The recent row over Enid Blyton is nothing new, says Charlie Connelly. The children’s author was always controversial.
Enid Blyton isn’t often in the news these days, not least because it’s more than half a century since her death in 1968 at the age of 71. She was however at the centre of a kerfuffle recently that divided national opinion almost as markedly as Brexit itself.
When the Mail on Sunday revealed that an advisory panel reporting to the Royal Mint had counselled in 2016 against featuring Blyton on the 50 pence piece because “she is known to have been a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer” the reaction was fairly predictable.
Jilly Cooper was quoted as saying, “Enid Blyton was a brilliant storyteller and her books have got millions of children hooked on reading. She definitely deserves a commemorative coin”, while on Good Morning Britain Richard Madeley became particularly exercised about the Blyton Coin Affair.
“It seems to me that if you were to draw a line in the year 1955 and go backwards from there you could pretty much pick up anybody based on our modern values and what’s acceptable today,” he said. “Obviously there are lines that you cross such as fascism – Hitler, Mussolini etc – but there are social lines that have changed and you can’t judge people by the standards of today.”
The idea that the panel had viewed Blyton and her work through a misguided prism of liberal modernity is what lay at the heart of the outrage that greeted the story. She might have expressed bigotry through characters and themes in her work, the argument seemed to run, but sure, weren’t we all bigots then? It was just another example of that corrupter of modern discourse the ‘easily offended’ according to the below-the-line commenters and Tweeters offended by a three-year-old meeting about a coin.
It was understandable in a way: you don’t really get more ‘British’ in a certain traditional sense than the Famous Five or Malory Towers, a world in which fresh-faced kids had old-fashioned adventures getting the better of teachers and swarthy villains without health and safety getting involved, an arcadia of tank tops, knapsacks and sandwiches in waxed paper where the sun always shone.
Yet here were some faceless bureaucrats, more saboteurs that need crushing, tarring its creator with accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia.
Many of us will have read at least one Blyton book during our childhoods, whether starting out on our reading lives with Noddy and Big Ears or the more advanced worlds of the Naughtiest Girl in the School and The Enchanted Wood.
Most of us who read them will also look back at those books with affectionate nostalgia, remembering Blyton’s work as having a warmth underpinning the adventures of aspirational figures (who didn’t want to be in a gang like the Famous Five?). As recently as 2008 Blyton was voted Britain’s best-loved author and the familiar signature on the front of her books with its little pair of dashes under the ‘d’ was always a benchmark of quality, innocence and an inherent feeling of safety.
So where did the Royal Mint’s advisory panel of millennial snowflakes get this ridiculous idea that Enid Blyton was a tightly-wound ball of prejudice who couldn’t actually write very well?
Reservations about Blyton are nothing new and her books have been censured and removed from public libraries for decades. Even the Associated Press report announcing her death on November 28, 1968 began, “Enid Blyton, author of some of the most popular children’s books ever banned in Britain, died today at a London nursing home”.
As early as 1936 a BBC memo dismissed a short story she had submitted with the comment, “Not strong enough. It really is odd to think that this woman is a best-seller. It is all such very small beer”, but it was during the 1960s that a groundswell of criticism gathered pace, mostly concerning the quality and literary merit of Blyton’s work.
It was well known that she was prolific, capable of clattering out between 6,000 and 10,000 words a day on the typewriter balanced on a board on her lap, and such a relentless output was bound to produce variable standards.
Some outlets didn’t regard Blyton even at her best as having enough literary merit to appear on their shelves. In 1963 she was snubbed by St Pancras libraries with the statement, “We consider her books are generally sloppily written. They do nothing to add to a child’s imagination or mental horizon”. In 1964 they were removed from Nottingham libraries for not having a “sufficiently wide vocabulary”.
This wasn’t just a British phenomenon either: there was a tangible swell of concern around the English-speaking world. In 1964 her books were taken from the shelves of a public library in Melbourne for their “stereotyped” nature, after which children “very soon ceased to enquire after them”. They were removed from Cape Town libraries in 1967 for being “hackneyed” and in Transvaal the same year for their “low literary value”.
Blyton’s response to these repeated removals on the grounds of literary merit was to suggest she was too popular for librarians who just wanted a quiet life. “I am a perfect nuisance for libraries,” she said. “Children badger the assistants all day for a Blyton book and will not go away without one. Stopping my books is the easy way out.”
The ‘easy way out’ of that situation would surely have been to stock more of her books rather than none, but no matter, the verdict was in and in the didactic, nuance-free zone of Blyton world lazy librarians were to blame.
Quality aside, the Richard Madeleys of this world might be surprised to learn that the content of Enid Blyton’s books has also long been a cause for concern. Indeed, the first occasion on which Blyton’s books were removed from library shelves was in New Zealand in 1960 on the grounds they were “pervaded by feuds, jealousies, mean triumphs and revenges, idle ridicule and name calling”.
The same year saw her adventure novel The Mystery That Never Was rejected by Macmillan on the grounds that, “there is a faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia in the author’s attitude to the thieves: they are ‘foreign’ (although one of them is called Harry and they generally talk in English) and this seems to be regarded as sufficient to explain their criminality”.
Blyton was arguably at the height of her fame in 1960 and Macmillan had previously published eight of her books, so turning down the manuscript would not have been a decision taken lightly. The Mystery That Never Was appeared the following year published by Harper Collins.
One of Blyton’s most troubling books is her 1937 story The Little Black Doll. It’s long out of print now but came to critical attention in 1966 when the Labour MP Lena Jeger raised it as a possible literary contravention of the Race Relations Act.
The eponymous doll, named Sambo, is owned by a boy named Matty who openly tells it it’s ugly because he doesn’t like its black face. Matty’s other toys feel the same way and eventually a dejected Sambo runs away.
He meets a pixie and is caught in a shower of rain that rinses the black from him, prompting the pixie to declare, “You aren’t black anymore! You’ve got the dearest, pinkest, kindest face I ever saw!” Buoyed by this reception the doll returns to the toy box where he is greeted warmly now he is no longer black. Jeger described the book as “insidiously dangerous”.
The same year a Birmingham social worker named Lorna Price had to stop reading The Little Black Doll to a group of children because she was “embarrassed and disgusted by its contents”. Price told of how the book was “an unpleasant, racially-prejudiced piece of writing and written for children of a very receptive age”.
Again Blyton’s defence was a brittle one. “I have run a school for children myself so I can say with certainty that this book would have no adverse effect on children,” she said, yet in 1953 had called for gangster films and American comics to be banned because of their potentially harmful effects on impressionable youngsters.
“Children are not mature,” she said, “they are credulous and believe wholeheartedly what they see.”
This credulity did not apparently extend to the tale of an anthropomorphised black doll being hated and shunned by everyone it encounters purely for its appearance until its ‘blackness’ is washed off, it becomes effectively white and can thus be welcomed into the fold.
If children believe wholeheartedly what they see, how would the white majority in a 1960s schoolroom regard the black child in their class in the light of The Little Black Doll?
While The Little Black Doll was unquestionably racist even by the standards of its day it was the presence of golliwogs in Blyton’s wildly successful Noddy series that garnered the most attention. Distasteful though golliwogs are, they were once a common sight, not least on marmalade labels. Blyton’s golliwogs went beyond mere rag dolls, however.
In her 1944 book The Three Golliwogs, two of the eponymous trio are given names that are about the worst racial slurs imaginable while in the Noddy books the golliwogs are usually up to no good, thieving or otherwise disrupting the peaceful world of Toyland. In Here Comes Noddy Again, for example, a golliwog asks our hero for a lift into the dark, dark wood and when Noddy kindly obliges the golliwog steals not only Noddy’s car but his clothes as well.
“Golliwogs are merely lovable black toys, not Negroes,” Blyton said in response to criticism, despite the names she’d given to her Three Golliwogs.
Yet for all the justifiable criticism over many decades Blyton remains one of this country’s most popular and enduring authors. Many of her books patronise children using repetitive and limited vocabulary – nearly every noun is prefaced by “dear little” and children are usually divided into “lovely”, “naughty” or “wicked”.
Indeed, the constant threat of punishment hangs over most of the characters in her books for older children and it was a subject apparently close to the author’s heart.
“Many juvenile delinquents are jubilant and cocky because their misdemeanours are explained away by psychiatrists and some magistrates as due to some failure of parents or home life and go unpunished,” she once complained to an interviewer. “We must inform them that wrongdoing will be followed by punishment.”
This is hardly the stuff of idyllic bucolicism, yet generations of adults still look back with affection at Blyton’s work. There’s almost a refuge in it for some, a feeling of safety and comfort in an uncomplicated world of fishing rods, midnight feasts and jovial tubby policemen. It’s a world that never existed and one that would exclude large swathes of society but it’s somewhere to hide when you’re the kind of person who harbours an innate fear of the other.
Blyton was the only major children’s writer of her era and she smothered the market, sometimes churning out more than 50 books a year that covered fairy tales, early reading, adventure stories and school stories.
Her books aren’t revered as enduring classics in the same way Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Winnie the Pooh and the various creations of Roald Dahl are but she clearly resonated with generations of children. Global sales of 600 million speak for themselves, but Blyton continues to divide opinion as much as she ever did (even in her own family: her two daughters had very different memories of their childhoods, one recalling a warm, affectionate and indulgent mother, the other a joyless, loveless ogre).
Vast sales don’t make her immune from justifiable highlighting of the unacceptable, however, as has clearly been happening for more than half a century now. Should her books be banned outright? Of course not, nobody is suggesting that. Should she be assessed by contemporary moral and social standards? Unquestionably, as has been happening for many generations now. A 21st century committee rightly expressing reservations about her suitability for inclusion on a coin of the realm is merely the latest example.