Having produced so many books herself, numbers since have been written about Enid Blyton in return. This latest well-researched study from Andrew Maunder is an excellent addition to this ever-growing genre. Blyton was not a fine writer nor a particularly attractive person. But she offered innumerable child readers something uniquely enjoyable. Working out exactly what this appeal consisted of would be the literary equivalent of discovering the tune the Pied Piper actually played.
Addressing her young readers directly before the start of a story, Blyton who was originally a no-nonsense schoolteacher continued to come over as such, condescending at one moment, authoritarian the next. But in her fiction an entirely different voice took place. Action-packed adventure series told in simple language and packed with exclamation marks rolled off her typewriter. Within them child characters regularly overcame all villainous obstacles to finish on gratifying note of adult praise. Stories for younger children also moved at speed, with the good always finally rewarded and the naughty soundly admonished. Child characters walking so flatteringly tall offered readers at least up to adolescence a perfect, persistently heady escape from the humdrum realities of everyday life.
Her books, selling at healthy prices before the arrival of paperbacks, were aimed firmly at the secure middle-class readership that could afford them. Characters drawn from a lower social class came off less well, with one child accused of talking ‘like the daughter of a dustman’. In this black and white fictional world, an initially off-putting physical appearance was usually a sound predictor of general unpleasantness to come. The hump-backed adult villain in Five Get into Trouble, nicknamed ‘old hunchy’ by his young adversaries, is one example. Others considered social outsiders at the time such as gypsies were also fair game for instant suspicion. Use of discriminatory language, notably a term already out of favour in the 1940s, was allowed to linger on in her fiction as late as 1983.
There is a more positive picture. Blyton worked phenomenally hard, sometimes producing over thirty books a year as well as answering shoals of readers’ letters. War-time children in particular, such as myself, can only be grateful for the enormous pleasure she provided at an often difficult time. She also set up charities, visited schools and libraries, brought up two daughters, not entirely successfully, and played bridge and golf sometimes on a daily basis. But this level of energy worked against her in the eyes of other contemporary writers and critics. She was always first in the queue when publishers had to allocate a severely rationed paper-supply. There was also something chilling in the way that she deliberately set out to cater for all ages in her fiction, including re-writing chosen classics. A child’s reading life consisting entirely of her books and magazines would have been depriving themselves of far better writers. These might have included those looking sometimes in vain to find a publisher willing to take them on and a bookshop happy to display them against such blanket Blytonish competition.
There is less of the life itself in this book, with stories about what eventually happened to her oft-quoted home Green Hedges along with some other questionable developments left largely unaddressed. But as an intelligent study of a particular time in the history of British children’s literature, this work cannot be faulted. It is still hard to warm to a writer quite so self-admiring and self-promoting. But Maunder reminds us how much her stories were loved plus the sheer scale of her achievements. His book remains fair about a writer not always fairly treated since her death, and for that he deserves both thanks and congratulations.