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My Views on Enid Blyton

August 31, 2019

Enid Blyton has been in the news twice recently and I felt I should wade in and give my views. First, it was announced that CBBC are to adapt her Malory Towers series (written in the 1940s) for a contemporary audience. Second, the Royal Mint has decided not to issue a special coin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death, because their Advisory Committee decided that she was well-known to be ‘a racist, sexist homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer.’

Something odd is going on here. If she is not a very well-regarded writer, then why, over 70 years after they were written, are her stories being adapted for national television? There aren’t many other children’s writers from the 40s whose work is still being adapted. And if they are as racist, sexist and homophobic as all that, how could they be suitable for adaptation today anyway?

Let’s delve into this a little further, beginning with the accusation that she was racist. This is such a familiar charge that people blithely trot it out without feeling the need to substantiate it. It is revealing that the Royal Mint simply stated that she was ‘well-known to be’ racist (etc) without offering any specific examples. But what are the examples? The obvious one is that some of her stories – specifically the ones that are set in Toytown, or that deal with toys coming to life – feature golliwogs. And the golliwog is now regarded, with good reason, as an offensive and demeaning representation of black people. But Blyton did not put golliwogs into her stories because she was racist. She put them in because they were familiar toys of the time, just as she also put in dolls, teddy-bears and clockwork clowns. It’s racist, perhaps, that golliwogs ever existed, but Blyton is not to blame for that. It’s not as if the golliwogs are depicted in notably negative ways compared to the other toys. It is true that in one of the Noddy books, Noddy is attacked and robbed in the woods by a gang of bad gollies, who sing the terrifying, gloating song “It isn’t very good/ In the dark, dark wood/ In the middle of the night/ When there isn’t any light’. It’s understandable that in modern reprints of the book the gollies have been changed to goblins. But those bad gollies weren’t typical. Mrs Golly, a kind and respectable person, also lives in Toytown. And in other stories set in nurseries where toys come to life, golliwog characters are usually depicted sympathetically. In her more realistic stories, black or dark-skinned characters are sometimes treated patronisingly but they are not despised; the Syrian boy Oola in The River of Adventure befriends Jack, Philip, Lucy-Ann and Dinah and helps them out of several tight spots.

It is also true that Blyton often uses stereotypes in her portrayals of foreign characters and they are not always flattering. The French girl Claudine in the St Clare’s series is presented as vain, selfish, tricksy, amoral, obsessed with her appearance and a complete stranger to ‘the English sense of honour’. On the other hand she is also funny, charming and likeable and the major figure in the story, to the extent that the whole book is named after her. She does learn the English sense of honour in the end, too (I remember being quite disappointed by that).

So was Blyton racist? Well. It all depends what you mean by racist. She is certainly insensitive to race, and has many of the blind spots of the general culture of her time. So we could call her racist in that sense; but that’s a type of racism she shared with most of her readers. She is not racist in the stronger and more serious sense of actually disliking or despising people of other races and cultures. She doesn’t write maliciously about race. Other writers of her time (such as HG Wells) were far more virulently racist. I don’t think the Royal Mint has a good case here.

Sexist? Well, yes, because society in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s was sexist and Blyton reflected the views of her time rather than challenging them. However, the picture is not quite that simple. Her two school series, St Clare’s and Malory Towers, depict all-female worlds which contain many strong and gifted characters, as well as weak and flawed ones. Some display great maturity and emotional intelligence. Others are clearly destined for careers in music, art or literature. Besides, the tomboy George in the Famous Five series (who probably owes something to Jo in Little Women) refuses to play a weak or meek role. She is as active and independent as the boys and frequently challenges Julian’s leadership: a proto-feminist, arguably even a trans-gender character avant la lettre.

As for ‘homophobic’ – well, I don’t know what the Royal Mint Advisory Committee were on when they wrote that. There is no homophobia in Blyton’s books. There is no sexuality at all.

Not very well-regarded? Blyton has never enjoyed the literary reputation of some of the other children’s writers of her period, such as Arthur Ransome, Richmal Crompton, Noel Streatfeild, CS Lewis or Philippa Pierce. She wasn’t a fine stylist and she wasn’t a complex writer. But: she did know how to write for children. Most children’s writers, if they’d come up with Noddy, would have thought, ‘Job done’. And they would have thought the same if they had come up with the Magic Faraway Tree, or the Famous Five, or the Secret Seven, or the Five Find-outers, or the Naughtiest Girl in the School, or St Clare’s or Malory Towers. Blyton came up with all these, and many more besides. She wrote over 600 books. Go into the children’s section of a bookshop today and you will see she still commands about two shelves all to herself. This really is astonishing, when you consider that some of these books are eighty years old. The fact that they are still in print is testament to their sheer readability. If you have ever read any of her stories to a child you’ll know what I mean: their simplicity, pace and natural storytelling flow make them ideal for reading aloud, more so than many more polished and literary children’s novels. They satisfy a thirst for stories: they’re water, not Coke or Sprite or Dr Pepper. And when you’re really, really thirsty, water is what you want. The appetite for her stories is such that the writer Pamela Cox ghost-wrote another three books for the St Clare’s series and another four for Malory Towers. The existing books weren’t enough to satisfy demand.

So I am not surprised that the BBC are making a series of Malory Towers. Though it will be set in the 40s, it’s going to have a few contemporary twists, such as including a mixed-race character, and a character of restricted growth. Isn’t this the best way to honour a storyteller of Blyton’s stature – to update her work and make it relevant to a new generation, rather than try to airbrush her out of literary history?

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4 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Enid Blyton had a huge gift for creating a world into which children can escape in which there is safety and security. There may have been kids living lives of Blytonesque adventure in the 1960s but they certainly weren’t in south London.

  2. Cherylene Le Brun Let Brun permalink

    I could always lose myself in an Enid Blyton Famous Five book and as a nine year old had no notion of anything except the exciting adventures. I recently heard the Narnia books would not make it past today’s publishers due to their politically incorrect content and that would be a sad loss. We live in a very different world and yesterday’s values will never sit well in the present but I would hope that will never mean that uthors are, as you say, airbrushed from history or denied to a new generation of readers.

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    Excellent, excellent post Brandon. I remember reading the Secret Seven stories when I was a child, and then reading them again to my own son as bedtime stories; we were both absolutely gripped and he loved hearing the stories over and over again. My wife and I smiled at some of the more dated turns of phrase (‘lashings of ginger beer’), but they were smiles of affection rather than condescension.

    As for Narnia, I agree that to our modern sensibilities, some of the attitudes make uncomfortable reading but we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater – reading Lewis gave me some of the most transcendental moments of my childhood, and I only have to pick up the books (my faithful, dog-eared copies now more than 50 years old are on the shelf beside me as I write this) to feel that surge of excitement again.

    I am not generally a fan of films of books, but I am bound to say that the films of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and (particularly) the Voyage of the Dawn Treader captured a lot of the magic of Narnia whilst gently avoiding those period aspects that would not play well nowadays.

    I will be interested to see how history judges Harry Potter. As a child of Narnia, maybe I am just biased but it was with a heavy heart that I found myself reading the entire series to my son at bedtime over a couple of years. For me, I found the stories lumbering, without atmosphere and in desperate need of a good editor, in fact the opposite of all those Blyton-esque qualities. I agree with (I think it was) A S Byatt who said that ‘we know the world of Harry Potter is frightening because it says so’. Either writing grips you or it doesn’t, and if a book doesn’t have that magic, then no amount of trying to write it in will change that fundamental absence. Blyton has it in spades.

  4. Cherylene permalink

    Not forgetting the first Enid Blyton book I was introduced to, so grippingly read by my mother, who had the skill of making every character come to life, good or evil The Land of Far Beyond, a story teaching us to be kind to others. No nasty name calling, no throwing things at old people or treating badly those less well off than ourselves otherwise the burden on our back will get heavier and heavier. Of course, it was not a unique message but as said written in a way children would enjoy and understand.

    It certainly had an impact on my young mind. Thank you Enid Blyton you certainly should have a place in history. And thank you Brandon, we always enjoy your informative posts.

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