Blytonians come out!

Dead for nearly half a century, yet her books still sell eight million copies a year in more than 90 languages! You’d think that such a writer deserves to be hugely admired by literary commentators and educators. On the contrary, her work often encounters stern censure – and even censorship: some public and school libraries refuse to hold copies of any of her books.


Yes, I’m referring to Enid Blyton. Her stories for children continue to come under fire, and in some respects the target is an easy one. Their language is generally formulaic and they tend to represent gender, class and race stereotypically. One critique describes her writing style as ‘colourless, dead and totally undemanding’ and scorns her main theme as ‘an insistence on conformity.’

Then why is Enid Blyton remembered gratefully (albeit with a touch of embarrassment) by a large number of grown-ups? I’ll come to my own confession soon, but I’m far from alone in acknowledging that her books beguiled me. Six years ago, in a survey of 2000 adults, Blyton was voted Britain’s best-loved writer, ahead of (in descending order), Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Beatrix Potter.

If that surprises you, consider the surge of recent tributes from respected Australian writers. A few weeks ago Robert Drewe began one of his columns in the West Weekend with these words: ‘Like millions of other 20th century kids, I grew up in the literary worlds of Captain W.E. Johns, Richmal Crompton and, most of all, Enid Blyton.’ The main attraction of Blyton’s books, he says, ‘was that the children were much cleverer than the adults, especially the police, at solving crimes (which often involved smugglers), and very much in charge of their lives.’

Robert Dessaix’s latest book, What Days Are For, includes this declaration: ‘Enid Blyton, and Five on Kirrin Island Again in particular, shaped me in a way no other writer or book ever did, with the possible exception of Richmal Crompton and her William stories.’ Why? Dessaix puts his finger on what it was in those stories that moulded his imagination: ‘the subtext: the idea of loyalty to your close friends no matter what, the sharing of secrets with them (an important part of growing up), and also the unusual gendering…’ There was something more, too: ‘Exploration in Blyton’s world is…at the heart of any adventure.’

Is this just a boy thing? Not so. Amanda Curtin mentions in an interview that as a young reader she ‘was always keen on series books, like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven and Malory Towers sets.’ And Kate Forsyth’s voice joins the chorus: ‘For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book…I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy.’ She adds: ‘confessing to all this is actually quite hard’ because ‘Blyton has been sneered at for so many years…If one wants to be taken seriously, one does not admit to a childish love of Enid Blyton.’

Well, I want to be taken seriously too – and my own experience was much the same. Although there weren’t many books at home during my primary school years, the local shopping precinct included a small commercial lending library, and I went there often with the same query: ‘Any new Enid Blyton or William books?’ (My Biggles phase came a bit later.) There always seemed to be something new from Blyton’s pen; the Famous Five series alone ran to over a score of titles. In those pre-decimal days the price was just fourpence a loan. The library was next door to the barber shop where I’d get a short-back-and-sides haircut for ninepence while staring –‘Keep your head still, lad’ – at the mysterious inscription on the adjustable chair’s metal footrest: REG US PAT OFF. It took me years to decipher that message, despite being trained in code-reading by Blyton’s books.

4 go off 2 camp

I had two Blyton phases. The later one, in my pubescent years, focused predictably on the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and it generated feeble pastiche stories. (I still have a copy of the exercise book in which I wrote Four Go Off to Camp – not an enduring masterpiece, though probably no worse than the efforts of an average 9-year-old imitator. Ah, if only I’d been alert at that age to the sensational narrative potential of a camp adventure on Shag Island!)

But I think the earlier phase, my kiddy phase, revealed something deeper and more surprising: Blyton’s seldom-noticed capacity to produce unforgettable images that could haunt a young mind. When I was seven years old my parents bought me a subscription to Blyton’s magazine Sunny Stories, and I remember the thrill when issues arrived in our letter-box. (Those were the days when an ‘issue’ was just an instalment of a publication, not a ubiquitous fuzzy euphemism for a big personal problem, as in ‘Yet another AFL footballer has an anger management issue.’)

One scene from one story in one issue of Sunny Stories still lingers behind my eyes. This wasn’t actually a ‘sunny’ story; it disturbed me. A Freudian analyst could probably explain why. It was about a boy who found that when he looked through a magic knothole in the wooden fence in his backyard he could see all the bad things he had done. I don’t remember anything else from the story, but that guilt-laden discovery was enough. No wonder I turned out to be a writer instead of leading a normal well-adjusted life. Looking through that scary knothole, I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.


In his fascinating memoir of youthful reading, The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford remarks that ‘books did for us on the scale of our childhoods what the propagandists of the Enlightenment promised that all books could do for everyone, everywhere. They freed us from the limitations of having just one life with one point of view; they let us see beyond the horizons of our own circumstances.’

After quoting Hazlitt on the great value of reading in providing ‘a knowledge of things at a distance from us’, Spufford goes on to say:

Adjust for the fact that the book in question will be Blyton’s The Island of Adventure instead of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Hazlitt’s manifesto applies. The books you read as a child brought you sights you hadn’t seen yourself, scents you hadn’t smelled, sounds you hadn’t heard. They introduced you to people you hadn’t met, and helped you to sample ways of being that would never have occurred to you.

So let’s crack open a bottle of ginger pop and drink to Enid Blyton!

11 thoughts on “Blytonians come out!

  1. Ian, pass the Ginger pop! I’m happy to be counted as a fellow Blytonian. Like you I had two Blyton phases. From the first the Wishing Chair Stories and Mr Twiddle particularly stick in my mind. My second phase, like yours, was centred on the famous five. Similarly I have fond memories of reading Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ and would add to the list Arthur Ransome and Swallows and Amazons.

    I also went on to read Captain W.E. Johns, always preferring the more prolific ‘Biggles’ to ‘Gimlet’. By any chance, do you remember the youngster’s historical novels written by Leon Garfield?

    I think those authors naturally lead to my early explorations of adult (not meant in any euphemistic way) fiction, which embraced authors such as C.S. Forester, Alexander Kent and Dudley Pope…

  2. Can I please have a newly laid boiled egg and brown bread with lashings of butter with my ginger pop, please, Ian? And I’ve just remembered an earlier favourite: the Magic Faraway Tree series! Great post—thanks 🙂

  3. Like you, Paul, I discovered Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons tales soon after the Blyton/Crompton/Johns period. I recognise the other writers you mention, though they didn’t seize my imagination to the same extent.

  4. Ah yes, Amanda, those splendid mouthwatering picnics… They probably helped to develop my appetite for the more substantial meals (and associated group dynamics) that I later encountered in grown-up fiction, from Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Also in movies – the loaded table in Babette’s Feast, for example.

  5. One other aspect which has always struck me about popular writers of the mid 20th century (childrens’ and otherwise) is just how prolific they could be.

    Taking Johns’ Biggles series as an example there are between 83 and 100 full length novels or short story collections depending how you count. The variation arises because he tended to recycle his own work with light editing, but it is an impressive output in any event.

    In addition to these he wrote a few standalone novels as well as the Worrals, Gimlet, Steeley and science fiction (Professor Brane- no connection with Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm) series.

  6. Interesting remarks, Paul. I’ve been trying to think of present-day parallels but it seems unlikely any writer now could manage to get such a profusion of books into print through normal publishing channels. For better or worse, there’s a general expectation these days that – even in the most popular genres (crime, romance etc.) – work can’t just be dashed off in the way that Johns and others dashed off theirs. Perhaps I’m wrong about this…

  7. Yay for Enid! I never discovered until I read her to my own children. The discovery was akin to a healing, and her stories will always have a great deal of charm for me.

  8. Hi Pat – Glad to know that you, too, are among the large circle of grateful readers. I wonder whether your children in turn will read the same stories to their children.

  9. Ian,

    I suspect you are far from wrong. I’ve read an account of Johns’ working methods in particular. He wrote his manuscripts in longhand in exercise books, proofread and corrected (not edited) once only and sent the results of to his publisher(s). Reading that did make me admire him the more, at least in some ways. I’d certainly not characterise his typical work as having depth, but it could have a certain polish and he rarely left obvious loose ends in his plots. On the other hand, there were rarely surprises either, but many readers-young or young at heart- were given a great deal of pleasure.

  10. Ian, agreed emphatically, though I’d be glad of similar fluency when composing correspondence on behalf of the University. I do seem to spend more of my time ‘redrafting the redraft of the draft’ than I’d like!

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