Julia Eccleshare wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian earlier this week about the new look given to the Famous Five on their seventieth birthday. (One wonders if they are still having adventures, producing their bus passes to capture evil criminals.)
In her article, she suggests that Enid Blyton is indeed becoming fashionable again after many years of being pilloried for everything from her writing style to allegations of sexism, classism and racism. The fact that the much-respected illustrator Quentin Blake organised a group of illustrators to produce new versions for the covers of the Famous Five stories suggests that there still exists a lot of love for the amazingly prolific Mrs Blyton, as Julia Eccleshare explains: ‘Quentin Blake, who is the inspiration behind the series, invited fellow illustrators to contribute their artwork and a percentage of royalties from these books will support the House of Illustration.’
Image courtesy of Junior Magazine
Encouraging children to read
While the main focus behind Eccleshare’s article was about the new illustrations for the series, she prefaced the feature with the following standfirst: ‘Both Enid Blyton and JK Rowling have proved that if children find a book, series or author they love, they’ll read – regardless of what their parents think about it’. This is certainly true and I think is a fact that we, as adults, need to accept when our children choose their own reading matter. We may grimace at what they pick up – and I have been there and done that with gaudy, pink kitten books offering plasticky necklace freebies – but what matters is that they are reading (admittedly Holly never did read those monstrosites so I was well withing my rights to refuse to buy any more just so she could add to her jewellery collection – though I am guilty of the same crime with women’s mags – I buy them for the free moisturiser or lip gloss than the contents).
Lashings of ginger beer
I grew up with Enid Blyton and devoured her books, particularly enjoying the descriptions of mealtimes. My mouth would water as I read of the sandwiches, cakes and ‘heaps of tomatoes’ and ‘lashings of ginger beer’. Who wouldn’t enjoy reading about them? Plus the children would be allowed to go off on their own – encouraged to do so even by impatient parents who would rather holiday on their own. How fantastic to be so free. I never noticed any blatant sexism or racism or anything else offensive and I grew up in a multicultural society. Admittedly, as an only child I sometimes got annoyed by her stereotyping only children as stupid and selfish but the stories normally overrode that minor objection.
Image courtesy of http://famousfivestyle.wordpress.com/
Adults keep out!
I never knew until my teens that Enid Blyton was so badly thought of. Yes, her language was old-fashioned compared to nowadays, but so is Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare. What surprised me the most were claims that her writing quite simply wasn’t ‘good’ enough. Children’s literature academic David Rudd explains the problem well in his essay ‘In Defence of the Indefensible? Some Grounds for Enid Blyton’s Appeal‘ (published in Children’s Literature, Approached and Territories, edited by J Maybin and Nicola J Watson, Open University). In this he says that Blyton wasn’t seen as being ‘literary’ enough by publishers and social commentators denounced her as favouring the middle class, white, home-county male. The main criticisms seem to come from adult literary critics who condemn her for being being full of cliche, lacking in metaphor and only offering one plot which she rehashes with each story.
‘It’s just a load of nonsense!’
Another criticism by adults about her books is that she is poor at characterisation – that Blyton’s protagonists are only used to drive forward the plot, are unmemorable and lack any real depth. This seems totally insane to me – the fact that so many of us can remember The Famous Five, for example, is proof that she created strong characters. And George – the tomboy who didn’t want to be treated as a girl – can very much be seen as a reaction against the ideal feminine figure of the time: hardly sexist! But am I just old-fashioned myself? I put these criticisms of Blyton’s writing to Holly, who replied in outrage: ‘It’s just a lot of nonsense that some stupid people made up. Why would I read these books if they were so bad?’
And even if Blyton’s characters don’t develop personally, why is this an issue? They are sort of stuck in a time zone where adventures can be scary but fun, adults aren’t required, food is delicious and farmers’ wives are very generous with free milk and eggs. Rudd says: ‘It is their dependability that appeals, just like the figures of the old Greek romances’. In some ways, they are similar to characters we watch nowadays in sitcoms. We don’t turn on a comedy hoping for a character to learn from their mistakes or become a better person. Take Seinfeld, for example, where the four main characters never develop, never change, never show moral growth. Their static character is what makes them funny and attractive and human and draws us back to view them time and again.
With regard accusations of formulaic plotting, critics tend dismiss Blyton’s works as full of ‘contrivances’. Rudd reveals – interestingly but disappointingly – that these are ‘exactly the sort of devices that we find in such canonical writers as Dickens or Hardy…’ yet Blyton is condemned for the very practices that these male writers are praised for. So where is the sexism now?
Leave it to the kids
I’ve written before about the paradox of writing children’s literature: how can an adult know what a child wants to read? It’s not an easily answered question but there can be no doubt, as Julia Eccleshare points out, that writers such as Enid Blyton and JK Rowling have this gift. So maybe the best thing we can do as adults is to leave children to enjoy the stories rather than look for weaknesses and faults from our own perspectives. Rudd sums it up well when he says that ‘Blyton is seen as inadequate only if she’s judged according to the fairly narrow (and recent) strictures of literary criticism’.
Admittedly, I have often stifled a smile at something that sounded archaic or just odd to my adult ears but these books were what drove me to read when I was young and what encouraged Holly to devour stories after being bored with the school phonics books. Rudd thinks that The Famous Five is so particularly popular with children because ‘it perfectly captures…being on holiday not just literally but psychologically, too, escaping from school and parental influence…’ As children are growing up too quickly nowadays as it is this surely can’t be a bad thing.
Amazing Enid Blyton Facts!
She sells around 11 million copies of books a year, perhaps the only children’s author to rival JK Rowling.
As well as being a writer, she was an educationalist.
In the early 1950s, she was writing around 50 titles a year. In 1955 she wrote 70.
May 12 was Enid Blyton Day
She was an accomplished pianist before giving it up to train to be a teacher
Later in life she was afflicted by Alzheimer’s Disease.
Enid Blyton with her daughters. Image courtesy of the Daily Telegraph.