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The Famous Five

July 16, 2018

When I was very young, I used to wonder about Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels. I used to wonder how the Five – Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the Dog – got to be called the Famous Five. Obviously by the time the series had really got going and become popular, they were famous. But in the beginning? When the first ever Famous Five book was published? They weren’t famous then; they were unknown; and it must have taken considerable confidence on Blyton’s part, I used to think, to assume that the epithet would be justified.

It was only later I realised that the word was used in the informal and rather old-fashioned sense to mean ‘excellent’ or ‘wonderful’; as in A famous victory or We got on famously. And it was also only later that I realised Blyton had nicked the name from Frank Richards’ Greyfriars stories, written some three decades before the Blyton series, where the quintet of Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Frank Nugent, Johnny Bull and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh were habitually referred to as the Famous Five. How did she get away with that?

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Frank Richards also issued a series of Greyfriars stories called The Secret Seven so maybe Enid Blyton was a fan of Bunter and Co.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    I used to wonder about this too and came to the conclusion – years before I had ever heard of a meta-text – that the Famous Five only became famous once (and possibly only because) they were written about by Enid Blyton. The alternative was that they were somehow famous before Enid Blyton wrote the widely-read books, in which case their fame preceded their published popularity. Somehow that seemed wrong. Surely, it was being written about that made you famous, not the other way around ?

    In the same way, I always wonder about the Beatles being called the ‘Fab Four’. Does that mean that they are the only group of four people who could ever be called fabulous ? Have they informally copyrighted that name so that no other group of four people can use it ? I belong to a book club of four men. Are we allowed to call ourselves ‘the Fab Four ?’.

    These thoughts occur to me again on the (many) occasions when I watch Queer Eye on Netflix. The five gay men on this programme, rapidly (and deservedly) acquiring cult status, call themselves the ‘Fab Five’.

    Does this mean that you can have a Fabulous group of people of any number, but each number can only be used once ? In which case, are any other numbers taken apart from four ad five ? Do the numbers have to be taken in sequence, like tickets in a cloakroom, so you cannot call yourselves the ‘Fab Seven’ before ‘Fab Six’ has been adopted ?

    All very confusing.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    And the Rutles were The Pre-Fab Four.
    According to Collins famous has an archaic meaning of “Ill repute”.
    On words changing meaning there is the probably apocryphal story of King James on first sight of St. Paul’s cathedral describing it as “amusing, awful and artificial”, meaning amazing, filling him with awe and artistic.

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