I’m sure that few Enid Blyton fans have missed the furore over the past week about English Heritage’s website update regarding Enid Blyton. I have seen countless online newspaper articles, individual’s posts and comments and it’s on a couple of forums I frequent, too.
Has Blyton been cancelled?
Well, if you read some of the headlines – and the commentaries that go with them on social media – you’d believe that yes, Blyton was being cancelled and her blue plaque removed (She actually has several blue plaques that I’m aware of but it seems only one was placed by English Heritage).
Have a look at these two Facebook posts, from the Daily Express and Daily Mail, respectively. While both, I suspect, are employing hyperbole (the first with Five Get Cancelled is obviously a joke on some level), these are just two examples I could find doing a quick search on Facebook. I saw dozens of posts like like these last week, some using careful language about English Heritage reviewing blue plaques to suggest that Blyton’s might be removed.
(Incidentally the Daily Express article has inexplicably chosen an illustration from the Ruth Palmer cover of First Term at Malory Towers to go along with their Famous Five-based joke.)
What these posts have done is whipped up a massive defence of Blyton. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, I mean, I frequently defend her myself, these comments seem to use words like woke and snowflake in every other sentence, along with cries of I read Blyton’s books and I didn’t turn out to be a racist.
I’m normally proud to be a part of the world-wide Enid Blyton fan club. But this week… I can’t help feeling that people are missing the point.
So what has really happened?
According to English Heritage, last year they started
an on-going programme of updating the online entry for each blue plaque recipient… includ[ing] actor and playwright Noël Coward and the social reformer Annie Besant. Our website entries aim to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects that people may find troubling.
Without having seen the original versions of these pages it’s hard to know what has been added. Noel Coward’s page doesn’t contain anything critical but Annie Besant’s page does call her controversial and talks about her stance on birth control and abortion – along with a quote that more or less accuses her of supporting eugenics.
Last week it was Blyton’s turn, and they added two paragraphs under the heading Racism in Blyton’s work. Those paragraphs are as follows:
Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit. A 1966 Guardian article noted the racism of The Little Black Doll (1966), in which the doll of the title, Sambo, is only accepted by his owner once his ‘ugly black face’ is washed ‘clean’ by rain. In 1960 the publisher Macmillan refused to publish her story The Mystery That Never Was for what it called its ‘faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia’. The book, however, was later published by William Collins.
In 2016, Blyton was rejected by the Royal Mint for commemoration on a 50p coin because, the advisory committee minutes record, she was ‘a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer’. Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read.
They have also made it clear that they are not removing anyone’s plaques.
Are English Heritage the bad guys?
I’ll admit – I wish that English Heritage had done this a little differently. Blyton only has a short bio as it is (425 words) and now around a third (130 words) are negative.
Annie Besant, arguably a more complicated character, has just over 800 words. The majority is in very neutral language – including the controversies, with just a few phrases identifying her as controversial.
The addition of two critical paragraphs to Blyton’s page is clumsy, I think. To give a page with only two previous headings (The foundations of my success, and Early Inspiration) a third which is Racism in Blyton’s Work gives an undue level of prominence to the criticism in that final section. Blyton had a phenomenal writing career, multiple TV adaptations of her work, headed up dozens of charities, wrote teaching guides, poetry, songs and stories and is still relevant today, not that you’d know that from what English Heritage has to say about her. I think I’d find their page lacking even without the last two paragraphs.
To be clear, I’m not saying this information shouldn’t have been included – I actually think there is nothing wrong with highlighting the problematic areas of Blyton’s writing.
I think that what English Heritage wrote is fair. They do not actually call Blyton racist or xenophobic themselves, instead they quote from other sources who have made those criticism. Of course by repeating them the way they have they imply that these are not unfounded criticisms and are criticisms that are accepted by English Heritage.
The last sentence Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read clearly attempts to balance out the criticism but it’s rather weak for me.
Over all, though, I have no issue with this information being included. I also don’t object to minor updates to the books to make remove offensive content where race is concerned. I think that allowing children of colour to pick up a book and read it without seeing a racist caricature of themselves, however innocently meant, is more important than preserving the original language and illustrations in perpetuity. (Obviously the vast majority of updates to Blytons’ books don’t fall into that category and remain frustrating and pointless).
I also don’t think there’s anything to gain by pretending that these problematic bits don’t exist, or that any and all objections are unfounded.
So, was Enid Blyton a racist?
Enid Blyton is not here today to defend herself or to tell us what she was thinking when she wrote her books.
What we do know is that she valued her child readers all around the world and made mention of this many times in her magazines.
We know that she included positive (if sometimes stereotypical) characters of colour in her books.
We know that she used popular toys of the day which included Golliwogs.
So was she racist? Well, of course I prefer to think that she wasn’t – not really. I think that she was a product of her time. She lived in an era when Britain dominated a significant proportion of the world with colonies were spread across the globe, a fact that made it easy for white British people have a false sense of superiority over people from other countries.
Blyton subscribed to this belief at least on some level, there is a divide in expected behaviours between her English school girls and teachers compared to her French ones (the three Mam’zelles between Malory Tower and St Clare’s, Antoinette and Claudine from St Clare’s), the Americans (The Hennings in Five Go to Finniston Farm and Zerelda Brass from Malory Towers) and the Spanish (Carlotta Brown from St Clare’s), and some of these young women did buck up and learn to behave in accordance with British expectations. I never sensed any malice with these scenarios, however. Blyton certainly shows none of the attitudes unfortunately prevalent today about immigrants taking British jobs and houses, or being benefit scroungers.
However she did use the fact that a person could look suspicious purely because they were foreign and her baddies were, on several occasions, swarthy. (As a child I didn’t know what that word meant and assumed it to mean well-built). Given the various wars that Britain was involved in in the periods before and during Blyton’s life foreigners were often given a second look.
This is something that hasn’t gone away even now. It’s disheartening to read that Chinese (and other Asian people) are being abused in the streets because of Coronavirus, or that Muslim communities are attacked for the actions of a militant minority. We shouldn’t be defending these attitudes, and I don’t object to reprints phasing out the more obvious xenophobia that appears, but some understanding of the period of Blyton’s writing is needed.
Blyton is not being cancelled. A large number of her books are still in print and her multiple blue plaques are still in place. English Heritage have not suggested that reading Blyton books causes racism in readers, they’ve just acknowledged that they’re aware of the problems in her works.
I don’t think there’s any point in trying to cancel English Heritage and all the good work they do by refusing to renew or take out a membership over this. (It’s ironic that those who bemoan cancel culture are so quick to try to cancel the perceived offenders).
I won’t go into a lengthy story here but Brodie has started to take an interest in both Noddy stories and Amelia Jane stories (which he calls the naughty stories) and I’ve felt far more uncomfortable than I expected reading them to him from the original texts – primarily because of the gollies. I doubt that Blyton meant any offense with those, she perceived them to simply be beloved nursery toys, but today, I just can’t do it.
But it means that I’m feeling more aware of the problematic bits of Blyton’s writings which is probably why I’m taking a middle road here. I can see faults on both sides, but I will defend both Blyton and English Heritage as their positives outweigh their mistakes.
In defence of woke
This isn’t directly related to the situation above, but it’s something related that I felt I just had to say.
I despise the word woke used as an insult and the number of times I’ve seen it in response to English Heritage really frustrates me. Knowing better and doing better are never bad things. Being considerate of others – especially minorities who are striving for equality – is never a bad thing. Being woke is not a bad thing.
The idea of being woke, or awakened potentially goes as far back as Abraham Lincoln, when the phrase wide awake was used by those who opposed slavery.
From what I’ve read the first uses of woke specifically were by African-Americans as they talked about the prejudices they faced, but now it has developed a more general meaning of being aware of any sort of prejudice or inequality. By that standard the Suffragettes were woke and Martin Luthor King was definitely woke.
If the these people were woke, then I’m ok with being woke too.
In a similar vein snowflake, cancel culture, PC brigade and political correctness are just words and phrases used to try to shut down debate. 1900s equivalents were shouted at Emmeline Pankurst – the term Suffragette was actually a slur based on the original name Suffragist! – so it’s a good thing that those brave women didn’t listen.
Please keep any comments civil – I’ve made my feelings on words like woke perfectly clear and I will remove any comments where they are used as insults.