In Defence of the Secret Seven
Article by Hari Menon (September 11, 2006)
Secret Seven! The name evokes disdain or contempt among many readers who are otherwise ardent fans of Enid Blyton. What did this ragtag band of four boys, three girls and one dog do to arouse such revulsion?
Okay, maybe I exaggerated. But for most of us the Secret Seven happens to be the least revered series in Blyton's canon. Is this because the books were written for a younger set of readers? Could it be the smaller format? The perpetual scowl on the face of their highhanded leader, perhaps?
I expect all these factors do contribute to the—undeserved, if you ask me—negative reputation the Secret Seven has among many Blyton fans.
And is it mere coincidence that the letters 'SS' have historical connotations that are not exactly pleasant? The series was written between 1948 and 1963, so such an 'inspiration' is not entirely far-fetched. But I think it unlikely—Blyton doesn't seem the sort who would take a sly dig at her own characters, even as a joke.
So, is the series really as juvenile as it's made out to be? Do the Seven have any redeeming qualities? Let's find out.
Cast of Characters
Peter: The head of the Secret Seven, Peter's word is Absolute Law. He usually decides the passwords, and seldom forgets them, unlike the others. Indeed, the easiest way to irk him is to forget the password or the SS badge (which others do with predictable regularity). Though he often acts like a dictator, he is annoyingly proved right on most occasions. The secret meetings are held in a shed at the bottom of the garden, some distance from his house.
Janet: Peter's sister. Co-owner of the shed and Scamper the golden spaniel, but that ends her stake in the Secret Seven. She comes across as a little brighter than the other two girls in the club (in one instance she sensibly makes a drawing of some tyre prints when the other girls only titter), but that's probably because she's constantly under Peter's thumb and doesn't dare to giggle quite so frequently. Her urge to dance in the moonlight comes in useful while trapping horse stealers on one occasion.
Jack: Jack is one of the more colourful characters. He's apparently second-in-command (though this is mentioned only once or twice in the books). He's also disappointingly gullible sometimes. In Secret Seven on the Trail, he believes the tall tales his sister Susie and her friends make up. He also forgets the Secret Seven password with exasperating regularity; indeed, Susie seems to remember it better than he does! To his credit, he is as brave and loyal as a right-hand man can be.
Pam: One of the two gigglers in the club. Perhaps her sole contribution to the club is when she "interviews" her grandmother in Three Cheers Secret Seven (and misspells the word "absolutely" in the process). She's a great friend of Barbara, for obvious reasons. Either of them is sportingly ready for a good cry when Peter starts shouting—at them or one of the others, it doesn't matter.
Barbara: Giggles, squeals and shrieks come naturally to Barbara, as they do to Pam. Indeed, you can't easily tell one from the other. Perhaps that's why Derek Lucas' illustrations show Pam in pigtails, while Barbara leaves her hair free. I used to consider her very pretty in those illustrations when I was ten years old. Ah, the follies of youth.
Colin: Though he can be easily confused with George, Colin makes some interesting discoveries. For instance, he was the one who spots the escaping thief in Secret Seven Adventure, and the one who forgets the book about ships in the cubby-hole up a tree in Well Done Secret Seven. Oh, and it was at his granny's house that the robbery occurs in Secret Seven Fireworks. He also owns a complete set of (ahem!) Famous Five books, which provides hours of light reading to a petty thief in Secret Seven Win Through.
George: Can pretend to be Colin, and nobody would know the difference, not even Peter—which is probably why Lucas gives him close-cropped fair hair. He's forced to resign from the club in Go Ahead Secret Seven, after being caught following a man, with rubber truncheon in hand. He claims to be at the bottom of the class in composition in Go Ahead Secret Seven, yet some books later he wins the second prize in an English essay. Remarkable improvement indeed!
Scamper: The golden spaniel's not one of the Seven (he's been described as a 'hanger-on' on more than one occasion) but he contributes a lot more than many of the real members do. Once, when George was forced by his father to resign from the club, Scamper had his fifteen or so days of fame as a full-fledged member.
One problem with the names of the Secret Seven books is that the British editions have such eminently forgettable titles. Well, I remember them all right, but that's because I've read each book a dozen times in the past 25 years. For all practical purposes, you could interchange the titles randomly (except Secret Seven Fireworks, but then that could be swapped with Good Work Secret Seven), and still end up with perfectly serviceable names.
Michael Edwards puts it very well: "Although the US titles don't strike me (as an Australian who has seen only UK editions) as properly and traditionally Blytonesque, I have to say that they are far more descriptive of the content of the stories, whereas most of the British titles—the ones chosen by Blyton herself—simply allude to mysteries and adventures in general, or else merely congratulate the Seven and say nothing about the actual story."
The first book in the series (informatively titled The Secret Seven) is their very first adventure. But there are hints that the Secret Seven have been active even earlier. For instance, there's a reference to how they raised money to send Lame Luke away to the sea. We never hear of Lame Luke again, so the ungrateful wretch presumably decided never to come back. Perhaps he acquired a wooden leg, an earring and a parrot, and launched a successful career as a brigand...
Interestingly, animals play a significant part in many of the Secret Seven books. Plots often revolve around horses (The Secret Seven, Fun for the Secret Seven), dogs (Go ahead Secret Seven, Shock for the Secret Seven), a kitten (Well Done Secret Seven), an entire circus (Secret Seven Adventure) and so on. Horses and riding stables play a significant part in Secret Seven Mystery.
The Seven aren't as humourless as they are made out to be. Colin is one of the jokers; once he makes up a funny (and rather rude) song about Susie's best friend Binkie, in which he describes her rabbit teeth and woffly nose. On another occasion, he elicits a chuckle by describing how his grandmother's foreign maid sat on a bag of eggs that he had left on a chair. But it's often Susie who provides comic relief, mostly at Peter's expense. The wild goose chase she leads them on in Secret Seven Mystery is a prime example of her resourcefulness.
Blyton has also used the Secret Seven as a plug for the Famous Five. In Secret Seven on the Trail, Susie and friends form a club called the Famous Five. "We've named ourselves after the Five books—much better idea than the Secret Seven!" she gloats for Jack's benefit. Then, in Secret Seven Win Through, Colin staggers into a cave (the temporary meeting place for the club) with a pile of his Famous Fives. Later in the story, one of the books goes missing (Five Go Down to the Sea). Could this be a subtle way of getting young readers interested in a series meant for slightly older children?
Unlike characters in some of the other Blyton series, the Seven don't age. Indeed, their ages aren't mentioned at all. In the Find-Outers series, the characters do age a bit. For instance, Fatty breaks his voice at the beginning of the Mystery of the Missing Necklace. The Famous Five also become older as they progress through the series, but this isn't kept up consistently, probably because they would no longer have been teenagers by the end of the series. And George would have had to resort to drastic measures to continue masquerading as a man.
I assumed the Secret Seven were 9-10 years old, because they play tag and go biking, but (for instance) never go on overnight expeditions. And they definitely look like pre-teens in the Knight paperback illustrations by Derek Lucas. In the older (Brock) illustrations by George Brook, Burgess Sharrocks and Bruno Kay, they are attired in caps, blazers, shorts and school sandals, and look even more youthful.
One blow against the Secret Seven is that the plots for some of the stories aren't original. Two of the books—Go Ahead Secret Seven and Shock for the Secret Seven—deal with kidnapped dogs, and the latter even recycles a plot from one of the Find-Outers mysteries (Invisible Thief, where some funny footwear is crucial to the plot). Even the name of the gangster in Secret Seven on the Trail (Cheeky Charlie) doesn't show much originality. And in Good Work Secret Seven, the car in which Peter and Janet are in is hijacked by a pair of rogues. A similar instance can be seen in a short story in the anthology of stories called Sunshine Book. But Blyton wasn't above reusing a perfectly good plot.
A strongly redeeming feature of the purportedly juvenile Secret Seven is that they often do worthwhile things, such as rehabilitating an old caretaker and his ill wife (in Three Cheers Secret Seven); finding a missing schoolgirl (Secret Seven Mystery); helping a blind boy (Puzzle for the Secret Seven); recovering a general's stolen medals (Look Out Secret Seven); and helping a decrepit old horse stay with his even more decrepit master (Fun for the Secret Seven).
What have the Famous Five ever done, except whizzing off on their bikes and falling into serendipitous adventures? Even if they've rescued people and found heaps of treasure, it's more by chance and good luck than any good intentions. All said and done, the Secret Seven may not have the sophistication of the Famous Five or the brainpower of the Find-Outers, but they do make for interesting reading if you have half an hour to spare.