by Dominic Sandbrook
Thursday, 17
June 2021
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14:34

Enid Blyton is no second-rate novelist

The author's naïve simplicity, so irritating to the critics, is a delight
by Dominic Sandbrook
Enid Blyton with her two daughters Gillian (left) and Imogen (right) at their home in Beaconsfield. Credit: Getty

There’s a certain irony in the fact that Enid Blyton, so often accused of being a snob herself, has long been the victim of overwhelming critical snobbery. The latest example comes from English Heritage, which has published a ‘reappraisal’ of her blue plaque, condemning her for ‘racism, snobbery and lack of literary merit’.

Judging by its own press releases, English Heritage is not well placed to judge other people’s literary merit. But poor Blyton, who died in 1968 and is unable to defend herself, has weathered such attacks before. I hope she does so again.

Whatever our heritage organisations might think, Blyton’s place in history is assured. According to the Enid Blyton Society’s website, she published more than 700 books — so many, in fact, that a precise figure is very hard to pin down — to the delight of millions upon millions of diminutive readers. Despite her books’ alleged lack of merit, they have been translated into almost a hundred languages and have shifted at least half a billion copies.

What does that tell you? That there are hundreds of millions of mugs in the world? Or, more plausibly, that Blyton had got something?

Even in her own lifetime, Blyton faced unrelenting abuse. Her alleged racism was always part of it — and in fairness, it’s hard to read books like The Little Black Doll or The Three Golliwogs today without wincing. The main issue, though, was her books’ supposed lack of merit. Schoolteachers and librarians often refused to stock them, claiming that they were too simplistic. The BBC refused to consider them for adaptation, writing her off as merely a ‘tenacious second-rater’. And to the high-minded, well-born critic Margery Fisher, who specialised in recommending improving literature for children, Blyton’s books were no more than ‘slow poison’.

But where books are concerned, there’s only one test that matters. What do the readers think? And for almost a hundred years the answer has been clear. Children love them.

For small readers, Blyton’s naïve simplicity, so irritating to the critics, is a delight. Even now, I can still recall the excitement I felt when Peter and Mollie’s Wishing Chair was about to carry them off to some exotic new world, or when the children at the top of the Faraway Tree found themselves in the Land of Birthdays. And when, a few years ago, I read the Secret Seven stories to my son, I might have been struggling to stay awake, but he was eagerly sketching out plans for a Secret Seven of his own. Slow poison? Not a bit of it.

Why then, has Blyton attracted such opprobrium? Not, I think, because of her racism and sexism. If that were the case, you could cancel almost every children’s writer before the 1960s.

The real answer is obvious. Blyton committed two sins that most highbrow critics find utterly unforgivable. First, she sold a colossal quantity of books. And second, she was a middle-class woman. And as the best-known children’s writer of our times will tell you, there’s nothing some people hate more than a successful woman.

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

I loved Enid Blyton and read all of the Noddy, Secret Seven, Famous Five and Adventure series. Far from turning my mind to mush, they turned me into an avid reader who was never so happy as when reading a book. I was devouring classics by my teens. Another plus for readers is that they usually find study much easier than those that don’t. I loathe the ‘high-minded’, sneering, jealous critics who cannot bring themselves to admire her success and appeal.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago

Have to agree. For 6 to 10 year olds the Adventure books were engaging and thrilling. I received a Xmas present once from my grandfather, Our Mutual Friend by Dickens, and I couldn’t get past page 2.

Last edited 1 year ago by stephen archer
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

They were children’s books, most children’s books are unreadable once you’re no longer a child, as they’re not written for adults

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The real class children’s books are exactly those you can still read. Arthur Ransome, Richmal Crompton, Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Schaefer…still fantastic.

Michael Joseph
Michael Joseph
1 year ago

My eight-year-old is currently reading his way through the Famous Five books and is absolutely loving them. I’ve been reading along as well and have been struck by how well-structured they are (and brilliantly paced!) Of course there is wiffy stuff in them that’s of their time (the girls always having to clean up etc…) but even my eight-year-old (with no prompting from me) recognises that it’s an example of how things were different back then and sees it as something a bit funny and odd, like how they occasionally tuck into a can of tongue for breakfast or the boys (in the illustrations) can be seen wearing ties when out rambling. The sense of adventure, of clear-cut morality and of independence and honesty is what really cuts through. Kids love that stuff (as they should).

ralph bell
ralph bell
1 year ago

As a boy I loved reading ‘The Famous Five’ adventures and her books including ‘Shadow The Sheepdog’, which I read 5 times, alongside Stig of the Dump and Adventures of Hucklerberry Finn set me off on a lifetime of reading.
The Famous Five ‘George’ character was my first introduction to a Tomboy/Butch Lesbian styled character, which as a gay man, I think was fairly ground breaking in children’s books.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

I have been reading the Mallory Towers series recently, and although I do see the 6 (original) books are pretty much identical, they are still rather enjoyable to read.
Light reading, yes, but, as I said, enjoyable.

Angelique Todesco-Bond
Angelique Todesco-Bond
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Yes I re-read them all to my son as an adult and I really enjoyed them. I also read him the whole of the Narnia series and sobbed so hard in the last two chapters I had to leave the room. Children’s books touch something lovely, deep down in my psyche, a simpler, lovelier time and just on the odd occasion it is so cathartic to forget the adult world for a while.

Michael James
Michael James
1 year ago

English Heritage has no monopoly on blue plaques. Blyton’s fans should if necessary organise one of their own.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michael James
Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago

Ah, The Wishing Chair and Faraway Tree books were my favourites! Her fantasy/fairytale stories were what I liked best.

I read a Secret 7 book once, The Wail of the Banshee Tower. Can’t remember what it was about, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I read it on holiday in a caravan in the Bideford or Barnstaple area, aged about 8 I think.

When I started getting into kids adventures books, I was more of a Swallows & Amazons, Stig of the Dump, The Otterbury Incident type of fan.

I’ve just been jumped and mugged down Memory Lane!

Last edited 1 year ago by Sharon Overy
Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
1 year ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

When our family was in the forest situation, there was one time of the day that we forgot all about it and came together happily. That was when we sat together at the end of the day and read a chapter from The Faraway Tree.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

Surely, getting 8 and 9 year olds reading is what’s important? It’s necessary for society to function. Covid has illustrated what can happen when a significant proportion of the population cannot read English. I enjoyed the Secret 7; probably less than Arthur Ransome or my sister’s Chalet School books (also derided by the Intelligensia). More recently, many children began reading at a much later age, only because of Harry Potter. Any lack or presence of literary merit is outweighed by the benefits.

helen.rose
helen.rose
1 year ago

Regardless of literary merit Enid Blyton’s books gave me many, many hours of reading pleasure and my only gripe with EB is that the Mallory Towers series seduced me into agreeing to go to boarding school and within 24 hours I realised I had made a big mistake – huge !! But at least my experience with Enid Blyton had made me aware that I could always escape into a book when the going got tough. Thank you Enid Blyton.

Angelique Todesco-Bond
Angelique Todesco-Bond
1 year ago
Reply to  helen.rose

Ah Helen, I too went to boarding school after reading Mallory Towers and St Claires, I begged and harangued my parents for about a year and eventually they gave in. For me (as an only child) it was a fantastic experience and I know it completely reshaped my future for the better. Like so many others here, I was never happier than curled up in a chair worrying whether Timmy would save the day or what Silkie’s Pop Biscuits or Google buns tasted like…..huh look at that, Google, I wonder…

Jane Morris-Jones
Jane Morris-Jones
1 year ago

My father, for some reason, took violently against EB-about the only opinion I ever heard him utter regarding our upbringing (6 of us in the 1960s) was discontent at our being allowed her books. Of course the thrill of transgression made us all the keener …all the odder given that he himself rarely read anything other than the Economist and Yachting World

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 year ago

I’ve always wondered why an underage boy who likes nodding his head slept with a bearded old man whose ears became elongated! Apart from that wholly unacceptable scenario there’s also the underage driving to consider: all in all a terrible influence of young unsuspecting readers. Or do I need to was my mouth out with soapy water?

Michael Burnett
Michael Burnett
1 year ago

I found a stash of Enid Blyton books in my classroom cupboard a few months ago. It seemed a shame not to put them out on the shelves. The 9 year old children in my class love them. Who cares what the self appointed cultural gatekeepers think? If it makes unwilling readers read then it’s okay with me.