The Real Enid Blyton by Nadia Cohen

Like many children in Britain and other countries around the world, I grew up reading Enid Blyton. Although her books have attracted a lot of criticism for their outdated attitudes and a perceived lack of literary merit, I have lots of happy memories of solving crimes with the Five Find-Outers, going on adventures with the Famous Five and getting to know the girls of Malory Towers and St Clare’s. As a child, I never gave any thought to the author herself and what she may have been like as a wife, mother or friend, but I later became aware that she was allegedly not a very nice person and certainly not the loving, maternal figure her books would lead you to believe. She has been the subject of TV documentaries and a 2009 BBC drama starring Helena Bonham Carter as well as several biographies, including this one, The Real Enid Blyton, in which Nadia Cohen takes us through Enid’s life from birth to death and attempts to shed some light on the woman behind the stories.

Enid was born in East Dulwich, South London in 1897 and Cohen suggests that her character was shaped by the break-up of her parents’ marriage while she was in her early teens. Enid had a close, loving relationship with her father, Thomas Blyton, who instilled in her a love of reading, animals and nature, but she didn’t get on very well at all with her mother, Theresa. When Thomas left his wife for another woman, Theresa refused to agree to a divorce and insisted that his new living arrangements be kept secret in order to avoid bringing shame on the family. Enid was devastated and felt that her father had betrayed her by choosing someone else over her. As she grew into an adult, she would learn to detach herself from the people around her, ‘removing people from her life without a backward glance’, and would deal with anything unpleasant by simply pretending it hadn’t happened, things Cohen attributes to the emotional damage caused by her father’s departure.

Enid began to write after taking a teacher training course and working first as a teacher then as a private governess. She said, ‘It was the children themselves who taught me how to write. No adult can teach you that as they can.’ I was interested to read that early in her career she submitted an adult novel, The Caravan Goes On, to her agent but it was rejected and later reworked into her children’s book Mr Galliano’s Circus. If that novel had been accepted, I wonder whether she would have continued to write for adults rather than for children. However, that was not to be and apart from an adult play she wrote in the 1950s (which was also rejected), she concentrated on writing for the younger readers she understood so well. By the peak of her career in 1951, she produced thirty-seven books in that one year alone.

Despite Enid’s popularity with children she had never met, her own children seem to have felt neglected and unloved. Cohen provides plenty of evidence of this, sprinkling throughout the book quotes from Gillian and Imogen, Enid’s two daughters by her first husband, Hugh Pollock. Imogen described her mother as ‘arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct. Her approach to life was childlike, and she could be spiteful, like a teenager’. Enid and Hugh divorced when the girls were still young children and she refused to let them have any further contact with their father – another example of cutting all her ties, but this time her children were made to suffer. Her second marriage, to the surgeon Kenneth Waters, was happier, but Enid’s relationship with Imogen in particular never improved. However, Cohen’s portrayal of Enid seems quite fair and balanced overall and she does acknowledge Enid’s good points, such as her energy, impressive work ethic and support for various charities. Most people, especially men, who encountered Enid in a professional capacity, tended to like her and commented on how agreeable and easy she was to work with.

Cohen also discusses some of the criticism directed at Enid’s work and the recent attempts of publishers to censor and ‘update’ her books, something I think many of us who were Blyton fans feel quite strongly about! It can’t be denied that her books did contain a lot of sexism, racism and snobbery, but some of the changes that were made just seem completely unnecessary:

The word jersey was replaced with jumper, frocks became dresses, mother and father were changed to mum and dad, fellow to man and peculiar to strange. The aim was to help young readers in contemporary society to relate more easily to the characters.

In The Faraway Tree stories Dick and Fanny were renamed Rick and Frannie, as what were common names in the 1950s had become vulgar slang in the 1990s…Dame Slap became Dame Snap, and scolded naughty children instead of spanking them. Mary and Jill of the Adventurous Four were updated to Pippa and Zoe…

Even before these recent controversies, Enid’s books had been banned by some libraries and by the BBC (until the 1950s), because of her ‘over simplified writing’ and ‘undemanding plots’, with one critic accusing her of poisoning the reading ability of children and another claiming children would become addicted to her books and would never go on to read adult literature. Enid’s response to all of this was that she didn’t care about the opinion of anyone over the age of twelve!

What do you think? Did you read Enid Blyton as a child? Have you read this or any other books about her life and work?

Thanks to Pen & Sword History for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

30 thoughts on “The Real Enid Blyton by Nadia Cohen

  1. margaret21 says:

    As a child, my mother wouldn’t let me read Enid Blyton, feeling she had no literary merit. Her views must have been expressed quite strongly, because there were odd times when a Blyton book came my way, and I didn’t enjoy them much. My own children never read her either – I think the library had nothing by her, and I certainly wasn’t going to buy anything she’d written.

    • Helen says:

      A lot of parents shared your mother’s views according to Nadia Cohen, as well as teachers, librarians and the BBC! I enjoyed Blyton’s books but I did also read plenty of other, more literary, children’s books, so I don’t think they did me any harm.

  2. Janette says:

    I read Enid Blyton all through my childhood and loved the mysteries as well as the school stories. They took me into new worlds and were a great introduction to the crime novels I love to read now. She was a writer of her time and the sexism and racism is certainly present and I get that there needs to be some updating. Certainly some of my pupils have enjoyed reading her books in recent years.

    • Helen says:

      The mystery and adventure ones were my favourites, although I did like the school stories as well. I’m pleased to hear some of your pupils have still enjoyed her books recently!

  3. Pam Thomas says:

    I also read a lot of Enid Blyton’s books when I was a child: my mother later complained about having to read to me, endlessly, the stories of Noddy and Bigears, which she loathed. And the first book I ever read to myself was ‘Shadow the Sheepdog’. But I can’t say I actually *loved* them, though I remember being bewildered when an older boy at school told me they were full of bad language – I thought, but the Famous Five don’t swear! Of course, he meant that they weren’t well-written. Anyway, I’d grown out of them by about the age of ten, and instead gravitated to my cousin’s pony books (especially those by Monica Edwards), the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff and Ronald Welch, and the quirky adventure stories of John Verney.

    Not long ago, I read a biography of Georgette Heyer, and came to much the same conclusion about her as you have about Blyton – much to admire and emulate professionally, but I don’t think I’d have liked her at all as a person.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t much of a Noddy fan, so I have some sympathy with your mother! I did enjoy Blyton’s adventure novels and school stories although, like you, I grew out of them by the time I was ten and moved on to other things. I haven’t read any Georgette Heyer biographies, but I’ve heard that she was allegedly not the nicest of people.

  4. BookerTalk says:

    I loved all her Famous Five and Secret Seven stories and they certainly didn’t stop me going on to read harder/more challenging books. Some of those updates seem changes just for the sake of change and disrespectful of children – it somehow imagines they are too stupid to understand.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think it’s a bit insulting to children as it implies that they’re not able to understand that people spoke and behaved differently in the past. They were already quite outdated by the time I was reading them but I didn’t have a problem – in fact, that was part of the charm!

  5. Lisa of Hopewell says:

    I don’t mind updating things like extreme racial slurs or names, like those mentioned, that have become sexual. Think of Swallows and Amazons–would you want to be a teacher getting all those giggles and emails on a girl named “Titty”….right. Otherwise, leave the books alone. Good post and review.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks! Yes, I can understand editing out some of the worst of the racism, but a lot of the other changes just seem pointless and take away the period charm of the books.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    I did enjoy some Enid Blyton when I was a young reader – Noddy, the Famous Five, and the Secret Seven in particular – but I soon migrated to Henry Treece, Geoffrey Treece, Rosemary Sutcliff and, more especially, classics and some science fiction. I did try to reread the Famous Five stories but gave up after the first two in the series, especially after comparing one of Emily’s unexpurgated FF hardbacks with an updated version, when George changed into jeans instead of the original skirt or shorts.

    • Helen says:

      I was never very keen on Noddy, but enjoyed the Famous Five and Secret Seven. I don’t have much interest in re-reading them now, though – I think the modern versions would annoy me too much. Some of the changes seem so pointless!

      • Calmgrove says:

        I suppose it’s some sort of tribute to Blyton’s plotting and storytelling that the books keep selling in W H Smith or reappearing in charity shops, but I find them clichéd, repetitive and boring (for some readers possibly a recommendation). But really, how would adult readers put up with bowdlerised versions of classic titles? And I don’t just mean the self-censoring that happened with Christie’s novel that was eventually retitled And Then There Was None, because that was offensive! Should Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ undergo the se kind of process?

  7. FictionFan says:

    I loved all the mystery books and read them again and again all through my childhood. And yet I went on to read all sorts of stuff, even classics! Looks like the literary snoberati got it wrong again… 😉

    • Helen says:

      I read the mysteries over and over again as well. I don’t know how we’ve survived! According to some of the people quoted in this book we should still have the reading ability of an eight-year-old.

  8. Margaret says:

    I too loved Enid Blyton’s books and it definitely didn’t stop me moving on to other books. I enjoyed reading about children having adventures and solving crimes and I especially loved The Naughtiest Girl in the School books!

  9. Laura says:

    I do find the updating a bit odd. I read Enid Blyton as a child in the 1990s and all the things mentioned were already well out of date then. (I learnt to understand shillings and half-crowns etc from reading Enid Blyton and Just William!). I don’t have strong feelings about it, but the dated references were never a problem for me as a young reader. And the sexism in e.g. the Famous Five just made me more feminist! I think the Blytons with the really racist references have happily been allowed to go out of print, though if not, I’d certainly be pleased to see those go.

    • Helen says:

      Removing the particularly racist references is understandable and makes sense, but a lot of the other changes just seem unnecessary. The books were already outdated when I was reading them too but, as you say, it’s a good way for children to learn!

  10. Jane says:

    I’m so glad you mention The Five Find-Outers, they were my favourite and often get ignored for the Famous Five! Like you I read loads and thoroughly enjoyed them and then moved on to other writers. Her comment about not taking criticism from anyone over the age of 12 is brilliant!

  11. daniellecobbaertbe says:

    I was an avid Enid Blyton reader. And I read several of her series. One about sisters at a boarding school. The Five Find-outers and the Famous Five. I guess I have read every single book of the Famous Five several times. I mostly read them in one sitting, curled up in the living room.

    And then there was the television series of the Famous Five. With a couple of school friends I formed a club called The Famous Five; We wrote letters to each other in code. And I used to hide these letters in a cot in my room. I suppose I was about 10 or 11 years old then, this was in the late seventies.

    I read her books in translation. So I had no mothers or teachers telling me that her books were poorly written.

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