The Enid Blyton Society
The Very Big Secret
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Book Details...

First edition: 1952
Publisher: Lutterworth Press
Illustrator: Ruth Gervis
Category: Young Family
Genre: Family
Type: Novels/Novelettes

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Reprint Covers
Review by Robert Houghton
Further Illustrations


Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1st edition, illustrated by Ruth Gervis

Frontis from the 1st edition, illustrated by Ruth Gervis
After completion of the 'Family' series with , The Queen Elizabeth Family, Enid continued to contribute monthly instalments for Playways and later, the Playways annuals, right up until 1963, when her last full-length novel, The Hidey Hole was published. After this, Playways annuals continued to have Enid Blyton contributions, but only in the form of short stories, which had usually been published before.

Enid's first monthly serial after The Queen Elizabeth Family was also one of her most unusual. The Very Big Secret, originally serialised in Playways between April 1951 and March 1952, must surely hold the dubious distinction of being one of Enid's most bizarre offerings.

Like the books that had preceded it, and to fit in with the monthly publication dates of Playways magazine, the story is again told in twelve chapters, and shares many similarities with the 'Caravan Family' books. The illustrations are again by Ruth Gervis, whose style seems slightly more detailed in this one, compared to the previous books. The main theme, overall, as mentioned at the beginning of my article, seems to be the attraction for children of the 'wish fulfilment' element. This is evident in every book covered in the series so far and, to a certain extent, in one form or another, would be present in each book that was to follow, as we will see. In this case, Enid excels herself by having the central child's 'real baby' wish come true!

At first glance, the book seems nothing out of the ordinary, starting extremely conventionally, and in the vein of many of Enid's family stories for older children. Mother is described simply as being 'a very nice mother indeed' (page 7), whilst father, typically removed from the book, is described as being a sailor who is 'often away on his big ship'. It all seems very innocent and conventional, and yet this is a book that deals (albeit subconsciously) with several important issues, and could even be said (maybe with one tongue firmly in your cheek) to deal with such heavy concerns as child abduction and underage mothers.

This is all pure coincidence on Enid's part, of course, and it was never intended that she provide a deeply thought-provoking move away from the kind of entertaining stories she was known for in Playways. However, with today's climate, so different from the climate in which the story was originally written, it is easy to see issues arising from the plot that simply would not have been so noticeable then.

One of the main issues the book discusses quite openly, and in line with many of Enid's other books (particularly The Famous Five) is the issue of gender roles. Blyton seems at first to be erring towards the conventional in this, though it soon becomes apparent that her stance is anything but. I have always believed this to be the case, and I am often angered when critics suggest that Enid's writing is sexist. Apart from the word not even existing then, I think it is quite obvious that Enid was, for her day, quite a staunch supporter of what was to become known as 'woman's lib'. She often portrays female characters as being as good as or stronger than male characters, as in some parts of the 'Adventure' series and Famous Five. In The Very Big Secret, she offers us a house that is, most of the time, run entirely by females. She offers us, in the character of 'Peter' (the only male figure in the story) a somewhat pathetic chap who needs constant prompting from the women around him (and particularly his sister) in order to help out. This is despite the fact that Peter often appears older than Penny (they are, in fact, twins), and that he is 'always to be trusted' when it comes to things like plugging in electric irons and that he often provides the voice of reason, noticing a long time before Penny how dirty and ragged the baby is. Penny appears always to be the dreamer of the couple; her constant wish for her big doll to turn into a real baby, her total acceptance when she thinks it has, and yet, conversely, it is Penny who takes responsibility for the baby. It is she who washes it and feeds it and organises Peter when push comes to shove. It is, once again, the females who take charge when things get tough.

The story progresses in a predictable way when Mummy announces she has to go away and that granny will be stepping into the breech. This is due to the doctor telling Mummy she 'needs a rest' (the fact that Mummy is actually pregnant isn't gone into at all at this stage). She simply tells the children that she will bring them back a 'most wonderful present.'

Granny, it turns out, is perfectly equipped to let the children smuggle in a baby and look after it — she is 'a bit deaf' and has 'a bad foot — so won't want to run up and down stairs too much' — both of which will prove very useful as the story progresses!

It is not until chapter four that the plot really gets underway. This is unusual in what is such a short book anyway, but it has been necessary for Enid to set things up very carefully so as to make the following parts seem more likely. She has established that the children (especially Penny) would love a baby in the family, or at least a doll that is like a real baby, the fact that Penny loves dolls and has an almost life-size one with a cot and bath to match, and the convenience of a playroom well out of earshot at the bottom of the garden. She has established Mummy's departure and Granny's deafness and bad foot, which will effectively remove her from the action, and the fact that Penny wishes there was more magic around: something that will eventually lead to her believing that magic has occurred when her doll 'turns' into a baby.

So the children go to the woods, taking Penny's doll and pram with them, to pick wild honeysuckle and watch the usual Blytonian squirrels and rabbits at play. They arrive back at the pram rather late and set off home without even noticing anything is wrong. When the baby starts to cry, it is a very effective moment, as the reader is as much in the dark as the children. It really does appear that their doll has come alive. Peter even reminds Penny that it looks as if 'there might be magic about' after all.

Despite this sudden lapse of level-headedness on Peter's part, it is once again Peter that comes back to reality before his sister, noting how dirty the baby is, and how dirty its clothes are too. But Penny, of course, insists in believing in the idea that her doll has somehow come alive.

From this point on, the book concerns itself mainly with the way in which the children look after the baby and try to keep its presence a secret, hence the title of the book. The one big mystery is just why they feel they must keep it a secret in the first place. It is almost as if they realise, somehow, subconsciously that they have in fact 'abducted' a real live baby — they seem to feel guilty and to know what they have done is wrong — and yet at the same time they are still thoroughly convinced that the baby is really the doll come alive. This belief in magic, of course, is the very ingredient that helps to steer the children (and Blyton) away from delving any deeper into the issues the plot might be throwing up, or soul-searching over what they (the children) have done, something some modern-day writers would have tackled with relish. Once again, Peter provides the practical voice of reason — 'Anyone else would think it was a real baby.' He states, somewhat ironically.

Penny's behaviour is interesting at this point, in that Blyton has her reacting like a grieving mother who has lost her own baby and wants to take on the new arrival as a replacement, almost as if Blyton is delving deep into her own feelings of grief over failing to conceive in her early days of marriage when she was so desperate to have a baby. Penny justifies her feelings by stating: 'I couldn't bear it to be taken away from me. I haven't even got Belinda now.' So Peter offers to help his sister in the big deception — keeping the baby in the playroom, bathing and changing it.

Despite the darker threads of this story (it does, after all, deal with a kind of abduction, when all is said and done!) Enid manages to conjure up a lovely secret feeling, even despite the improbabilities of the situation. She makes the hiding and looking after the baby a great adventure, again, despite the fact that an adult reader might begin quickly to worry about the welfare of the poor child. The children begin a great learning experience — as well as practicing some grave deceits, such as going to a chemist 'we don't know, in case our own chemist asks awkward questions', when Peter goes to buy a bottle and a tin of powdered milk.

They also begin to learn the problems of baby minding — the complexities of bottle-feeding, the monetary problems involved with bringing up a baby. Blyton even deals with issues of equality when it comes to them both doing their equal share. Peter refuses to buy baby powder, saying it was bad enough asking for a feeding bottle, to which Penny retaliates: 'You aren't at all a good father...father's don't mind things like that.'

While Penny has gone to do the shopping, however, Peter more than proves his worth as a true 'house husband' long before the term was even invented when he admits to the baby, 'I say — you do feel rather nice, — You feel more like a warm teddy bear than a live doll — all soft and cuddly. I rather like you.'

Together, the children bath the baby, stealing a towel from the linen cupboard. Blyton gives the readers lessons in how to bath a baby, holding it 'firmly under its fat little back' and also how to dry it and powder it. Penny takes the lead here, her obsession with dolls and babies paying off, whilst Peter takes the plug out of the baby bath and floods the floor — 'Typical male' — some would say!

The children, like real parents, are forced to think of a future that now includes a baby, dependent entirely upon them for its welfare. Penny even works out how they can prevent being discovered when Mrs Pinky does her monthly 'turn out' of the playroom, by taking the baby out in the pram for the day. Penny also plans to spend the night in the playroom with the baby, curled up on the sofa — and granny's health again helps in this, as she 'doesn't come up to our rooms to kiss us goodnight because her bad foot doesn't like the stairs. So she won't know I'm here.'

Thus, Blyton ensures that the children are able to feed the baby when it awakes at six in the morning (very luckily it 'sleeps all through the night' until then!).

Tense moments are provided, however, despite these convenient 'adults out of the way' situations. At the end of chapter nine, Blyton has Granny actually coming into the playroom as the baby gives a sudden wail, something the children manage to explain away with the use of a few growling and mewing toy animals! Indeed, the children's invention where deception is concerned is quite shocking to behold, even using Granny's change (which she allows them to use for ices or sweets) to buy more oranges and baby powder, and telling a passing little girl that the baby is the latest thing in dolls and suggesting she ask her mother to buy her one!

Up until the final couple of chapters, the story, detailing events that the reader might find improbable, still manages to attain a certain level of credibility due to the fact that it has (perhaps) been caused by magic. However, when we discover what has really happened, this credibility seems to wane a little. Probably the weakest parts of the book, though obviously intended to be the dramatic high-points, are the end of chapter ten and beginning of chapter eleven, where Enid introduces the gypsy — the baby's real-life mother. It seems ridiculous that a gypsy would have come wandering by, felt ill, taken the children's doll from it's pram and substituted her real baby whilst she has a lie down in the bracken, but this is what Blyton asks us to believe. In a strange sort of way it even seems more unbelievable than the children's belief that the doll had really just come alive. The fantasy element of the book so far has really been its one charm — but now so-called 'reality' steps in and the plot suddenly seems hopelessly contrived. Surely this story would have worked better by keeping it at a fantasy level rather than trying to make it 'realistic' — which it quite plainly is not!

This aside, as is so often the case, Blyton makes up for the failings of the plot, this time by continuing the theme of bereavement; exploring Penny's feelings on losing the baby — 'The pram looks dreadfully empty,' she states, and, later (somewhat prematurely, considering her tender years!!) 'I want another baby.'

Of course, this being an Enid Blyton, everything comes right at the end, because mother has been away and 'brought' a baby back for them — a little brother, 'much nicer than the gypsy's baby' as Peter puts it. Penny will be able to help look after it, because, as Mummy says, 'you've looked after a real baby for so long, well of course you can help with our own baby.'

This latest Playways offering throws up all kinds of themes and questions, surprisingly deep for such a short novel aimed at children. It could be said to deal with under-age mothers and fathers, the role of boys and girls (and men and women) in society, as well as the feelings encountered when a mother loses her child at an early age. As I said earlier, it is extremely doubtful that Enid ever intended this book to tackle such issues, at least head on, but these are the issues and thoughts that are likely to spring to mind when anyone older than a child is reading it. In the main, The Very Big Secret is simply a highly entertaining, though extremely unusual, offering from the pen of Enid Blyton. Thankfully, however, she returned to the far more conventional in her next Playways series, Snowball the Pony. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.