Wednesday, 18 November 2009


The first of BBC Four's "Women We Loved" season was excellent - all the unspoken tensions and gaping emotional holes of so many middle- and upper-class homes of the 1930s and 1940s, only in this case occupied by the woman whose legacy still shores up a romantic vision of those times in which that sort of thing simply didn't happen, all the right expressions, every silence in just the right place.

Contrary to what has until now been a popular myth, Blyton-bashing predates trendy-leftism by decades - she was effectively kept off the very BBC whose favoured style of children's broadcasting would be condemned by '60s and '70s leftists in exactly the same terms that they used to condemn Blyton, as though there was no objective difference between her and, say, Antonia Forest (it is significant that the BBC finally used Blyton's work on Jackanory in 1974, just at the time it clearly wanted to distinguish itself from the marauding left). Now that her reputation, at least as a storyteller, is so secure - partially through the new unquestionability of popularity, partially through simple nostalgia - and now that we've all seen how easily the New Left that condemned her so vociferously could merge into market fundamentalism under Blair, I think it can be safely stated that much criticism of her work had less to do with it being politically unsound (never as absolute a criterion for the New Left as they wanted us to believe) and more to do with a simple desire to react against what they saw as the oppressive cultural norms they'd grown up with, just as they'd have hated Eric Coates and Ronald Binge while championing as inherently progressive a form of rock music which cannot now be anything other than the cultural wing of neoliberalism.

For leftists of the Polly Toynbee / Martin Jacques generation and ilk - the harshest of all Blyton's critics - the world of the Famous Five would have seemed boringly omnipresent, the establishment culture, and the world of rock music would have seemed fascinatingly alien and exotic. For leftists of my generation, it is completely the other way round - when Blyton was so resolutely condemned in the '70s, the era in which most of her books had been written was still the day before yesterday, and her rehabilitation began when it really became history and, simultaneously, the tide of neoliberalism washed its vestiges away more effectively than the left ever could. In fact, much of her appeal today may relate to the way they present a calmer, less uncertain world in which neoliberalism had never upset every certainty, and they can therefore be justified - partially because of this, partially because of the revisions to most of her books removing the most of-its-time content - even by leftist criteria.

And yet even this is a serious simplification and idealisation of the truth: as Helena Bonham Carter points out in the Torygraph, Blyton was an early master of the technique of marketing of the self, decades before it had become institutionalised as the norm - her cynical manipulation of her public image anticipates the very neoliberal era her books are now such a tantalising escape from, so much so that her life may be a warning that the whole idea of "nice Toryism", most definitely a grand-scale lie now, was probably always a myth, except during a comparatively brief post-war period which she predated. Hers was a desperate legacy to overcome - her daughters turned out so wildly different, one a quintessential Middle Englander, the other defined by a far more liberal, psychological frame of awareness, that they simply could never even speak to each other. There was ample tragedy involving her grandchildren. As would have been clear to anyone who watched BBC Four on Monday evening, her life sums up exactly what her romanticisers and sentimentalists at the Mail and similar places want us to forget ever happened. Yet I cannot forget the thrill of the Five and the nagging feeling that, had it not been for her, I may never have read anything meatier, and I cannot write out of my mind the truth of her late-life interview (probably based on her first and last BBC appearance in 1963) in the BBC Four drama where she claims, to a knowing smile from her second husband, that children would always want what she gave them. I cannot forget that the majority of comparably huge-selling mass-market authors, whether for children or adults, of the mid-20th Century are barely read now, and that endurance - an endurance probably caused by her emotional and physical immaturity, which placed her pretty much outside normal human rules - is, I suppose, its own kind of immortality.


  1. Hi Robin,
    A great article and many thanks for your assistance in availing me some of the literature I used in my own new book on Enid Blyton titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage ( where some of my discussions highlight Enid Blyton's environmental awarenesses that predate former Vice-President Al Gore's birth. A very great blog on Enid Blyton.

    Stephen Isabirye

  2. Thoughtful as always. I'm still curious to know if you've read (and if so, what you made of) Owen Dudley Edwards' British Children's Fiction in the Second World War, a remarkable book by a very individual critic, who makes the case for complexities in Blyton's wartime work that I for one had not suspected.

  3. Not read that, alas, but in her excellent 'The Blyton Phenomenon' Sheila Ray pinpoints a greater subtlety of characterisation - and other elements such as environmental awareness, as mentioned here - in Blyton's wartime work than in her later books, and even mentions a *most* unexpected apparent sympathy with Scottish nationalism in one of them (The Secret Island?).

    Certainly my own recollections suggest that Blyton's earlier adventures are fresher and more exciting than those that came after the war, but then she was writing at a time of heightened national purpose, when even mediocrity seemed somehow better than that - although, at her best at this time, Blyton was far from mediocre ('Five Go to Smuggler's Top' is genuinely atmospheric and makes the later Five books seem most uninteresting by comparison). Certainly by the mid-1950s, Blyton had become an exhausted self-parody, but this merely reflects the state of Britain at the time - tired, worn out, living on dreams of a world that was already stone stinking dead. In fact, her decline reflects precisely what happened to the whole world she came from - repetitive and tediously played out by the mid-50s, eventually falling into ever greater paranoia and rage by 1960 (as I mentioned in my LJ piece and as the Comic Strip, of course, picked up on - though on LJ I unforgivably failed to mention Suez as the single biggest cause) before dying a natural death in the decade that followed. Except Blyton's works *haven't* died, and that is why they still demand discussion ... as I said, she wasn't really a fully-formed adult, so it's no surprise that her endurance has effectively outstepped normal time. Most of us will never manage such a thing.