Arthur Ransome ‘Coot Club’, reread it every few years for a sort of holiday.
Also have a collection of his fishing columns for the Manchester Guardian, which includes a translation of some pre-revolutionary essays on fishing in Russia, by an aristocrat remembering his childhood. Time machines.

None of this connects in any way to my children’s experiences in 21st century America, ranking up there with dinosaurs as tales of far-off and forgotten times. The current crop of kids books seems to me dreadfully formulaic, on the other hand so were all the books I read as a child of empire, Famous Four and all.

Noddy incidentally has been cleaned up, golliwogs are replaced with goblins, and Dinah Doll is a charming little black doll running a china stall in Toytown.


Carrie 02.03.07 at 3:48 pm

A couple of weekends ago I was in a village on the Essex-Suffolk borders and encountered a toyshop with an impressive range of gollies. I contemplated getting one for a liberal friend who has just given birth as a kind of ironic commentary on societal development, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Despite this article (March 06) about the sale of said toys being racist ……. (

… it appears that sales are buoyant:

There are also some fascinating images of Enid Blyton’s Noddy before and after being ‘cleansed’:

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