Published 1938 chapter 13 – The Summer Goes By
No one came to interfere with the children. They lived together on the island, playing, working, eating, drinking, bathing – doing just as they liked, and yet having to do certain duties in order to keep their farmyard going properly.
Sometimes Jack and Mike went off in the boat at night to get something they needed from either Jack’s farm or Aunt Harriet’s. Mike managed to get into his aunt’s house one night and get some of his and the girls’ clothes – two or three dresses for the girls, and a coat and shorts for himself. Clothes were rather a difficulty, for they got dirty and ragged on the island, and as the girls had none to change into, it was difficult to keep their dresses clean and mended…
observations: Talking about Monica Dickens’ book The House at World’s End recently, I mentioned this one – a much simpler affair, but similar in having that holy grail for all right-thinking child readers: their contemporaries living alone in a secret house. (There is also Blyton’s seminal 1940 The Treasure Hunters, where the children find a house in the woods to claim as their own.)
This one is high concept: four children are mistreated by relatives and run away to an island, where they manage to build themselves a house and remain hidden for ages. In a strange nod to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (see the fairies here), they know a bank where the wild thyme grows, and sleep there the first night:
Heyho for a starry night and a heathery bed! … they lay on their backs in the sand, looking up at the evening sky, listening to the crackle of the wood, and smelling a mixture of wood-smoke and honeysuckle.
And while we’re raising the tone: the children aren’t actually shipwrecked, but still they brought to mind George Orwell’s comments:
Some desert-island stories, of course, are worse than others, but none is altogether bad when it sticks to the actual concrete details of the struggle to keep alive. A list of the objects in a shipwrecked man's possession is probably the surest winner in fiction, surer even than a trial scene.
And – mutatis mutandis – this is exactly what is still gripping in this book, and was even more gripping when I first read it many many years ago. Peggy-who-sews is also the cook (it’s not a book to challenge stereotypes), and she makes rice pudding, custard and toffee on the campfire, which seems impressive, and (now) completely impossible, but it would be daft to pick at this in a book where the children live for six months in a house they have made out of willow branches.
It is also true that Blyton is the most terrible writer, and that anyone who had disabled this key - ! - on her typewriter would have been doing the world a favour. But I still have a soft spot for The Secret Island, and have always thought it foolish to try to stop children from reading Blyton – she surely encouraged more readers than any other author, in her day.
Jeopardy for children in books has long been a subject close to the heart of Clothes in Books – see here for the evidence. More children running away in this book.
The top picture shows two children at Green Lake in Seattle, the lower one is from a church camp in Oregon.