Published By: Pen & Sword
Publication Date: 4th October 2018
She is the most prolific children’s author in history, but Enid Blyton is also the most controversial. A remarkable woman who wrote hundreds of books in a career spanning forty years, even her razor sharp mind could never have predicted her enormous global audience. Now, fifty years after her death, Enid remains a phenomenon, with sales outstripping every rival.
Parents and teachers lobbied against Enid’s books, complaining they were simplistic, repetitive and littered with sexist and snobbish undertones. Blatant racist slurs were particularly shockingly; foreign and working class characters were treated with a distain that horrifies modern readers. But regardless of the criticism, Enid worked until she could not physically write another word, famously producing thousands of words a day hunched over her manual typewriter.
She imaged a more innocent world, where children roamed unsupervised, and problems were solved with midnight feasts or glorious picnics with lashings of ginger beer. Smugglers, thieves, spies and kidnappers were thwarted by fearless gangs who easily outwitted the police, while popular schoolgirls scored winning goals in nail-biting lacrosse matches.
Enid carefully crafted her public image to ensure her fans only knew of this sunny persona, but behind the scenes, she weaved elaborate stories to conceal infidelities, betrayals and unconventional friendships, lied about her childhood and never fully recovered from her parent’s marriage collapsing. She grew up convinced that her beloved father abandoned her for someone he loved more, and few could ever measure up to her impossible standards.
A complex and immature woman, Enid was plagued by insecurities and haunted by a dark past. She was prone to bursts of furious temper, yet was a shrewd businesswoman years ahead of her time. She may not have been particularly likeable, and her stories infuriatingly unimaginative, but she left a vast literary legacy to generations of children.
The second series of books I collected in entirety was The Famous Five by Enid Blyton. I bought a few with pocket money second and from the library and then used some of either my birthday money or inheritance to order whatever I didn’t have from Albert Gaits in Grimsby. I may have been twelve, at the latest. I preferred Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, but where as Ransome only wrote the twelve books in the series, Enid Blyton wrote over 800 in her lifetime, starting in 1922. Once I finished the twenty-one The Famous Five, there were the school books to read.
Enid Blyton wrote for children, and still appeals to children. Her stories are fun escapism, with simple, repetitive plot lines. Whatever the adventures, everybody ends up having fun, home safe and sound at the end of the day, with lessons learnt. Her characters are usually middle class English children, enjoying an amount of freedom children just don’t have.
Enid Blyton herself wasn’t a particularly nice person, if she decided to move on, anything to do with her previous life was cut out and no longer spoken about. Her mother and brothers when she went to study to be a teacher, her first husband when she met her second husband, her daughters when she married her second husband. The traumatic events of her early adolescence seem to have stopped her emotional maturity at that of a twelve-year-old.
She was a good teacher but once she started making money from writing she gave it up and never taught again, despite writing for teaching magazines. She was a good business woman, ahead of her time, and understood marketing without training. She knew what children wanted, and that was safe familiarity in their adventures, so she wrote series and cosy endings, characters they could grow up with, but without the angst that comes with growing up.
Her writing has attracted criticism for over half a century, even as she was at the height of her fame parents were complaining that her books were simplistic, sexist, classist and racist. Enid Blyton was a product of the early twentieth century, a time when middle-class English people were sexist, classist and racist (and I’d argue quite a lot of them still are a century later, because people are prats).
Children on the other hand like the books, they still sell at an astounding rate. I passed mine on to my niece and nephew, they enjoyed them. I don’t know if either of they will have children, but they can pass them on if they do.
Cohen’s biography of this popular, contentious children’s author is easy to read and follow, detailed and draws from a variety of sources, including from Blyton’s daughters, Gillian and Imogen Pollock.