Today is the birthday (1897) of Enid Mary Blyton, prolific English children’s writer whose books have been among the world’s best-sellers since the 1930s, selling more than 600 million copies. Her first book, Child Whispers, a 24-page collection of poems, was published in 1922. She wrote on a wide range of topics including education, natural history, fantasy, mystery, and biblical narratives and is best remembered today for her Noddy, Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Adventure series.
Blyton’s work became increasingly controversial among literary critics, teachers and parents from the 1950s onwards, because of the alleged unchallenging nature of her writing and the themes of her books, particularly the Noddy series. Some libraries and schools banned her works, which the BBC had refused to broadcast from the 1930s until the 1950s because they were perceived to lack literary merit. Her books have been criticized as being elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic and at odds with the more open environment that eventually emerged in post-war Britain, but they have continued to be best-sellers since her death in 1968.
I’ll address those criticisms in a bit. They are perfectly justified. But I was raised on a diet of Noddy and Secret Seven in the 1950s, in the days before television in South Australia, let alone the internet. Reading was my constant pleasure, and Blyton was one of my favorites before I graduated to more mature books. I lived in a world dominated by elitism, sexism, and racism and took them, more or less, as normative even though I did not accept them or agree with them. I am older, and things are different nowadays, but at 8 years old I wasn’t going to take on the world of prejudice that Blyton extolled. Besides, her books have redeeming qualities, and beneath it all she was deeply compassionate. Even back in the 1950s I cringed at her portrayal of boys and girls, but I liked her stories, nonetheless.
Blyton worked in a wide range of fictional genres, from fairy tales to animal, nature, detective, mystery, and circus stories. In a 1958 article published in The Author, she wrote that there were a “dozen or more different types of stories for children”, and she had tried them all, but her favorites were those with a family at their centre.
In a letter to the psychologist Peter McKellar, Blyton describes her writing technique:
I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee – I make my mind a blank and wait – and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind’s eye … The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don’t have to think of it – I don’t have to think of anything.
In another letter to McKellar she describes how in just five days she wrote the 60,000-word book The River of Adventure, the eighth in her Adventure Series, by listening to what she referred to as her “under-mind,” which she contrasted with her “upper conscious mind.” This tactic inevitably presented the danger that she might unconsciously, and clearly did, plagiarize the books she had read, including her own.
Blyton’s daily routine varied little over the years. She usually began writing soon after breakfast, with her portable typewriter on her knee and her favorite red Moroccan shawl nearby; she believed that the color red acted as a “mental stimulus” for her. Stopping only for a short lunch break she continued writing until five o’clock, by which time she would usually have produced 6,000–10,000 words.
Blyton’s writing exemplifies a strong mistrust of adults and figures of authority, creating a world in which children govern. Her daughter notes that in her mother’s adventure, detective and school stories for older children, “the hook is the strong storyline with plenty of cliffhangers, a trick she acquired from her years of writing serialised stories for children’s magazines. There is always a strong moral framework in which bravery and loyalty are (eventually) rewarded.” Blyton herself wrote that “my love of children is the whole foundation of all my work.” It’s not too much of a leap of faith to believe that Blyton herself idealized her own childhood, and lamented the changes in her world over her lifetime (wrought by adults).
Blyton felt a responsibility to provide her readers with a positive moral framework, and she encouraged them to support worthy causes. Her view, expressed in a 1957 article, was that children should help animals and other children rather than adults:
[children] are not interested in helping adults; indeed, they think that adults themselves should tackle adult needs. But they are intensely interested in animals and other children and feel compassion for the blind boys and girls, and for the spastics who are unable to walk or talk.
Blyton and the members of the children’s clubs she promoted via her magazines raised a great deal of money for various charities. The largest of the clubs she was involved with was the Busy Bees, the junior section of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, which Blyton had actively supported since 1933. The club had been set up by Maria Dickin in 1934, and after Blyton publicized its existence in the Enid Blyton Magazine it attracted 100,000 members in three years. Such was Blyton’s popularity among children that after she became Queen Bee in 1952 more than 20,000 additional members were recruited in her first year in office. The Enid Blyton Magazine Club was formed in 1953. Its primary object was to raise funds to help those children with cerebral palsy who attended a center in Cheyne Walk, in Chelsea, London, by furnishing an on-site hostel among other things.
The Famous Five series gathered such a following that readers asked Blyton if they might form a fan club. She agreed, on condition that it serve a useful purpose, and suggested that it could raise funds for the Shaftesbury Society Babies’ Home in Beaconsfield, on whose committee she had served since 1948. The club was established in 1952, and provided funds for equipping a Famous Five Ward at the home, a paddling pool, sun room, summer house, playground, birthday and Christmas celebrations, and visits to the pantomime. By the late 1950s Blyton’s clubs had a membership of 500,000, and raised £35,000 in the six years of the Enid Blyton Magazine‘s run. By 1974 the Famous Five Club had a membership of 220,000, and was growing at the rate of 6,000 new members a year. The Beaconsfield home it was set up to support closed in 1967, but the club continued to raise funds for other pediatric charities, including an Enid Blyton bed at Great Ormond Street Hospital and a mini-bus for disabled children at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
To address criticisms leveled at Blyton’s work some later editions have been altered to reflect more contemporary attitudes towards issues such as race, gender and the treatment of children. Modern reprints of the Noddy series substitute teddy bears or goblins for golliwogs, for instance. The golliwogs who steal Noddy’s car and dump him naked in the Dark Wood in Here Comes Noddy Again are replaced by goblins in the 1986 revision, who strip Noddy only of his shoes and hat and return at the end of the story to apologize.
The Faraway Tree‘s Dame Slap, who made regular use of corporal punishment, was changed to Dame Snap who no longer did so, and the names of Dick and Fanny in the same series were changed to Rick and Frannie. Characters in the Malory Towers and St. Clare‘s series are no longer spanked or threatened with a spanking, but are instead scolded. References to George’s short hair making her look like a boy were removed in revisions to Five on a Hike Together, reflecting the idea that girls need not have long hair to be considered feminine or normal.
In 2010 Hodder, the publisher of the Famous Five series, announced its intention to update the language used in the books, of which it sold more than half a million copies a year. The changes, which Hodder described as “subtle,” mainly affect the dialogue rather than the narrative. For instance, “school tunic” becomes “uniform,” “mother and father” becomes “mum and dad,” “bathing” is replaced by “swimming,” and “jersey” by “jumper.” Times change; so does language.
Blyton’s books are not great literature: no one suggests that they are. I think of them as period pieces reflective of my own boyhood, and not something I could recommend for my son when he was growing up. Japanese comics and video games were much more appealing to him in those days.
I have to go with Mrs Beeton’s nursery recipes for jam roly-poly and rolled treacle pudding to honor Blyton; they seem so terribly apt. I give the suet crust recipe at the end for completeness, and because I still use it. Outside of the UK you generally have to buy suet from a proper butcher and it comes in big lumps. Typically I freeze it and then hand grate it.
ROLY-POLY JAM PUDDING.
- INGREDIENTS.—3/4 lb of suet-crust No. 1215, 3/4 lb. of any kind of jam.
Mode.—Make a nice light suet-crust by recipe No. 1215, and roll it out to the thickness of about 1/2 inch. Spread the jam equally over it, leaving a small margin of paste without any, where the pudding joins. Roll it up, fasten the ends securely, and tie it in a floured cloth; put the pudding into boiling water, and boil for 2 hours. Mincemeat or marmalade may be substituted for the jam, and makes excellent puddings.
Average cost, 9d.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable.—Suitable for winter puddings, when fresh fruit is not obtainable.
ROLLED TREACLE PUDDING.
- INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of suet crust No. 1215, 1 lb. of treacle, 1/2 teaspoonful of grated ginger.
Mode.—Make, with 1 lb. of flour, a suet crust by recipe No. 1215; roll it out to the thickness of 1/2 inch, and spread the treacle equally over it, leaving a small margin where the paste joins; close the ends securely, tie the pudding in a floured cloth, plunge it into boiling water, and boil for 2 hours. We have inserted this pudding, being economical, and a favourite one with children; it is, of course, only suitable for a nursery, or very plain family dinner. Made with a lard instead of a suet crust, it would be very nice baked, and would be sufficiently done in from 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Time.—Boiled pudding, 2 hours; baked pudding, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Average cost, 7d.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons. Seasonable at any time.
SUET CRUST, for Pies or Puddings.
- INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of flour allow 5 or 6 oz. of beef suet, 1/2 pint of water.
Mode.—Free the suet from skin and shreds; chop it extremely fine, and rub it well into the flour; work the whole to a smooth paste with the above proportion of water; roll it out, and it is ready for use. This crust is quite rich enough for ordinary purposes, but when a better one is desired, use from 1/2 to 3/4 lb. of suet to every lb. of flour. Some cooks, for rich crusts, pound the suet in a mortar, with a small quantity of butter. It should then be laid on the paste in small pieces, the same as for puff-crust, and will be found exceedingly nice for hot tarts. 5 oz. of suet to every lb. of flour will make a very good crust; and even 1/4 lb. will answer very well for children, or where the crust is wanted very plain.
Average cost, 5d. per lb.