The blue-plaque people at English Heritage have updated their online entry for much-loved children’s writer Enid Blyton, pointing out that her work has been criticised for “racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit”.
Is that fair?
There is undoubtedly stuff in her books that would make a contemporary audience wince. English Heritage points to her 1966 book The Little Black Doll, in which the title character, Sambo, is only loved by his owner once his “ugly black face” is washed clean by rain. And in 1960 her publishers, Macmillan, refused to put out The Mystery That Never Was, complaining of a “faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia”. The book was later published by William Collins.
So why are we hearing about it now?
It’s because of the government’s “retain and explain” policy, which was meant to protect memorials from the “demolition squads of Black Lives Matter”, says Zareer Masani in the Telegraph. Blyton’s blue plaque will remain in place, but, in the online information English Heritage has assembled to explain her relevance, “her reputation has been trashed”. This isn’t the first time she’s been on the cultural naughty step. In 2016 the Royal Mint rejected a proposal to put her face on a commemorative 50p coin, on much the same grounds as English Heritage. But while the “racism, xenophobia and monochrome whiteness are real”, says Sandip Roy in The Times of India, “so is the magic”. While the English were tucking into chicken tikka masala, I was dreaming about “potted meat, clotted cream and spotted dick”, and fantasising about the “secret clubs” and parent-free adventures she so brilliantly imagined.
What about that “lack of literary merit”?
Blyton suffered from the snootiness of our great institutions in her lifetime. The BBC refused to run her stories, calling her a “tenacious second-rater”. She was certainly tenacious: she wrote at least 700 books, so many nobody’s quite sure. They’ve sold more than 600 million copies and been translated into 90 languages. She habitually wrote 10,000 words a day, always in bright red lipstick, with her typewriter on a tray on her lap, and knocked out 50 books a year at her peak. It was this that “highbrow critics” found “utterly unforgivable”, says Dominic Sandbrook in UnHerd. She sold a colossal quantity of books, and she was a middle-class woman. The most successful children’s writer of the modern era, JK Rowling (the Harry Potter books have sold more than 500 million copies), might have an inkling of how she felt.
Did Blyton care about the snobs?
Not a bit. She was writing for an audience of children, who loved her and still do. To say her books lacks literary merit is to misunderstand how children, “or for that matter anyone”, read books, says The Sunday Times’s Camilla Long. “Children aren’t stupid.” They know what’s “interesting, funny or weird”, and what’s “boring or wrong”. No one thought she was a good writer, but that wasn’t the point. Agatha Christie wasn’t exactly a literary genius, but English Heritage hasn’t so much as mentioned that she wrote a book “with the n-word in the actual title”. If you want to educate children, show them both good and bad. “You can’t sanitise everything.”
Have her books been sanitised?
Some have. The characters in the Noddy series who were originally written as golliwogs were turned into goblins in the 1980s. Her daughters, who were by then in charge of her estate, sensibly judged that because the stories were about toys, it didn’t much matter precisely which toys they were. Some might argue that recent editions changing the names Dick and Fanny to Rick and Frannie have gone too far.
What was Blyton like?
No pushover, and certainly not the kind of bed-making, picnic-preparing, ginger beer-serving housewife she’s often accused of celebrating in her female characters. In her youth she was tomboyish, having grown up “best friends” with her father. (She despised her mother). She played lacrosse and hockey at school, where she was head girl, and quickly gained financial independence, earning good money writing stories from her late teens. She married twice and divorced her first husband with utter ruthlessness, demanding that his employer – her publisher – sack him. It obeyed.
What should we think of her today?
“I’m not saying we should accept all Blyton’s content,” says Camilla Long, but at some point we have to accept that “literature, in fact all art, is a mess”. It seems extraordinary to dismiss Blyton “when she taught so many children so much”.
👦 👦 👧 👧 🐕 “Enid Blyton had some reprehensible views (in common with many people of her time). Enid Blyton wrote some magnificent stories that helped millions of children discover a lifetime love of reading. It is, needless to say, perfectly fine to recognise that both statements are true.”
Former TLS editor Stig Abell
🥍 🏊♀️ 📖 🏰 “Re Enid Blyton – racism, yes, xenophobia, yes, but ‘lack of literary merit’ about books that have sold 600 million copies just sounds weirdly snooty.”
🔭 🌳 “Oh FFS… leave Enid Blyton alone you woke w*nkers.”
Did you work out the Blyton series from the emojis? The Famous Five, Malory Towers and The Faraway Tree