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.
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!