Enid Blyton, praise and criticism part 1: The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature

Enid Blyton’s life and writing career might seem as if it was a perfect, rosy thing. Half of that is her skill in writing. Even in her autobiography and her letters to children she would never let on that things were less than perfect.

And yet, bad things happened in her life. Her father left at a young age. She had two husbands, the first possibly having cheated on her. She had a miscarriage.

There are all sorts of criticisms levelled at her too. From personal ones about her skills or lack thereof as a mother and her attitudes to race and women, to criticisms over her ‘overly simplistic’ use of language in her books. Her books were even banned from certain schools and libraries at various points. Even today many articles and reviews give praise with one hand and insults with the other.

In my library’s secondary stock (a huge room just filled with the most amazing stuff) there is a small staff library containing books about books. There are several about children’s books and children’s reading habits, some of which include Enid Blyton so I thought I’d have a look and see what they had to say about her.

The extracts below form more or less the whole article on Enid Blyton, taken from The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature compiled and edited by Brian Doyle, first published by Hugh Evelyn in 2918. The copy I have here is a 1971 reprint, so published after Enid’s death while the first edition has a foreword dated March 1968.

Blyton, Enid

Despite having her as Born c. 1900 the other information about her youth is succinctly  accurate. Her intention to have a career in music, and her first published works in children’s magazines are mentioned, as is her switch to teaching in some detail.

Born c. 1900, in Dulwich, London. Originally intended to make music her career, becoming an accomplished pianist and singer at an early age. She had always loved writing, however, and her first published work was a poem in one of Arthur Mee’s children’s magazines, which appeared when she was fourteen. A second poem later appeared in Nash’s Magazine. At eighteen, when she was preparing to sit for her L.R.A.M examination and enter the Guildhall School of Music in London, she decided to become a schoolteacher instead. The decision was hastened when she taught at Sunday School for a period and realised how much pleasure and satisfaction she found in teaching children and telling them stories. She wished to specialise in kindergarten work and studies for three year at a Froebel Institute. She subsequently entered the field of educational journalism and became Editor of Modern Teaching, Associate Editor of Pictorial Knowledge and part-author of Two Years in the Infants’ School.

I did know about her original intentions in music, but I never think of her as a singer.

Her early writing career is covered from her poetry to Sunny Stories to her early novels (I have omitted much of the rather long list of examples they gave from the quote below).

In 1923 she published her first book, Real Fairies, a collection of her own children’s verses. Around this period she was also contributing verses to Punch. She continued with her educational work and editing until the mid-‘thirties, when she began writing children’s stories prolifically. Soon she was writing and editing her own young children’s magazine, Sunny Stories, which was very successful and contained many serials and stories later to be published in book form. Among her earliest children’s books were The Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937) … and The Magic Faraway Tree (1943).

related post⇒ Real Fairies

After that we get to the whole reason I started this post – the controversy.

Since those early days, Enid Blyton has become a phenomenon, a legend – and sometimes a controversial figure – in the world of children’s books.

Before we get into the negatives, however, this book goes into great detail about how wonderful she is (writing in the current term, presumably unaware that she would die in the near future, and they clearly didn’t update this section for the reprint(s)). Again, I have omitted some examples of her series as they mentioned quite a few!

She is undoubtedly the most prolific and popular children’s author of all time. She has published around 400 books, of which over 200 are constantly in print, since the demand for her titles never slackens. Among her ‘series’ of books about popular characters are those featuring The Famous Five … The Six Cousins. Other series are the ‘Adventure’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Secret’ and ‘Family’ titles. All in addition to an enormous list of story-collections, nature-study books, religious subjects etc. Miss Blyton caters for all ages and tastes of juvenile readers and, as she once, said, likes to ‘take a child by the hand when he is three and walk with him all his childhood days’.

Also included are some fascinating facts and figures about her writing. I would love to know what those numbers are sitting at now, fifty years after her death.

She has also written over 200 ‘readers’ for schools. Her sales are vast: the ‘Noddy’ books have sold more than eleven million to date, and the ‘Famous Five’ titles total a sale of around three million in British editions alone. Miss Blyton has about twenty-five British publishers and around forty foreign ones. Her books are translated into practically every known language through-out the world, including Russian, and not forgetting Swahili, Hebrew, Indonesian, Tamil and Fijian. According to recently published official statistics, Enid Blyton comes third in the list of Britain’s most translated authors, being beaten only by Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare! In world-order she came twelfth with 399 translations of her works being published throughout the world – ahead of such writers of Dickens, Hans Anderson, Twain, Zola and Somerset Maugham.

And some last praise,

Enid Blyton has also written the successful London stage Christmas play Noddy in Toyland, another play for older children based on her ‘Famous Five’ books, and several films for the Children’s Film Foundation. For several years she wrote and edited her own Enid Blyton’s Magazine. She generously devotes much of her time to helping charitable organisations, particularly those benefiting children and animals, and has formed several ‘Clubs’ for her readers to join and help these organisations too.

Now for the controversy and criticisms, though there is no criticism from the book itself.

Certain educationalists, teachers and librarians tend to frown on Enid Blyton’s stories saying they are trivial, indifferently written and unimaginative among other things. Some public libraries in Britain have actually banned Blyton books from their shelves.  This is no place to enter into the controversy. Children of all ages read – and enjoy – Enid Blyton’s books all over the world, and the pleasure she brings them is reflected in the hundreds of spontaneously written letters she received every week from children.

And lastly it finishes with the ‘current’ details of her life.

Enid was married to the late Kenneth Darrell Waters, a retired surgeon who died in 1967, and has two grown-up daughters, Gillian and Imogen. The family home is at ‘Green Hedges’ (an address well known to readers of Miss Blyton’s numerous editorial chats and forewords), a beautiful country house in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

Family home is probably just a turn-of-phrase because this point Gillian and Imogen had their own family homes, and Enid was alone at Green Hedges being cared for by staff, though her daughters visited a great deal and did all they could to help her.

It’s funny to think of Green Hedges as a country house as I visited the site a few years back and it is now firmly suburban.

related post⇒ Beaconsfield, Bekonscot, Blyton Close and a little bit of Bourne End


My thoughts

I don’t think I’ve read many professionally published articles (there are many wonderful things published on personal blogs, etc) which are both wholly positive and full of accurate detail. I will forgive the year of birth as perhaps it wasn’t as well known then, given that it wasn’t Googleable. Interestingly my own library’s catalogue has at least one entry reading Blyton, Enid ?1898. Of course she was born in 1897, but apparently this is not an obvious detail.

I appreciated the mentioned controversies and criticisms being gently rebuffed with more positive comments without it getting too bogged down in an argumentative tone.

There are a few thing missing, such as her first husband Hugh Pollock, her time at Elfin Cottage and Old Thatch. Her rocky relationship with her mother, and the importance of her father to her, before he left the family is also missing. Saying that, this piece is already one of the longer ones from the book, at nearly 850 words and I don’t suppose they could have included everything even if it was known. Barbara Stoney’s biography didn’t come out until 1974, and Imogen Smallwood’s book is from 1989, so at the end of Enid’s life these facts may not have been public knowledge.

They provide two sources for their article –

Enid Blyton: A Complete List of Books, an illustrated catalogue (with a foreword by Enid Blyton) of her books in print, issued by John Menzies, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1956.

ENID BLYTON, The Story of my life, Pitkins, London, n.d. (c. 1957)

The second, I have, and it’s a lovely book but aimed firmly at children thus glosses over anything unpleasant, while the first sounds very interesting particularly the illustrated part and the foreword by Enid herself.

Some other authors

I feel it’s an injustice to this book not to mention any of the rest of it.

It covers around three hundred authors from Aesop to Wildsmith, Brian. The foreword specifically mentions that most other guides to children’s literature miss out the most popular and famous writers, including Enid Blyton.

I recognise many names such as Noel Streatfeild, Richmal Crompton, Lewis Carroll, Mary Norton, Elinor Mary Brent-Dyer (who incidentally gets five sentences despite writing 57 Chalet School books), Eric Leyland, Malcolm Saville and Dr Seuss, just for a few examples. There are also a great many I don’t recognise.

related post⇒ If you like Blyton: The Lone Pine Series by Malcolm Saville

I have dipped in and out reading bits and pieces about authors I know and don’t. I didn’t know that Mary Norton was an actress before she was a writer, for example.

There are some illustrations included, examples from various works mentioned as well as some photographs of the authors. Enid Blyton appears on one page, along with five of her contemporaries.

As I said, I’ve only dipped into this book but from what I’ve read it has all been positive. It’s a celebration of children’s authors, not a critical analysis of them or their works.


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