This site is full of reviews, stories and discussions of all sorts about anything and everything related to Enid Blyton and her writings. What lurks beneath them is the love that I presume everyone involved in this blog – contributors, commenters, readers – feels for her work. In this post, I want to try to articulate why that is. Of course, it is a personal view. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but it would be interesting to see whether my views have any resonance with others.
First and foremost, I think it is because it is bound up with memories of childhood. Blyton was one of the first authors I read, and when I re-read her books it reminds me of that time. It’s notable that I am really only interested in the Blytons that I read and enjoyed as a child. For me, this means, especially, The Famous Five, the Adventures, St Clare’s, The Wishing Chair stories, and The Magic Faraway Tree Stories. Less interesting are the ones I read as a child but did not enjoy much: The Secret Seven, The Five Find-Outers, The Barney Mysteries. Of almost no interest are the things I didn’t happen to read as a child, for example Noddy or Malory Towers. So I think a big explanation is nostalgia and memory.
Another reason for loving Enid Blyton is the quality of her writing. That has become sneered about in recent years but I think that she writes very well, in a way that is highly appealing to children. It’s no coincidence that her books sold, and continue to sell, so well – she was the best-selling English author of the 20th Century and is the all-time eighth best-selling author of fiction. She had an extraordinary insight into children’s minds, an insight that transcends time and place. She is sometimes criticised for the simplicity of her plots and vocabulary, but this is a vital to her appeal to readers at a certain stage. For many people, including me, she was a vital bridge between children’s and adult fiction. Yes it’s true that there far too many shouty CAPITALS and multiple exclamation marks!! This makes the style a bit naïve, I suppose, but doesn’t detract from, and perhaps even adds to, the charm.
Thirdly, I think that there is the aesthetic appeal of the books themselves in, at least, their classical editions. The thick, hardback covers, the dustjackets, the endpapers, the glossy frontispieces and the superb illustrations – most notably those of Stuart Tresilian in the Adventure series – all contribute to this. Even in the more simple editions, such as the Armada paperbacks, there is something fascinating in seeing the covers again and remembering saving up 2/6 from pocket money for another Famous Five. For that matter, just remembering that there was once something called ‘2/6’ is rather fun. Is this just the nostalgia factor, again? Not entirely, because the production values of these and many other books at that time can still be seen as being very high by today’s standards.
What certainly does relate to nostalgia is the way that Blyton conjures up a more settled and innocent age. Always in her stories there is a backdrop of British society in, especially, the 1940s and 1950s. It is from this that the criticisms of her as racist, sexist and classist have grown. And of course these criticisms are right – from a present day perspective. All novels are of their time, after all. We can appreciate Robinson Crusoe even though the first thing he did when meeting a black man was to turn him into a servant! Anyway, by no means all of the period detail is troubling, much of it just relates to the pleasures of, say, cycling on uncrowded roads, camping in the countryside rather than a formal camp site, or eating ice creams without sending a tweet about it or taking a selfie to put on facebook! And then there’s the food, of course. The apocryphal ‘lashings of ginger beer’ line has become a stereotype in its own right, and hardly does justice to, for example, the meal on the first night of The Mountain of Adventure:
A great ham sat ready to be carved. A big tongue garnished round with bright green parsley sat by its side. An enormous salad with hard-boiled eggs sprinkled generously all over it was in the middle of the table. Two cold roast chickens were on the table too, with curly bits of bacon set round … scones and cakes! The jams and the pure yellow honey! The jugs of creamy milk!
This, though, is not so much realistic period detail as wish-fulfilment. In 1949, when this book was published, food was still rationed in post-war Austerity Britain: few readers at the time would experience such a meal.
My final point relates to the previous one, but in a maybe more complex way. I think we can love Enid Blyton in ways that are nostalgic but also ‘knowing’. That is: we know that she was a writer of her time, with all the prejudices of her time; we know that those who read her at that time were often similarly prejudiced. We can find that jarring but be distant from it, and still enjoy it. We can even knowingly revel in the naivety of some of the expression, the endless feasts, the peculiar illnesses and accidents that so often befall children and adults alike, the strange family set ups in so many stories and so on. We know that these are all slightly absurd but we still love the stories, not despite but because of the absurdities. And beyond that, we can still as adults take a ‘childish’ pleasure in discovering buried treasure, exploring a ruined castle or visiting a fantastical land. The enduring magic of Enid Blyton, to me, is that she allows us – children or adults – to enter such imaginary worlds as these.
For full enjoyment, the setting has to be right, of course. For me, a cold, snowy day – perhaps even snowed in – would be perfect. A fire in the grate, a glass of malt whisky to hand and a Blyton in hand, for this is both an adult and a childish pleasure. You glance up and your eye is caught by an irregularity in the wall panels that you’d never noticed before. A trick of the firelight …. or the entrance to a secret passage?