The Enid Blyton Society
The Four Cousins
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Book Details...

First edition: 1962
Publisher: Lutterworth Press
Illustrator: Joan Thompson
Category: Young Family
Genre: Family
Type: Novels/Novelettes

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Review by Robert Houghton
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Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1st edition, illustrated by Joan Thompson



Frontis from the 1st edition, illustrated by Joan Thompson
The Four Cousins, originally published in Playways Annual, 1961, and then in book form the following year, is another excellent example of an Enid Blyton 'trailer' for her family-based stories written for older children. It follows a formula somewhat similar to Four in a Family, The Family at Red-Roofs or House-at-the-Corner in that it explores the way the central child characters must learn to be selfless, kind and helpful in order to get the rewards of life and to achieve what they want out of it. It also shares several similarities with the longer novel, The Put-Em-Rights, in that it has children deciding to help others worse off than themselves, accompanied by the often painfully hierarchical attitude Enid cannot seem to help bestowing on such situations.

Like the other Playways family story, Four in a Family (with which it is easy to confuse the similarly entitled The Four Cousins!), the main premise of the plot of this latest addition deals with raising money, this time to send a poor family to the seaside for a treat. Unlike Four in a Family, this plot-point works far more satisfactorily, the goal the children are working towards seeming a lot more worthy than simply wanting to buy their father a present whilst he is in hospital. However, it must also be said that one might wonder why the adults of the story, instead of giving their money to Sarah and John, don't simply give it straight to the poor family so that they might be helped all the sooner — and why food parcels couldn't be collected instead of money so that the children can have something to eat throughout the day, and why the neighbours weren't kinder to the family and didn't bother to look in on the poor abandoned children more often? In fact, the story begs a lot of similar questions, all of which Enid fails to answer.

Blyton sets up the story in her usual way, and is very quick to establish the qualities of the main two child-characters, who in many ways are similar to her child characters from her other family sagas. John and Sarah are both well-to-do middle to upper-class children who come from a privileged home. They have everything they want: are always being given toys and presents, and as a result are prone to being lazy, unthinking and selfish. In short, Blyton makes it quite clear that these children have lessons to learn. During the course of the book, they will not only become less selfish and learn to help others less fortunate than themselves, but will also learn many important lessons about their own behaviour and the repercussions such behaviour can have. It is this 'double learning curve' that makes the book so interesting to read, albeit on a much-simplified level compared to her family stories for older children. The book purports to be simply about helping Billy and Betty, two 'poor little children' to go on holiday to the seaside, but is really about the two main child characters and how they learn to become better people (or at least, better people as Miss Blyton sees it!)

Enid is very quick to outline the qualities she sees as being important, each chapter reading almost like a 'how to' of Blyton behaviour. If one had to pick out an Enid Blyton book as a supreme example of her preaching to her readers then this would definitely be it, for while one cannot deny that The Four Cousins is immensely entertaining, like all of her books, it is also very heavy on message and moral, Enid not even bothering to hide the fact as she gives us example after example of transgression and then comeuppance. Indeed, the whole book might be said to be The Enid Blyton Rulebook for Good Behaviour, as each chapter clearly demonstrates the ways in which Enid herself feels a child should behave:

Chapter One sets the scene, introducing the characters, showing they are spoilt and over-privileged. Blyton suggests that this might be made right if the children help someone less well off — she suggests being kind to the poor, for example.

Chapter Two demonstrates further how acts of selflessness will make us better people and, according to Enid, will hopefully make the children look at themselves and see their own faults. Blyton also hints that if children obey their parents and do things willingly then they will be rewarded.

Chapter Three has Enid suggesting that children should be kind — Sarah is spiteful to her brother and the reader knows deep down that sooner or later she will be punished for being so nasty, as will be seen by chapter four.

Chapter Four has Enid doling out the expected punishments — Sarah is punished for her unkindness in the last chapter, not by human intervention, but by her own doing — she has to be up early in order to cover her tracks when initially she thought she would be making more work for her brother. In a way Blyton is suggesting that it's better to just get on with things rather than to be deliberately selfish, as it usually comes back to you in the end: you reap what you sew.

In Chapter Five, Enid shows her reader how hard work can be rewarding, when Sarah decides to make up for her spitefulness of the last couple of chapters and actually do some work. She earns sixpence instead of three pence through being kind and honest, and realises what fun doing errands can be.

Chapter Six deals with the idea of sacrifice: of how giving up the things we like, such as lemonade and chocolate in the case of Sarah and John, can lead to even greater rewards. Mummy gives the children double the money she was going to give them when they decide to go without. John drinks water instead of lemonade and earns an extra three pence because of it — surely a very early and successful example of encouraging children to eat and drink healthily?!

Chapter Seven demonstrates very clearly the importance Enid places on keeping our promises. John falls asleep after he promises to weed Mr Brown's garden and so Johnís cousin Sam is given the job instead. Enid also warns us about being lazy, as John misses out due to being asleep in a deckchair. What she fails to point out is the fact that John is so tired because he has been working hard in his own garden all morning — Enid obviously sees very little wrong with cheap child-labour!

Chapter Eight redresses the balance somewhat when Enid suggests that John has been over-working and this has made him quarrelsome and cross. Both children are similarly affected and argue whilst doing the washing-up, smashing crockery as a result. Blyton points out the futility of arguing, and also shows what rewards might be gained from owning up to one's responsibilities: John offers to pay for the broken saucer but Mummy lets him off as she realises it was an accident — proving, of course, that 'honesty is the best policy'.

Chapter Nine teaches us that if we like animals (particularly dogs) and are kind to them, then they will like us and reward us with loyalty and kindness. If we learn to trust animals then they will trust us. It also introduces an element of 'wish-fulfilment' (yes — this book isn't immune to a little wish fulfilling, like the others in the Playways offerings) when John wishes with all his heart that he can have a dog of his own (something that mirrors the plot of the previous book, substituting a dog for the Birthday Kitten, and also pre-empts the follow-up story about The Boy Who Wanted a Dog (1963).)

Chapter Ten shows the reader how important patience can be — Sarah darns socks and pricks her fingers, but she puts up with it and gets rewarded. They also look after the dogs and are rewarded by the dogs' faithfulness as well as by piles of money earned by looking after them.

Chapter Eleven sees the reward for all of the kindness and hard work and bravery, when Billy and Betty finally get sent off to the seaside, thanks to both John and Sarah and their cousins (who don't feature as often as the book's title would have you believe) Sam and Susie, and their fund-raising activities. Mummy and Daddy realise what good children they have. The mother of the poor children reacts to the kindnesses in the usual subservient way: 'You are kind, ma'am...I cant thank you enough — and your dear children too for all they did to earn money for our holiday. God bless you, I say, God bless you,' before Sarah and John acknowledge the real pleasure they have gained from doing the good deed, when Sarah comments, 'It was worth doing all our jobs to see those two excited children — it really was!'

Chapter Twelve ties up all the loose ends, and teaches us for the last time that kindness and hard work have their own rewards. The children get ice creams and they get their own dog, when Mrs Houston's dogs have puppies. Blyton also suggests that they had these rewards because they expected nothing in return for their good-deeds, and in doing so imparts her last lesson in 'good behaviour', finishing with the words — 'you deserve him, you really do! You didn't want any reward for your hard work — but you won't say no to the thing you wanted most — a Dog of Your Very Own!' The final moral of the story is that we should do things for others without expecting a reward.

In the midst of all this 'do-goodery', it is interesting to note that The Four Cousins is marred slightly by the usual pre-conceived Blyton ideas of poverty and its direct relationship to working mothers. As in The Six Bad Boys (1951), Blyton suggests that the two poorer characters, Billy and Betty (frequently referred to, somewhat condescendingly as 'those poor little things') are forced into their meagre existence by the very fact that their mother goes out to work. Blyton never gives a suggestion as to what has happened to their father — whether he is dead or in prison or has left the mother as her own father did, can only be speculated on — but his absence has obviously forced the mother to go out to work (as Blyton sees it) and has thus set up the situation the poor children now find themselves in. Yet Blyton blames the mother, rather than the absent father for this predicament, as she did in The Six Bad Boys, written ten years earlier. Once again, gratingly, Enid assumes that poverty equals cruelty, and makes the assumption that a woman who works all day has a choice to stay in and look after her children or to go out and work — an either/or situation, assuming that if the mother chooses the latter then she does so for purely selfish reasons and doesn't care about the welfare of her children.

This is an interesting route for Blyton to take, when one considers the facts. She, herself, was a working mother, and she, as a young girl, lived in a family situation where her father had 'deserted' them. I wonder whether Enid ever thought of this when writing this particular book, or ever considered herself as a victim of a 'broken home'? If she ever did, then she shows very little evidence of this within her books, preferring instead to take the moral high ground, suggesting such happenings only ever occur in poorer lower-class families.

Blyton describes how these poor children are left by their mother all day in 'one small room' and how 'from breakfast to teatime they have nothing to eat, because there is no one to see to them. Sometimes a neighbour looks in, but that is all.' In describing the lifestyle of these poor individuals, Enid betrays her own lack of knowledge of such things, and displays her own naivety into the bargain, assuming that 'having no one to see to them' equates with poverty. Blyton also assumes that poverty has caused these children not only to be hungry most of the time (a massive crime in any Blyton book!) but also to 'hardly ever go out for a walk or to play' as other children do. Quite how poverty prevents them from going walking or playing isn't explained, of course, but it does go to demonstrate what Blyton felt were the most important ingredients to a healthy happy childhood: walking, fresh air, playing outside and good healthy food — something many children today might be said to be deprived of!

Despite these naiveties, Blyton must be applauded for attempting, in such a short family story aimed at younger children, to deal with issues that she felt were important on a country-wide basis. However knowingly we may sneer now and point an accusing finger at many of Blyton's rather simplistic ideas on child poverty and ill treatment, it must be said that her heart was in the right place. She believed very strongly in the correlation between mothers going out to work and child poverty (though of course she herself was a working mother of a very different type!) and she believed too in the great good that could be achieved if those children who were better off were made to stop and think about those poorer than themselves, both monetarily and physically. She supported many charities in this way throughout her life, and raised a lot of money, with the help of her readers, which went towards giving disadvantaged children of every sort a better existence. This book might be said to be an extension of this, and written as an encouragement as well as an entertainment, to those of her readers who might wish to help her good causes in the future. It sets out clearly and succinctly the type of person a child should attempt to be as they grow to adulthood — and although it often comes across as preachy and virtuous to the extreme, one cannot also deny that its ideals are admirable, if not altogether realistic.

So the poorer children of the story have a problem: a mother with very little money, no time to take them for walks, and hardly any food on the table for the day's duration. Blyton searches for a way to solve this — surely earning money for food, or for a Nanny whilst mother is at work etc might have been useful — but no — it seems Enid can think of no better solution to the poor children's situation than to pay for them to have two lovely weeks at the seaside!! A noble and worthy cause, maybe, but one does wonder how this will help the children and their mother in the long term, or how they will feel when they return home to find the sad home-life they have been living hasn't altered one jot. To an adult, the trip to the seaside seems a pleasant diversion from the humdrum existence the poorer family are putting up with, but not an answer to their problems. To the child reader, and perhaps to Enid at the time, the trip to the sea obviously solved everything!

Apart from the 'helping others' theme, and the 'learning to do the right thing' aspect of this story, Blyton also explores, however unintentionally, the small-mindedness of her upper-class characters, who bicker and squabble and laze around, living an existence so far removed from that of Billy and Betty that that couldn't possibly comprehend it. Enid sets up the two main child characters against their two cousins, each vying for being the best at earning money: turning their fund-raising into a competition as the four cousins try to score points off one another. During the reading, it is maybe interesting to debate whether the main characters are actually more concerned about the raising of money or the scoring of points. Of course, Enid gives her main characters these faults on purpose, so that we can see, as readers, how they learn and change from their mistakes, and how they eventually learn that scoring points off each other is less important than helping others. She uses the money-earning situation to point out the children's faults, and in contrasting the 'good' and 'bad' cousins she makes her story a whole lot more entertaining into the bargain!

Once again, Enid has produced a book that is immensely readable, very entertaining, imparts messages and morals, and has characters we like and believe in: all the main ingredients of a real Enid Blyton story. The amazing thing is she manages to do this within twelve relatively short chapters. Looking at it as a whole, it is probably one of her best 'Younger Family' books, up there with Snowball the Pony (1953) and The Adventure of the Secret Necklace (1954) for entertainment and quality. The Four Cousins manages to do for the 'family' genre what 'Snowball' and 'Necklace' did for the animal and adventure genres: encapsulating all the most important aspects of a typical Blyton 'family story' within its pages, and doing it in such a way that children are captivated and entertained, as well as being encouraged to read Blyton's other family novels as they grew older. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.