This is the second of the Famous Five series, and makes it into my personal top three along with Five on Finniston Farm and Five Go Down to the Sea. I’ll come back to what might connect these three preferences. Five Go Adventuring Again was first published in 1943 by Hodder & Stoughton and I have the tenth impression of this edition, published in 1956. It is one of the red hardbacks, sadly with dustjacket missing. Illustrations are by the ever-excellent Eileen A. Soper. The cover shown here is that of the 1943 first edition and same illustration appears as a colour frontispiece in my volume so I would assume that this was also the dustjacket image. For other reviews, see Nigel Rowe’s on EnidBlyton.net and Terry Gustafson’s on The Enid Blyton Society. See also Fiona’s synopsis on this blog.
It is the Christmas hols and as so often things begin with misfortune when Anne, Julian and Dick’s mother gets scarlet fever and their father is in quarantine. Never mind, because the children are to stay at Kirrin with their cousin George, and of course Timmy, in Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny’s cottage. On the other hand there are to be lessons with a private tutor since Julian and Dick have had influenza twice in the term and have fallen behind with their work. It does strike me that there is an awful lot of illness in this family, and two bouts of flu in one term seems excessive. Their mother is even more unlucky as scarlet fever is rare in adults and, in the pre-antibiotic days when the book was first published, it could be fatal. By the way, at the time, there was what proved to be an ineffective vaccine, interestingly called the Dick vaccine (thanks, Wikipedia). By the way again, this blog has already covered the many illnesses that feature in Blyton including flu and scarlet fever.
Anyway, the stage is set for some winter fun and, who knows, an adventure (our hopes are high given the book’s title). The girls arrive first (it always seems to happen in Blyton that girls’ schools break up before boys’) and are met by Aunt Fanny who tells them that Uncle Quentin is working on a secret theory which will be used for the good of the country but she cannot tell them what it is since, of course, it is secret even from her. Next day, they meet Dick and Julian at the train station, beautifully illustrated by Soper, with Julian looking especially dashing and alarmingly mature, and enjoy a splendid welcoming tea at Kirrin Cottage. Uncle Quentin announces that he has hired a tutor – a late but superbly qualified applicant for the post, which begins to arouse our suspicions – by the name of Mr Roland. Apart from his qualities as a tutor it seems he is knowledgeable about Uncle Quentin and his work, which might also make us suspicious since this work is supposed to be secret, isn’t it? We are not alone in wondering if Mr Roland is too good to be true when he arrives. Timmy refuses to ‘shake hands’ with him, and even turns his back on the tutor, and for his part Mr Roland professes a dislike of dogs. This of course sets George against him from the outset.
Now the other main plot element is introduced. The children visit Kirrin Farm and meet Mr and Mrs Sanders, the old couple who live there, who mention that they will have tenants over Christmas: two artists “from London Town” no less. More suspicions form in the reader’s mind. Bohemian types and Londoners, eh? They need to have an eye kept on them. But they have yet to arrive and in the meantime the children learn that the farmhouse has a secret compartment behind a panel, and a cupboard with a false back. Exploring the compartment, Dick finds an old book of recipes and home remedies which he gives to Mrs Sanders, an old tobacco pouch which Mr Sanders keeps, and a curious old linen rag, with Latin writing on it and a strange diagram, which the children are allowed to take. The writing includes the words ‘via occulta’ which Julian translates as ‘secret way’. The cupboard’s false back appears to be a dead end, but more of that later.
In the run up to Christmas lessons begin, but they are overshadowed by the worsening relationship between Mr Roland on the one hand and George and Timmy on the other. The other children get on well with their tutor, however – despite his bristling black beard which only partly disguises his thin and cruel lips, and piercing eyes, which taken together might have given them pause for thought I can’t help feeling – opening up a rift with their cousin. Matters get worse when Timmy nips Mr Roland’s ankle and as a result is excluded from the lesson room. But it is not all lessons. There are jolly Christmas preparations to make, including decorating the house with the exception of Uncle Quentin’s study because it is full of the equipment he is using to discover a “secret formula” (Blyton needed to brush up on her science here – is it a secret theory or a secret formula that Uncle Quentin is working on? They’re not the same). Mr Roland plays a full part in the preparations leading the children to show him, to George’s disgust, the mysterious linen document. He is able to decipher from the Latin text that the diagram refers to eight wooden panels in a room with a stone floor and facing east, giving entrance to a secret way.
Christmas Day is a wonderful time for all, with splendid presents: a toy station, a doll with eyes that shut, books about dogs and aeroplanes a pocket knife with three blades and more. Add to that Christmas lunch, the tree, ornaments, candles, sweets and no lessons and it is no surprise that the children go to bed happy. But in the night things begin to go very wrong for George. Woken by Timmy’s growling, she goes downstairs to investigate and hears a noise that might be a burglar, only to find Mr Roland poking about in Uncle Quentin’s study. Timmy attacks him but he claims that he too had heard a noise and was investigating in case it was a thief. Uncle Quentin banishes Timmy to live outside.
On Boxing Day the children decide to search for the secret way which they assume is to be found at Kirrin Farm, but George refuses to accompany them because Mr Roland is also going, although first he goes alone to the village. At the farmhouse the children fail to find the secret way, but they do meet the two artists, Mr Wilton* and Mr Thomas (described, in their absence, as “queer folk” by Mrs Sanders, but whether this is because they are artists, Londoners or baddies is not clear). Later, Mr Roland arrives and is introduced to them, and responds as if they are complete strangers to him. But then there is a crucial plot turn because when the children meet up with George again it emerges that she had seen Mr Roland in the village talking to the artists, and was clearly well-acquainted with them. Why, then, had he pretended not to know them when he met them at the farm? From this point onwards all our suspicions about Mr Roland are confirmed, and what’s more we’re beginning to have doubts about those townie artists.
Poor old Timmy is still banned from the house by Uncle Quentin, with Mr Roland’s encouragement, and the cold weather makes him develop a cough. George smuggles him into the house at night and rubs liniment into his chest in front of the fire in Uncle Quentin’s study. But the next day it is discovered that some test tubes have been broken and some pages of the book Uncle Quentin is writing are missing. Another oddity is that a bottle of “camphorated oil” is found in the study, and of course it comes out that George had been in there with Timmy. She admits this, but assures her father that she had nothing to do with the broken test tubes and missing pages, and – in a rather touching scene – he knows that she is telling the truth. However, he refuses to believe her when she accuses Mr Roland of having stolen the pages.
After the encounter with her father, George remains in the study and notices that it has a stone floor, faces east and has eight wooden panels. Could this be the entrance to the secret way? George thinks so and so do we. But she is sent to bed in punishment for having brought Timmy into the house. Meanwhile, snow has begun to fall very heavily. George tells the other children of her suspicion that Mr Roland is a thief and suddenly the children realise that they have fallen into – yes – a “Big Adventure”. Now events start moving very quickly. Mr Roland goes out for a walk in the snow. Julian follows him and sees him hand over a sheaf of papers to the two artists. The stolen book pages? Who would doubt it? Mr Roland’s villainy is obvious, but the children realise that they will never be believed without more proof. By now Kirrin Cottage and farm are completely snowed up and in the night the children follow up on George’s theory about the secret way. They find a handle behind one of the panels which opens a flagstone which in turn gives access to a passage – the ‘via occulta’ itself!
The next day Mr Roland is in bed with what one can’t help but feel is a well-deserved cold (which prompts the questions as to why it’s never the baddies who succumb to scarlet fever, influenza and the like), and Uncle Quentin is clearing the snow. This allows the children to explore the secret passage, and when they do they find that it leads to Kirrin Farmhouse and emerges in the cupboard with the false back, which is in one of the artists’ bedrooms. The children know they are in danger but they also realise that Uncle Quentin’s work is of national importance. They lock the bedroom door and search for the stolen papers, but the artists force the door and the children have to return to the secret passage. As they go through the cupboard, George finds some papers in the pocket of a coat hanging there. Hearing the noise of the children, the artists pursue them down the passage but George sets Timmy on the men who retreat to the farmhouse. The children are able to get back safely to Uncle Quentin’s study and give him the papers which, of course, turn out to be the missing pages of his book. They tell the full story and Uncle Quentin feels very guilty for his treatment of George and Timmy, as well he might, although his daughter immediately forgives him.
All that remains is to catch the baddies. The snow means that they cannot escape and, for good measure, Mr Roland is locked in his bedroom whilst the family enjoy a cosy fireside lunch. At some point (it is not quite clear when: he seems remarkably blasé about it) Uncle Quentin calls the police but the snow means that there is no prospect of their arrival. In the meantime is anticipated that the artists will explore the secret passage and indeed they do, emerging in Uncle Quentin’s study in the middle of the night to be met by Timmy and locked in with Mr Roland. The next day the police arrive on skis (why couldn’t they have done this the day before?) and decide that for now the three villains can be left locked up until the snow melts. This happens two days later and the police return and take them away to meet, one hopes, justice.
In all, then, a superb adventure. The main negative is that it is predictable almost from the beginning that Mr Roland is a bad egg. So there is very little suspense, although the chase at the end is quite dramatic. The main appeal for me is the prominent role of secret panels and passages and it is this which links Five Go Adventuring Again with my other favourite Famous Fives, although of course it is not confined to these three. All three, though again not uniquely, feature farms. I particularly like the wealth of incidental detail, especially about Christmas preparations, and the atmosphere created by the snow. This isn’t the commonest season for a Five, although Five Get into a Fix comes to mind, and I think is the only time we are at Kirrin for Christmas. I’d like a bit more detail on the Christmas meal though, about which we are told only that the table is “loaded” and features “an enormous turkey”, which Mr Roland, rather presumptuously I felt, carves. It’s a missed opportunity to tell us about the roast potatoes, bread sauce, sprouts and stuffing which I feel sure that Joanna the cook prepared. Other than that, all the classic elements are present except for one, which is my least favourite anyway, namely the presence of a child-outsider to be patronised by the Five. I am thinking of, for example, Sniffer in Five Go to Mystery Moor or Aily in Fix. Plus there is a juicy role for Timmy, a lesson in humility for Uncle Quentin, a lesson in skiing for the Kirrin constabulary, and a lesson in Latin for the rest of us. Truly, something for everyone.
*In Fiona’s synopsis he is called ‘Mr Wilson’ but in my edition he is ‘Mr Wilton’. [Not any more as I’ve just gone and corrected my error – Fiona]