Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
When I was a little girl I used to receive the latest Famous Five book by Enid Blyton every Christmas. I am pretty sure my mum bought these as it guaranteed that I would be nice and quiet for a few hours in the afternoon as I sat and read it in one sitting. I had a huge collection of the FF books but somewhere along the way they vanished. I suspect my mother had a clear out….
Every child of a certain age read Enid Blyton, was a member of the Sunshine Club and had a Noddy or a Big Ears doll. Her name on a book guaranteed hours of fun reading where you could pretend that you foiled robbers, pirates, had picnics on shipwrecked islands and drank lashings of ginger beer. It was an innocent world and though the books have been updated (which I strongly object to) they have a timeless quality and still sell in their millions all over the world.
It came as a bit of a shock to me as I got older and discovered that Enid was not all sweetness and light. I had always viewed her as a delightful friendly lady sitting in her garden writing her books and letters to all her fans and I felt quite jealous of her two daughters. Gosh fancy having Enid Blyton as your mum. Just think of all the fun you must have and all the stories she must tell you!
Nothing could be further from the truth as we learned after her death when Gillian, who seemed to feel it more than her sibling, let us all know how strict their mother was, how she could not be bothered with them unless a publicity campaign was under way when they were wheeled out to pose with her. Her children readers came first above all else even her own daughters.
I have just finished reading this book by Nadia Cohen who feels that this may all have started with the desertion of her father when she was a child. She was very close to him and had a very tricky relationship with her mother and when he left the marriage for another woman Enid was devastated. She was lost without him and blamed her mother in many ways for his departure. She had two brothers but they were less affected by the marriage breakdown. Her mother kept it hidden for a long time telling friends and neighbours that her husband was ‘away’.
Enid left home as early as she could and once she did cut off all connections with her family. She never saw her mother again and did not see her brothers for years. She had a genius for dealing with children and qualified as a teacher. She was extremely successful and after a time teaching in school she left to become a governess to the children of a family and left her school days behind her. She became part of the family and was so good at teaching that other friends and neighbours begged her to take on their offspring as well. She ended up with a little school all of her own. Enid was treated as a member of the family but when she met and fell in love with a man who was separated from his wife, they disapproved. Once his divorce came through and they married she left them behind without a backward glance and never contacted them again.
This cutting ties to those who seemed to criticise her in any way was a recurring pattern throughout her life. Her actions seem cold and calculating but it appears she insulated herself from hurt in this way which, as the author posits, was her way of protecting herself from distress.
She had two children but seemed to have very little interest in them and over the years the marriage began to crumble. Her husband, a war veteran suffered with nerves, which nowadays would be easily diagnosed, and he began to drink rather heavily. Though Enid worried that her reputation might be harmed she and her husband eventually parted and divorced.
And, as with previous relationships, she put it in the past and never referred to it again nor kept in touch. The worst aspect of her cutting ties is that he never saw his children again. Enid fought him all the time when he wanted to meet up with them and, in the end, totally despairing he gave up. This is pretty ghastly behaviour from anybody, but when you think that she was selling millions of books to children who worshipped her, it really sticks in the craw.
Throughout all of this her career and her sales flourished and reached staggering proportions. Books flowed from her portable typewriter. She was a shrewd businesswoman who oversaw all her contracts, dealt directly with her publishers and knew a good thing when she saw it. Her marketing of the Noddy books and all the linked products, toys, dolls, games etc were phenomenal and the money kept rolling in.
By this time she had remarried and this marriage was a happy one and lasted to her death. It seemed to have no softening effect on her however and her children still never saw their father.
Then the backlash began. Her books are not great literature. In many ways they are simplistic and, on looking at them now, I can see they are not particularly well written. But what adults thought did not matter to Enid. ‘I will never read or listen to criticism of my books from anybody over the age of 12’ was her cry. ‘I write for children not for adults’. (She did try an adult book but it was turned down by her publisher and never saw the light of day).
Her books began to be heavily criticised by other authors of children’s books, many of who I also read as a child, Geoffrey Trease among them. While they were right in what they said there seems to be a certain schadenfreude in their criticism. After all, their sales were nowhere near those of Enid.
Libraries banned them and for many years she was in the critical wilderness. It made no difference to her sales or her fans and gradually the tide began to turn. Among the onslaught of complaints was that children would only read her books and would not try anything else. I dismissed this years ago as rubbish and I do now. Do you see a thirty-year-old sitting reading the Famous Five? I think not.
One cannot help but think of JK Rowling when reading this section of this biography. Critics have done the same to her; another writer who cannot not write well and needing to be heavily edited. I happen to agree with both these statements, but and here is the but, JK Rowling as with Enid Blyton, has created a world children can enter and in which they can lose themselves. An excess of adverbs or the odd clunky paragraph does not matter to them.
I salute any author who can get children reading and can make them realise that reading is fun. When the latest Harry Potter was published children queued till midnight to get their hands on a copy of a 500+ page book and would sit down and start reading immediately. What an achievement and one of which any author should be proud.
This is a really fascinating read. Enid Blyton’s awfulness really is quite staggering and, yet, I found myself in the end feeling rather sorry for her. It was clear that she was shaped by her childhood and the trauma never really left her. It seems to me that she spent most of her life seeking happiness and hiding from fear that she would be left unloved. Rather sad in a way.
But she brought happiness and joy to millions of children and still continues to do so. Many authors have feet of clay and are not nice people but can still beguile and enchant.
Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.
Nadia Cohen, The Real Enid Blyton (Pen & Sword History, 2018) ISBN 9781526722034, hardback, 163 pages.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)