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The mystery and magic of Blyton

Despite accusations of sexism, elitism and blatant xenophobia, Enid Blyton continues to have an abiding appeal, and was even voted Britain’s best-loved author in 2008.

enid-blytonIt seems fitting that on the recent 40th anniversary of her death, Enid Blyton was voted Britain’s best-loved writer in a survey months earlier – beating Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. Never mind that her work is deemed by many to be very poor, with repetitive plots, hollow prose and two-dimensional characters – up against all the greats the children’s author won. When alive she once said that she was not interested in the view of any critic over the age of 12, but no doubt in death she would have appreciated this honour.
Enid Blyton was born in London in August 1897 and, while her family expected her to become a musician, she began writing at an early age and had her first poem published in 1917. By 1922 she’d progressed to books and her stellar career as a children’s author was about to begin. Hugely popular all over the world, she went on to produce about 600 titles, which have been translated into more than 40 languages, including Malay, Spanish, French, Finnish, German, Japanese and Hebrew. She also wrote a vast number of magazine pages, particularly the long-running Sunny Stories, and it is thought that at one point she was generating 10,000 words a day.

Mysterious allure
But what is it that is so alluring about Blyton’s work? How has she become one of the most successful authors of the 20th century? For many it is her ability to tap into the imaginations of pre-pubescent children rather than the quality of the work itself. Because for the sheer volume of Blyton’s output, there are but a handful of recurring themes, the most prevalent perhaps being the mystery and adventure one that dominates her young readers’ novels. With adult participation kept to a minimum, the likes of the Famous Five (1942 – 1963), the Five Find-Outers and Dog (1943 – 1961) and the Secret Seven (1949 – 1963) series feature a bunch of children, free to play and holiday on their own, without interference from any grown ups, who are generally portrayed as either unpleasant authority figures or irrelevant parents. The children in question will inevitably become embroiled in some sort of escapade, most probably involving smugglers, wreckers, lost treasure, hidden caves or spook trains. And all this is played out in the company of gastro delights such as egg and lettuce sandwiches, tins of sardines, ripened tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer.

Timeless tales
According to Keith Robinson, creator of www.EnidBlyton.net, the author’s popularity rides on the fact that, for the most part, her stories are timeless.
“Fashions and attitudes change, but kids love exciting adventures and mysteries as much now as they did in the 1940s and 1950s. Blyton had a knack of completely ignoring boring current affairs, even World War II, and delivering what kids really want – ripping good yarns about children tangling with smugglers and kidnappers in caves and tunnels, or visiting empty castles and remote islands and deserted moors.”
Tony Summerfield from the Enid Blyton Society in the UK agrees.
“I think it’s simply because she wrote simple stories for children. There is a beginning, middle and end. And her books are pretty timeless. For example, the first Famous Five book, Five on a Treasure Island, was written in 1942 and it’s just as good for today’s child as it was then. Most books date but hers don’t. She wrote through the war years but there is no real mention of the war in most of her books.”

Out of touch?
While some may laud Blyton for the ageless quality of her work, there are others who believe she was out of time long ago. And if she is guilty of recurring themes, she has also been accused of relentless prejudice for portraying, in her books, a world where sexism and class distinction were the norm.
“Well, she is out of touch,” said Robinson. “She died in 1968 and wrote most of her books in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, so of course they’re going to seem a little dated in 2008. But sexist? No more than any other man or woman of her day. And yet in some books she still managed to write about stay at home dads and women going out to work. Probably her most sexist trait was to have the Famous Five’s Julian and Dick go off for a walk while George and Anne, being girls, stayed behind to wash up the dishes.”
Tony Summerfield admits that some of Blyton’s words and attitudes have dated, however some publishers have gone on to release slightly sanitised versions of her work.
“But that’s because words have changed meaning over the years – for example ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ meant something else in Blyton’s era. People say she’s racist and elitist but she wrote about what she knew. She came from a white middle class upbringing and that is what she wrote about.”

Racism
The race card is probably the harshest one thrown at Blyton, not least because of her habit of labelling ‘bad’ characters in her books as often being of an unspecified overseas origin. In fact as far back as 1960 a publisher questioned her ‘old-fashioned xenophobia’ in explaining the motives of thieves with the fact they were merely foreign. The accusation of racism gathered most momentum with the Noddy series, which began in 1949, where Blyton’s depiction of black-skinned, curly-haired golliwogs was seen as bigotry. The PC police eventually stepped in and the golliwogs were replaced with goblins years before intellectual property group Chorion took over the estate.
“I don’t think her books are racist,” said Robinson, “at least not in the harmful sense of the word. Most of the racist attacks are because of her golliwogs. Like many kids, I grew up with a golliwog and loved it. It’s only when an adult tells you it’s a horribly racist toy that doubt creeps into an otherwise innocent mind. Admittedly the origins of the golliwog are pretty grim, but that doesn’t change the fact that most people, in England at least, never saw the ‘modern’ golliwog as anything other than a lovable character up until the 1980s.”

Boarding school themes
Golliwogs aside, many of Blyton’s other work carries similar prejudices. For instance, while the Malory Towers and St Clare’s series were, no doubt, responsible for many a young girl the world over begging her parents to let her go to boarding school, these books are also riddled with political incorrectness. Much is made of the stark differences between the English and French characters, the latter being precious and lily-skinned, opposed to any outdoor activity and exercise. Similarly at least one blow-in American schoolgirl was portrayed as brash, vulgar and somewhat lacking in British intellect. To be fat was to be lazy – even disgusting – and if you happened to come from the circus you were the lowest of the low, along with being fluent in Spanish. Meanwhile if you upset your fellow classmates you were simply sent to ‘coventry’, meaning you were given the silent treatment, which might well be regarded as an extreme form of bullying in modern education systems.

Continued appeal
Enid Blyton’s enduring appeal to this day is actually quite astounding in the face of all the criticism. And she’s got a lot of competition nowadays as well so it’s pretty miraculous that she occupies so much shelf space in shops, according to Summerfield, adding that she is particularly popular overseas and, in fact, the Famous Five is more popular in Germany than in England, something that is true of India too.
“Many of the plots are fairly simple, with a great deal of time spent on simply having fun before the real adventure starts,” said Robinson. “You don’t find this carefree writing style in many other authors. I should think most publishers today demand that the plot kicks off immediately in order to hook the reader, but Blyton somehow hooks her young readers by taking them on picnics and having fun. Often a third of the story will pass by without a whiff of a mystery, and yet many readers say that’s what they like best about her books.”
Four decades later, and Blyton, it would seem, remains under the critical spotlight. Still, her books continue to sell, bringing happiness to children worldwide and in the midst of the bad press, that’s a triumph for any author.

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