I see in the papers that Enid Blyton's status as a beloved children's author is under fire, again. This time it is by English Heritage, who are looking at removing or updating blue plaques for "racism, and links to Britain's colonial past". It seems strange for an organisation founded to preserve history from those exact periods to be complaining about it, but much like the National Trust, they are doing so.
There are certain amounts of poor reportage going on (such as quoting the story "The Little Black Doll"9 while showing a picture of Noddy - for shame, Daily Mail), so I spent the weekend assembling an overview of the issue.
This is not the first time Blyton's work has courted controversy. Early on, between 1930 to 1950, she was allegedly critqued for "lack of literary merit". Her book "The mystery that never was" was turned down in 1960 by Macmillan for "a faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia." However, it was promptly published in 1961 by William Collins8. Never let it be said a publisher would let controversy get in the way of money.
In the 90's, there was debate over her family life3. In 2016 the Royal Mint blocked a proposal for a comemorative coin15 on the grounds of racism and celebration of the British Empire, and yet both of these things reflected the times in which she lived. She died in 1968, her writing period between 1922 and 1964. In 1922 the British Empire was going stronger - stronger, even, as the Great War had been won. The Windrush was 1948, and yet many of her books were written before even that.
Judging her by her views is to judge her by her time, and without that context judgement is pointless. The controversial presence of the gollywog is an artefact of its time, like Tom Sawyer's repeated use of a word that is not acceptable today.
"The past is another country; they do things differently there." L. P. Hartley
There are many, many, reports of issues with her content, and yet she remains famous enough that each time it reaches the news. I find it interesting, however, that they will censor her for political views affected by the passage of time, and not the other, longer, shadow that hangs over her work which was not acceptable even in her own time.
Life in Enid Blyton's family was presented publicly as idyllic by groups like Pathe News10.
As adults, her children did not speak to one another.
‘Enid Blyton? She was a wonderful mother.’ ‘Enid Blyton? She wasn’t a mother at all.’1
Giles Brandreth interviewed both her children, Gillian and Imogen, and placed the interview on his website1. It is a rare case of getting both sides of the story, and worth reading.
Reading through that, and numerous other sources, it seems the classic case of two children in the same family with very different childhoods. Shattered by her own family's break up when she was thirteen, Enid Blyton in some ways did not recover and never spoke to her mother once she left home13. 'Emotionally distant' seems an accurate way to describe her own children's upbringing. In a pattern familiar to anyone aware of the 'golden child/scapegoat' dynamic, Gillian Bavistock nee-Blyton had an idyllic childhood and idolised her mother. Imogen did not.
Imogen Smallwood's memoir, "A Childhood At Green Hedges"3 was written in 1989 and started much of the controversy with her frank account of growing up with the author. Many built on this, and while articles such as "Enid Blyton: Nightmare Mother"2 were largely exaggerated pieces designed to push tabloid sales, Imogen's childhood is a matter of record.
Despite all this, she respected her mother as a writer: "What Blyton did as a writer was brilliant. But as a person, as a parent, she was far from brilliant." 6
Gillian disputed Imogen's views, but agreed they had very different childhoods1. As Imogen grew up, Enid Blyton's writing career was taking off, with the resulting loss of time and attention.
Yet the estate whethered this storm. Sophie Smallwood, Imogen's daughter, wrote a new Noddy book for Noddy's sixtieth birthday and once again the newspapers stirred up the family issues again. They faded into the background, just as they had when her mother's memoir was published twenty years before. Through it all, the books continued to sell.
Despite all the controvesy, when a new manuscript, "Mr Tumpy's Caravan"4 was discovered in 2011, after being overlooked by confused with her book of the same title published in 19495, there was a new rush of interest in her books.
Because, despite all the controversy, Enid Blyton is and remains a spectacularly popular children's author. Her books have sold over 600 million copies world wide, in forty languages, and are still selling. Very few do not know names like the Famous Five, or Secret Seven. Malory Towers was adapted to a television series in 2020, and renewed for 2021. Blyton's ongoing popularity and fame is no doubt the driver of this controversy; if she had been forgotten, as with many of the other authors on my shelf, there would be no push to cancel her as there would be nothing to cancel. It is not the author's past they object to, but her present.
“The past is never dead. It's not even past.” - William Faulkner
So, with all these objections, is her content as bad as it seems? Even in 2016, Hachette announced that they were releasing the books with the original language, after a 2010 modernisation failed12. Since they updated things like the use of 'Frocks' for 'Dresses', instead of the most questionable aspects, I can see why. Even the Dambusters films tend to change the dog's name.
She is often critqued for sexism yet George, the tomboy of the Famous Five, was valiant, headstrong, and brave, in her own words 'as good as any boy'. She was an inspiration to many young girls, including myself, to not consider their gender a reason not to climb trees, have fun and do many other 'unladylike activities'. When Dick tells her to 'stop pretending you're as good as a boy" she proves she is by the end of the book, but then, as Blyton admitted George was an author-avatar11, or self-insert if you prefer, that should not be a shock. She even gave George her own short, curly, dark, hair, if more close-cropped. Peter may have led the Secret Seven, but Janet called him out on his behaviour many times, and he listened. For the 1920's, Blyton was far ahead of her time. Rather depressingly, the gender roles in those books are more progressive than in many books I read and review today.
Her work on gender roles may have been ahead of its time in some ways. Unfortunately, then we get to the race issue.
Allegedly Enid Blyton was first called out for this in 1966, though to give an idea of how long she had been writing by then, that was two years before she died. Most sites claim it was an article by Lena Jager in the Guardian, though I have been unable to find a copy of the actual article so cannot quote it.
The obvious issue is the problematic presence of gollywogs in her work. Trying to pretend that these weren't part of history, and a common toy at the time, would be unwise: including them meant writing what she knew and she could not have known they would be banned. Trying to pretend that these aren't offensive a century later? Times have moved on. Does her work contain racial prejudice by proxy of toys? Unfortunately yes. Many people who have read only her more mainstream and often published works may struggle to see it, however, especially if they have only read the edited versions. I am sadly, of an age where mine were not so edited.
The Three Gollywogs, I have heard dismissed as charming stories if the title characters were anything other than gollywogs. In fact it was rebranded as the Three Bold Pixies7, starring Peri, Patter and Pipkin, without any issues. So if the actions in this book are acceptable for (white, going by the cover art7) pixies, why is the original so objectionable on race grounds? A reading of a single paragraph exerpt is enough to reveal that17. The three main characters in the original were not originally named Wiggy, Waggy & Wolly as they were renamed in the 1970s, but something entirely different - including the word that keeps giving the Dambusters' films so much trouble.
Much as a certain work produced in the same period by Agatha Christie was renamed "And Then There Were None" with the dolls changed to soldiers (or indians depending on your version), changing this book to remove the language makes it a charming children's story. By modern standards, just like Christie's, the original is completely unacceptable. So, if appropriately updated, should it be cancelled?
This brings me inevitably to the story everyone mentions when Blyton and racism come up: "The Little Black Doll"9. Written and published three years before her death, this is not a story I read growing up as the Famous Five and Secret Seven were more my line. Reading it as an adult, the problems for me come in layers. While there is the obvious racism, the title character themselves admits that the other toys have accepted a different black toy (a gollywog of course, because this is Blyton) which speaks to a belief that people must stay in their lane: the belief that people must be what other people expect them to be, or change themselves to be accepted. The other toy "is supposed to be black" so that is acceptable. The titular doll is not, as far as the other toys are concerned, and so the toys reject them.
George of the Famous Five, I suspect, would have had strong words about this.
Now imagine coming in for a job interview with a person raised to believe that type of discrimination in line with their own prejudice is acceptable: 'Don't be silly, Miss Smith, women can't be engineers', 'Mr Emika, two degrees and higher education? I think we definitely have a place for you as a janitor', 'Mr Collins, you will understand my reservations for hiring you for women's work like childcare'. I sincerely hope the reader sees the problem with this, because I certainly do.
The ending is just abhorrent, and entirely racist: Black skin does not wash off in the rain, and nor should it. I am compelled by honesty to state my opinion that skin of any type washing off in rain produces a result not suitable for children that should be placed firmly upon the horror shelf. This story is a perfect example.
This is a truly awful story, so is that the end of it. Should we condemn her for that story and move on? Sadly there is one other complication.
Enid Blyton died in 1968. By that time she had been suffering, for the previous decade, with slow onset dementia. We know it as Altzheimers. In 1958, when she recieved her diagnosis, she could not always remember who she was. By 1961, she could barely recognise her grandchildren. She sometimes turned in old manuscripts, believing them newly written.14
Any fans of the late and much-missed Terry Pratchett can tell you exactly what the disease does to an author. When the "Mystery That Never Was" was rejected, she had been suffering from it for two years. When "The Little Black Doll" was written, she had been suffering from it for eight, and was in poor condition. Gillian Bavistock, her daughter noted "towards the end it was very sad. One day she told me she had written a new Noddy story. She had simply scrawled a few lines. It was double-dutch."1
Her earlier content was a reflection of her times, and with slight updating (Dame Slap no longer hits children, I am glad to say) continues to provide pleasure to many. Her later, and her more problematic content, came at a time when many would consider her not responsible for her actions.
Should she be cancelled? Judging passed books by their authors is a complex task: H.G.Wells used that most-banned words repeatedly in his short stories, but was a socialist who wrote the drafts for the UN Declaration on the Human rights16. Should War of The Worlds be banned, or the UN Declaration itself?
Given that her books still provide much joy, I can only say that as with any book the decision to read must be up to the reader (and, in this age group, the parents of the reader) to judge the book by its content, not its cover, or the author's other works.
At the end of this, I believe I can sum up my views of the current controversy with the inspiration for L.P. Hartley's famous quote above. From Christopher Marlowe, another man of his - much earlier - times:
"but that was in another country and besides, the wench is dead."
1 - The truth about Enid Blyton — GYLES BRANDRETH An Interview with Giullian Bavistock and Imogen Smallwood.
2 - Enid Blyton the nightmare mother, Daily Express, 24th February 2011
3 - A Childhood At Green Hedges An autobiography by Imogen Smallwood, on Amazon UK
4 - Enid Blyton manuscript found, Ben Quin for The Guardian, 23rd February 2011
5 - Mr Tumpy's Caravan, Enid Blyton 1949, available from Amazon UK
6 - Granny, Noddy and me, An Interview with Sophie Smallwood, The Guardian, 14th November 2009
7 - The Three Bold Pixies, Enid Blyton 2007 on Amazon UK
8 - The allegedly full quote is "There is a faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia in the author's attitude to the thieves; they are 'foreign' ... and this seems to be regarded as sufficient to explain their criminality." However as the mystery is being set up by children, this may be a character viewpoint not the author's. The Mystery That Never Was by Enid Blyton
9 - The Little Black Doll by Enid Blyton This book has been out of print and out of availability for years, for very good reasons.
10 - Meet Enid Blyton, British Pathe News (video)
11 - Character profile for George Kirrin (Famous Five) from Five on a Treasure Island (Famous Five, #1) (page 1)
12 - Hachette reverts to original Blyton text by Charlotte Eyre, The Bookseller, September 2016
13 - An Enid Blyton Biography Interviews with her daughters and friends (video)
14 - Enid Blyton and Dementia in Fiction: by Stephen Isabirye, 1st February 2012
15 - The Royal Mint minutes state that she was "known to have been a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer" Enid Blyton commemorative coins BLOCKED by Royal Mint over author's 'racist and... - Heart Heart, 27 August 2019
16 - He wrote "The Rights of Man", was a key contributor to the Sankey Declaration, and his drafts were used to produce the final version: Celebrating HG Wells’s role in the creation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights | Ali Smith
17 - WARNING: Extremely offensive language: This page has the first paragraph of The Three Golliwogs, original unedited version: Racism & Gollys / Golliwogs at Golliwogg.co.uk
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