The enduring appeal of Enid Blyton

By Nick Duerden

Nick Duerden’s daughters are hooked on Enid Blyton. But, 70 years on, why is the writing of the Noddy and Famous Five author still so compelling?

About to turn 70, Enid Blyton's Famous Five series is as popular as ever, though the characters and language have had a makeover, as seen in a Disney animated television series. Photo / Supplied
About to turn 70, Enid Blyton's Famous Five series is as popular as ever, though the characters and language have had a makeover, as seen in a Disney animated television series. Photo / Supplied

Tonight we're about three-quarters of the way through a compendium of The Magic Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton - page 493, to be precise. Connie has just fallen down Moon Face's slippery-slip, and a squirrel - a red squirrel, the kind we don't see very much of anymore - is telling her that she's worn out the back of her dress in the process. "It's all rags. Your underwear is showing," he says. Connie is furious. "Oh! This is a horrible afternoon!"

I glance up from the page to see both my daughters hanging on my every word. They want to know what happens next, and so we move on to page 494, page 495, page 496 ... It is almost 9pm. Mad Men will have to wait.

The reading of bedtime stories can be a painfully protracted affair, as any parent will surely attest. Once we've left picture books behind and before they can comfortably start reading for themselves, the process can take on new hues of tortured tedium.
Until recently, bedtime stories were dominated by titles my 6-year-old brought home from the school library, her 4-year-old sister precociously insisting on the same literary tastes: namely, books revolving almost exclusively around glitter-
sprinkling fairies and ball-obsessed princesses, with, as far as I was concerned, scant imagination and turgid plots.

Even the girls seemed to think so, the elder writing in her diary as I read, the younger browsing a Mr Men paperback just retrieved from under her pillow.

So, for the purposes of sanity maintenance, I took them to a bookshop recently, in search of a more pleasing alternative. To my surprise, there were an awful lot of Blyton books in the 5-to-8 age group, much as there were in my own childhood. Not all the ones I remembered, granted - The Three Golliwogs was conspicuous by its absence - but plenty of her other titles. Piqued by nostalgia, I bought a three-in-one compendium of Faraway Tree books the size of a brick.

Clearly, I'm not the only one. This month, Blyton's Famous Five series is being republished to celebrate its 70th anniversary. You cannot get much more anachronistic in children's literature in 2012 than Blyton, a rosy throwback to simpler times when the working class could still be scoffed at and rudeness to people of colour was commonplace, and yet the publisher is already anticipating best-seller status, for the simple reason that Blyton (600 million books sold and counting) is a perennial best-seller. Her most famous character, Noddy, has been on television for 57 years and books about the naive little boy are still popular with young readers. Why?

Even before War Horse made him a household name, Michael Morpurgo was a colossus in the world of modern children's fiction. He writes the kind of books in which real life, with all its pain and hurt, is subtly rendered for a young audience who clearly crave a little punch to their fiction. Now 68, the former children's laureate was also brought up on Blyton, and remains a passionate advocate of her work today.

"She played a huge part in my youth," he says, "perhaps all the more so because she was banned from my household."

Morpurgo's stepfather, an academic, believed her too superficial and, consequently, not good for him.

"But he was wrong. Her books were terrific page-turners in the way no others were. I had all sorts put into my hands when I was very little - I was offered Dickens at 8 - that were not suitable for boys my age at all. But with Enid Blyton, I found I could actually get into the story, and finish it. They moved fast, almost as fast as comics, and there was satisfaction to be had on every single page. Were they great literature? Of course not. But they didn't need to be."

Ever since Barbara Stoney's definitive biography of 1974 and the autobiography of Blyton's youngest daughter, Imogen, in 1989, Blyton has become a mind-bogglingly divisive character. Obsessed by her career, she was customarily cruel to both her daughters and her first husband, a book editor, whom she divorced in a drawn-out, bitter process.

Anyone who watched Helena Bonham Carter bring her to such fantastic frigid life in the 2009 BBC film Enid would surely appreciate that she could flash a stare that turned you to ash.

"It's true, she was certainly a terrible mother, but in other ways she was ahead of her time," says Lindsay Shapero, who wrote the screenplay. "She was an advocate of disabled children's rights, for example, and a working mother trying to balance her private and professional life."

Shapero was also weaned on Blyton, but inadvertently left it too late to do similar with her own children. Though Blyton was originally aimed at teenagers, by the 21st century the stories were more appropriate for 6-year-olds.

"[My children] must have been about 8, and were already on to Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman," she says. "They were too sophisticated already, and Blyton, I'm afraid, was too twee for them, too archaic."

This is something the author's current publishers have been acutely aware of, and many of her still-in-print books today have been largely rewritten in an attempt
at modernisation.

Nevertheless, they still clunk in a rather charming way. In The Magic Faraway Tree books, the children continue to run wild in the woods at night with all manner of malcontents without the intrusion of social services.

In the Famous Five series, Georgina, who dresses like a boy, is known as George and attends Gaylands school, and a Dick interacts very enthusiastically with a character called Fanny.

But should we be reading Blyton at all today, when we could be reading far more appropriate, and relevant, literature? We've much to choose from, after all: Anne Fine, Lauren Child, Eoin Colfer.

"We should be reading both," says Morpurgo. "Yes, today's writers are much better in terms of complexity, but Blyton endures because her books give a sense that the world really can be your oyster - you just have to go out and claim it.

"Much that is great in literature is an acquired taste, and you have to acquire it in the first place. Our job as parents is essentially to pass on the enthusiasm we had for the things we loved. That's how we'll get them to fall in love with reading in the
first place and, hopefully, to stay in love with it."

Check out a trailer of the Famous 5 animated series:

The life of Enid

Born: August 11, 1897 in East Dulwich, London, the eldest child of Theresa and Thomas, a cutlery salesman.

First book: Child Whispers, a collection of poems, in 1922, aged 25.

Career: Enid Blyton wrote 753 books during her 45-year career - that's an average of 16 books published each year. Her most popular titles are Noddy, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. This year marks the 70th anniversary of The Famous Five series. In the 2008 Costa Book Awards - one of Britain's most prestigious and popular literary prizes - Blyton was voted the best-loved author, ahead of Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling and Shakespeare, showing that 70 years on her books are still compelling.

Married: 1924, to Major Hugh Alexander Pollock. Pollock was editor of the book department in a publishing company, which published two of her books that year. The couple had two daughters, Gillian and Imogen. The marriage turned sour, leading to a protracted divorce and allegations of Blyton's adultery. She married London surgeon Kenneth Waters a short time later.

Died: November 28 1968, aged 71.

They say: "The truth is, Enid Blyton was arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct.

"As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult, I pitied her."

- Blyton's youngest daughter, Imogen, in her 1989 autobiography, A Childhood at Green Hedges.

"She was not cold and vindictive, she was warm and generous."

- Blyton's eldest daughter, Gillian, who held differing views from her sister on their upbringing.

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