19 July 2010

'Sensitively revised' or unnecessarily messed about with?

I've been collecting children's books from the 40s & 50s for years and am a big fan of storytelling for children both old and new. So when I hear that a good story written in the '40s, '50s or 60s is being re-published I think 'Hurrah'!

Then I read the dreaded words 'sensitively and carefully revised' and my heart sinks. This time it is Enid Blyton's The Famous Five series books which are being afflicted with this treatment, supposed to 'make them timeless and appealing to a generation of new readers... lifelong fans will be captivated'. (Hachette Children's Book 'Hachette Gazette'.) I hope they are right, but I think that 'lifelong fans' and 'new readers' are two very different groups when it comes to 'classic' books.

The main reason I don't believe revising old books works is that a book is written of its period. So a book set in the 40s or 50s is immersed in the feel of that time, not just the money and the types of vehicles used and so on. The way the characters act and interact and the 'tone' of their voices is all affected by the era in which their story is set. Therefore I believe it is almost impossible to update the 'old book' without having to materially affect the entire feel of the story too.

The charm of many well-loved classic books is precisely this period feel. It's the sense of place and time of a book. Which is more than simply its setting.

I fell over this business of 'updating' when I was still at school. At the time I was reading a series of books, and one of them had been 'updated'. I was well into the story when suddenly the characters were talking about modern money in a way which jarred substantially with the rest of the series. Furthermore, I discovered that a section of the book had been removed altogether for the 'new edition'! I remember feeling cheated, and going to hunt down a 'proper' copy which contained the whole story in a way which flowed.

The trouble with 'sensitive revisions' is that they often aren't. Changes are not merely minor alterations to the occasional word which might have changed its meaning over time, but often stretch to altering characters' names, place names, phrases and remarks. Nowadays I especially dislike books being updated in order to accommodate 'political correctness', one of the worst reasons I can think of to mess about with a book written and set in a different political and social era.

It's interesting that some well loved period books are now being re-issued in their original editions - even books which had previously been 'updated'.

For example a number of Monica Edwards' books have been re-issued, with the stories in their original unabridged and unadapted form, complete with the original illustrations, and with introductory information in a separate section, including a publishing history of the book. The covers are the original illustrations from the first edition hardbacks. These have become collector's editions in their own right. (See http://www.ggbp.co.uk/ for more information.) The main reason people buy them though, is because they love the stories, and they want to read them as they were originally published.

So I hope that this latest round of revisions are being done for good reasons. Not because children are considered too stupid to work out that things were different in different times. It would be good to pick up one of the new 'Famous Five' editions and be able to enjoy reading it without once thinking 'why on earth did they make that change?'. Perhaps I'll have a go. The test will be whether the stories remain the primary focus and are as enjoyable as the original editions.

So, do you prefer original versions? Or do you believe there's a place for updating well-loved stories?

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