Enid Mary Blyton was born in 1897 in a flat above a shop in East Dulwich, South London. By the time of her death at the age of 71 she had become one of the most popular and prolific children's authors of her time.
The Life of Enid Blyton
Blyton spent much of her childhood withdrawn into her own world and later based the character of George in the Famous Five books on herself at the age of around 12. As she was a talented musician, her family were surprised when she chose to train as a teacher at Ipswich High School. She had little contact with her parents while she was training, as her father had by now started a family with another woman. She had never been close to her mother.
Between the publication of a poem, 'Have You', at 26, and her death at the age of 71, Blyton published over 600 novels, poems, plays and short stories. She began by writing stories and poems for both adults' and children's magazines. By 1922, she had written enough children's poetry for an anthology entitled Children's Whispers. She also had a regular column for Teachers' World magazine where she published plays and stories that could be used in lessons. She became the editor of Sunny Stories, a short story magazine for children. This was followed by her first full-length book The Wishing Chair, about a chair that grows wings and whisks children away to magical lands.
In 1924, she married Hugh Pollock, an editor at her publishers, and in 1929 their first child, Gillian, was born followed in 1931 by their second child, Imogen. They soon moved to Green Hedges, a house that was to be associated with Blyton for the rest of her life. She would set many short stories there, often revolving around Bimbo and Topsy, the cat and dog. However, shortly after her marriage, her career began to take off.
Published in 1929, The Secret Island was Blyton's first full-length book for older children. It centred around four children who escape from living with their cruel Aunt and Uncle by going to live on an island in the middle of a nearby lake.
The books and stories were amazingly successful at the time they were written. There are even tales of them being banned from libraries because they meant that children would no longer read the 'great' works of fiction. However, while her writing career began to take off, her marriage was deteriorating and in 1941 Hugh Pollock moved out of Green Hedges. By 1943, Enid was divorced and remarried to a surgeon, Kenneth Darrell Waters.
Blyton used her seemingly idealist family life to promote her writings. In magazine interviews she spoke of how she was pleased to be working from home because she could spend time with her children. She wrote short stories starring the cat and the dog, with members of the family as background characters. Her house, Green Hedges, was one of the best known in the country: a letter addressed to 'Green Hedges, England' would apparently reach its destination1.
Her carefully prepared public persona was of a benevolent mother who loved all children and animals. However, her neighbours remember her complaining about the sound of children playing. Her daughter Imogen remembers her mother being distant and cold, and her stepfather foul tempered. However, Gillian has happier memories, of a mother who always managed to make time for her and a kind step father.
Enid Blyton died of what is now known as Alzheimer's disease in 1968.
The Writing of Enid Blyton
Though she wrote actively from the late 1920s until the early 1960s the world in which the stories were set varied little between the early and late books. The majority of the children who star in the books are middle class and usually attend boarding schools. Their parents have well paying jobs which take them away on business a lot, leaving the children to disappear on their own for weeks on end. They often go on cycling holidays, nearly always without an adult, or sometimes they go to camp or stay in a remote guest house. There are few references to television in the later books;, when it is present it is rarely watched. Holidays are usually spent in a undefined place in England. When people fall ill, there is little that can be done for them apart from quarantine and perhaps a long sea-side holiday. And there's no Coca Cola or fries; for a treat the children eat cake or a Sunday roast and drink ginger beer. A central feature of these books is the 'lashings'2 of ginger beer and of chocolate.
The children never have romantic interests, however old they are. They never worry about their appearance and appear never to enter puberty. When girls in the school stories start to worry about such things it is sorted out by the other pupils. Whatever problems befall the children there is always a certainty that they will be resolved - and, what's more, resolved without any need for an adult to get involved.
It would be impossible to include a full list of books written by Enid Blyton. What follows is a summary of some of the most popular.
Although the stories of the Famous Five and Secret Seven are the most well-known, Blyton wrote many tales of other children having fantastic adventures. These invariably revolve around a small group of children, often siblings or cousins, who regularly meet up in the countryside when on holiday from boarding schools. Their parents give them a remarkably free rein and often allow them to stay away from home for several days at a time. Each book in a series represents one school holiday, although sometimes there are so many books in a series that it would be impossible for a child to have that many school holidays. For example, assuming that the children have one adventure in each of the three school holidays, the series of 21 Famous Five books would then take place over a seven year period; however in book 21 the children are only a year older than in the first book.
The actual adventures tend to involve a gang of some sort of criminals (kidnappers smugglers, thieves, occasionally spies), who usually take the children prisoner about two thirds of the way through the book. They escape and victoriously report things to the grateful local police constable.
The Famous Five are perhaps the most popular adventure stories. The central characters revolve around two brothers Julian and Dick, their younger sister Anne, their cousin Georgina and her dog Timothy. Georgina is known as George most of the time and dresses as a boy to the extent that some strangers would have no idea that she was a girl. Many readers wonder what happened to George when she grew up. Some assume that she would become a lesbian, others a transsexual. In 1995, BBC Radio Four broadcast a fictional interview with George as part of their Whatever Happened To... series, where she had become a nurse, and though never married was definitely not a lesbian.
There have been several television adaptations of the series, some set in the 1950s, some modernised, as well as a stage play. There has also been a satire Five Go Mad In Dorset (and later, Five Go Mad on Mescalin) as part of Channel Four's The Comic Strip Presents... series which was broadcast in the 1980s; the rather adult-looking 'children' in these episodes (actor/director Peter Richardson, Ade Edmonson of The Young Ones and comedy double act French & Saunders) enjoyed regular feasts of ham sandwiches and the obligatory 'lashings of ginger beer', then a brisk cycle-ride around making fun of the uneducated locals.
The Secret Seven series were nearly as big as the Famous Five. They told of the adventures of seven - not five - children, who run their own secret society. The books are aimed at slightly younger children than the Famous Five, as they are not as long and the adventures rarely include going off on their own or being taken prisoner.
The Secret Seven is a society run by pre-pubescent children, they have formal passwords and rules. In fact they are more organised than children of that age could realistically be. This feeling that children can do something makes the reader feel more empowered than if the society had descended into bickering and 'you can't play in my shed'.
These tend to follow the adventures of a female central character and her friends during a academic year at a boarding school. It is always either a girls school or a mixed school. The plots remain remarkably consistent. In the first book of the series, the central character does not want to go away to school, and when they get there they rebel as much as they can. However, eventually they become convinced of the virtues of the remarkable establishment and soon become a model student.
If there is a sequel, this follows the adventures of the characters in a subsequent academic year, usually there will be a new girl who goes through the same process. They will also play a practical joke and have a midnight feast.
The two most popular series are Malory Towers and St Clares; the former follows the adventures of Darrell Rivers3 over six terms at the school Malory Towers.
An extensive series of books aimed at younger children that follow the adventures of Noddy, a small toy that nods, and his friend Big Ears, a gnome. They live in Toyland, a place where toys are alive. In the original books, they spend time getting into trouble with Golliwogs4. This led to the books being banned from some libraries in the 1980s; the Golliwogs were replaced with Goblins in the next reprint. Noddy's friend Big Ears also came under fire from political correctness when the books were re-printed for the US market; some said that his name should be changed to White Beard, and others that Noddy and Big Ears relationship was implicitly homosexual - something few children would notice, let alone be worried about.
The most widely read of these are The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree. They consist of a chair and a tree respectively that whisk children off to faraway lands, some good, some not so good. There is also a cast of elves, goblins, pixies and characters from fairy tales, which children will recognise from other books.
Blyton remained a regular contributor to magazines and was the editor of her own Sunny Stories for some years. These are republished on a regular basis in an almost endless amount of anthologies.
Less well known than the other tales, these consist of the adventures of a number of children who live on a circus over a season when the circus is travelling. A number of mishaps will keep the story alive, the elephant may fall ill, or there may be another rival circus. Either way the season is always a success in the end.
Farms and Nature
These books are also less well known than her other books, in fact there is only one well known series: The Children Of Cherry Tree Farm in which a group of siblings from London go and stay on a relatives farm the country. They learn many things about nature and farming methods. Then manage to convince their parents to leave London and buy a farm themselves, this becomes the setting for The Children of Willow Farm and Adventures On Willow Farm.
Other Recurring Themes (Besides Ginger Beer)
With the exception of the few books set in a circus, the central characters in the majority of the books are middle class children who go to boarding school. Though they will befriend children from other backgrounds, these children are nearly always in awe of them. There are however notable exceptions: the series set in a circus contains no middle class children at all. The Barney Mystery series contains one central character (Barney) who lives with a variety of circus troupes as he has no father and his mother has died5.
Many teachers now think that children should have more examples of heroes from backgrounds that they can relate to. Children aged 7-10 - the prime readers of Blyton's adventure stories - are now told tales of parents divorcing, children in care6, and life on a council estate. In the 1980s, Enid Blyton's work was banned from Nottingham Libraries amid allegations of it not being politically correct. A media furore started and many other libraries followed suit. Despite best efforts of many well-meaning teachers, plenty of today's children would rather read Enid Blyton than a worthy tale of parents divorcing on a council estate.
This charge is most often levelled at the Noddy books where the anti-heroes were originally Golliwogs. In the book Here comes Noddy Again Golliwogs entice Noddy into the woods under the premise of asking for help and then steal his car and clothes.
In the 'Adventure' stories - Island of Adventure, Valley of Adventure, Ship of Adventure and others - foreign characters speak strangely and are never seen as intelligent. Claudine, the French girl at St Clares, is derided for being vain and over emotional, continually worrying about getting a freckle, and she is teased for carrying a compact mirror. Zerelda, an American girl who appears in Third Year at Malory Towers is derided for wearing make up, not liking sports, wanting to be a film star and there is an incident where she moved down into the year below because she is academically behind the English girls.
However, it is not just the foreign girls who are bullied by the heroine, there are many English girls who are made to feel excluded for missing their old school or not being any good at sports. There are also strange English characters in adventure stories as well, usually poor abandoned children who befriend the heroes.
This is most evident in the 'Adventure' books: where there is a group of girls and boys, the girls will be the ones who prepare the food and are protected from danger by the boys. The one exception to this rule is George in the Famous Five, who rejects her femininity entirely and to most onlookers, is seen as a boy. Julian and Dick laugh at her exploits as a strange phase she's going through. When they are faced with extremely dangerous situations, the boys will insist on going by themselves, though George often protests about being left behind with Ann. As the Famous Five began when George was 12, this Researcher spent much time as a child wondering why George never developed breasts.
The sexism in the school stories is not as evident, yet still present. There is very little mention of the girls future careers even when they are supposedly 18. Though we know that the talented painter will become an artist and the talented pianist a musician, nothing is ever said of the future. Indeed Miss Grayling the Headmistress of Malory Towers once states that it is her mission to produce fine upstanding young ladies - not excellent grades.
However the sexism, racism and other attitudes were no different to other authors of the period. Blyton was like almost every author a product of the time she was writing in. In his book Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature Dr David Rudd claims Golliwogs do not represent black people in Noddy Books. He also claims that modern children from ethic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds enjoy reading the books that are often classed as racist and middle class - the world the children inhabit is so dramatically different to the world they now live in that they see it as fantasy world.
Critics often point to Blyton's limited vocabulary and her immature style - fast paced, with very short sentences and little description. It is also said that she reused several stories and rarely had any original ideas. Though she did write a wider variety of stories than often assumed, when a concept was popular she carried on with it. For example the Famous Five series was original intended to be only six books long.
Blyton once said that criticism from people over the age of 12 didn't matter and it cannot be denied that with the under 12s the books still remain popular. The fact that children want escapism, not true-life tales, can been seen in the sales figures for Harry Potter books. Despite the criticism Blyton remains popular enough for the property company Trocadero to pay 13.5 million for the intellectual property rights to the Blyton estate.
You can join the official Enid Blyton Society via their online information page.