This is the last of my reviews of my top three Famous Fives, the others being Five Go Adventuring Again and Five Go Down to the Sea. It is the 18th in the series and was first published in 1960 by Hodder & Stoughton. My copy is the 1968 Brockhampton Press (a subsidiary of H&S) edition, but with the same illustrations and cover jacket (both by Eileen Soper) as the first edition, as pictured here. For other reviews, see those by Keith Robinson and by Nigel Rowe on EnidBlyton.net and by Terry Gustafson on The Enid Blyton Society site. Images in this review are taken from the Enid Blyton Society website.
We are in Dorset for the summer hols. Unusually, there is no complicated back story of illnesses or other family problems. Also unusually the boys have arrived first and meet the girls off the bus at Finniston Church near Finniston Village because they are going to stay at … Finniston Farm. There are great descriptions of the countryside and a classic stop at the village shop for ginger beer and ice cream. Then it’s off to the farm where we meet “kind, tired” Mrs Philpot, her taciturn farmer husband and their children, the usual twins – in this case Harry and Harriet, analysed by Stef on this blog. The ‘Harries’ are unfriendly, and we later realise this is because they resent the strains put on their mother by having to take paying guests. We also meet the twins’ Great-Grand-Dad and it’s immediately clear that he is a crusty old character, with a low opinion of outsiders in general and the younger generation in particular.
No surprise, perhaps, when we meet the other paying guests. They are the brash American Mr Henning, set on buying up English antiques to take home, and his loathsome son named only as “Junior”. And boy – as he might say – is Junior awful. Fat and “pasty-faced”, greedy and sneering, he is obnoxious in every conceivable way. He has terrible manners, treats Mrs Philpot as a servant and, we later learn, mistreats the farm animals. Perhaps his father has spoilt him but, then again, even his father doesn’t seem to like him very much. The Five, Timmy included, loathe him on sight and, frankly, so do we readers.
The children settle into farm life, sensitive to and appreciative of its ancient accoutrements, and readily sympathising with Great-Grand-Dad’s hostility to selling these off to Mr Henning to be shipped to America. They are shocked to learn that the Americans expect to have breakfast in bed, and on their first morning George offers to take “lazy little pest” Junior’s tray up to him. In the process, she splashes boiling coffee on his arm and sets Timmy on him, with a nice illustration to accompany it. It’s really bullying of the nastiest sort and yet we don’t mind, since he seems so vile. At all events this episode puts the Philpot twins firmly on the side of the Five.
Breakfast excitements over, the Five are taken over the farm on a rackety old Land Rover – Junior tries to join them but Timmy chases him off – and there are some great descriptions of the fields and a sense of their ancient history from Bill the farm hand. This history is later filled out by old William Finniston, proprietor of the village antiques shop. He tells them that there was once a Finniston Castle which was completely destroyed in the 12th Century. All that now remains is a chapel, now used as storehouse, but the old man believes that the dungeons and cellars of the castle must still exist, and might contain treasure. He also believes that there was a secret passage between the castle and the chapel. He says that he is descended from the Finniston family that lived in the castle. Puzzlingly, he says that Great-Grand-Dad is called Jonathan Finniston and that the two are great friends, and this is repeated several times later. Yet, surely, their shared surname suggests that they are relatives, not simply friends, and that Great-Grand-Dad is also a descendant of the castle-owners, as indeed he later implies to be the case? This is never properly explained.
What is explained is that Mr Henning is hell-bent on finding the secrets of Finniston Castle, and that he has an accomplice, apparently English rather than American, but at all events “a dried-up little fellow wearing thick glasses” called Richard Durleston. Later we are told that he is “surly”, and I like the pleasing euphony of ‘surly Durleston’. He is an antiques expert advising Henning on buying up old artefacts at knockdown prices. It’s important that they do not learn of William Finniston’s beliefs about the castle and its treasure but, alas, sneaky Junior has eavesdropped on the children talking about it. However, at this point, no one even knows where the castle once stood, and the children start to search for it. Soon they find what Julian says is a “kitchen-midden”, meaning a rubbish tip for the castle, which fixes its location as being nearby. But alas, Junior overhears this, too, and tells his “Pop” and Mr Durleston. Initially poor old Junior is given short shrift but when he drops in the technical term ‘kitchen-midden’ the adults take him seriously.
As a result, Mr Henning offers the Philpots the sum of £250 (about £4000 in today’s money) for the exclusive right to dig in the vicinity of the castle, without of course mentioning that he knows that this is the castle’s location. The impoverished farmers accept with alacrity and the next day Henning brings a gang of workmen to excavate the site. The children are now unable to explore it, but there is one piece of information that Junior hadn’t overheard, namely the possibility of a secret passage between castle and chapel. If the children could find this then they could use it to enter the castle literally under the feet of the American interloper.
And, what do you know, with shovels and spades they do find the passage, and it takes them into the castle cellars! There follow some great, atmospheric scenes of exploration as the children find gold coins, ancient armour and weapons even as above them the drills of Henning’s workmen get closer. There is a splendid illustration of Timmy sneezing at a dusty old wooden chest which is so decrepit that it promptly collapses, revealing the coins. After some difficulties when they are nearly trapped the children return to the farm via the chapel and tell the Philpots all about their discoveries, producing as evidence a couple of the gold coins and a sword. Great-Grand-Dad is especially delighted.
Now there is a final showdown with Henning. He has reached the castle cellars but has not at this point found any treasure, although he suspects he will find something valuable. He offers a further £250 for the rights to anything he finds but is refused, even when he raises the offer to £5000. This by the way seems to me an enormous sum (£80,000 in today’s money) to offer when he does not even know about the treasure. Great-Grand-Dad produces the gold coins and sword to show that there is treasure worth far more than that, and when Durleston dismisses these as “junk” William Finniston is on hand to contradict him with quiet authority. Utterly humiliated, Mr Henning is told to leave immediately without even being allowed to pack his things, and when he not unreasonably demurs Great-Grand-Dad chases him off with the sword. Meanwhile, Junior is subjected to vicious run-down of his character flaws (e.g. “cissy-boy”) and yet again has Timmy set on him. It has to be said that they are very harshly treated since they have not, after all, done anything wrong apart from being brash, grasping and, well, American. Never mind, we are pleased to see them go and the future of Finniston Farm assured, and with that the adventure ends.
This is a splendid Famous Five. It has a denser story than usual, with a really strong sense of place and history (it was based on an actual Dorset farm that Blyton owned). The relatively slow build up allows this to be established far more than in others in the series. The plot is tight with no loose ends except perhaps for another minor issue about names: why if Great-Grand-Dad is a Finniston is his grandson called Philpot? But that could be explained if his daughter was Philpot’s mother.
In particular, the context is very strong. This is an impoverished farm in a Britain that has ‘won the war but lost the peace’ and is coming to terms with being supplanted by the United States in terms of wealth and power. Finniston Farm is a microcosm of that, replete with the clash between new and old, materialism and virtue, price and value. We also glimpse the resentment of the farmers at having to take in paying guests, with a key plot line being the way that the twins warm to the Five because they, unlike Junior, are happy to help out with farm chores. This is quite unlike other Famous Five stories where farmers and other locals are usually characterless and blandly welcoming.
Unlike other Fives, the baddies are not criminals – Mr Henning seems a bit of a sharp operator, but his failings are moral rather than legal. In this way it is more realistic than the others in the series. Junior is splendidly obnoxious but he isn’t the grotesque outsider found in so many of the Five’s adventures. It’s true that there is a strong vein of anti-Americanism in the book, but at several points the children mention that they like Americans in general. About the only thing that is slightly below par is the food, which is slightly less commodious than that of some in the series. For example, on the first night they are given meat pie followed by stewed plums and cream. Nice enough, no doubt, but hardly the spread we might hope for, although there are some reasonable high teas provided. And I miss Uncle Quentin being on the scene. Other than that, with wonderful countryside, a perfect village shop, secret passages, a castle and treasure everything we love is there.
Other reviews, mentioned above, complain that this is an identikit Five, with too many repetitions of devices used in other books and thus being formulaic. I disagree. I think that with Finniston Farm Blyton brings all the elements of the series together in near-perfection, and in my view it deserves the accolade of being the best Famous Five adventure.