The first proper book I ever read on my own was a 1956 reprint of ‘The Island of Adventure’ by Enid Blyton, that lived on a shelf in my Gran & Grandpa Barclay’s tiny living-room/dining-room, in their flat in Knightswood. I was about 2 when I first dragged it off the shelf and the only words I could recognise were ‘and’ and ‘the’, which was nowhere near enough to follow the plot, but the pictures were amazing. A parrot, kids in a boat, a furious adult hopping on one foot, cliffs, seagulls, dark passage ways, maps, a sinister adult with an eye-patch, a kid kicking a lamp, piles of money – I wanted to read the story more than anything in the world. Week after week, for months and months, every Sunday (our visiting day) I tried to decipher the words on the page and one glorious day it made sense : ‘Chapter one, The Beginning of Things, first sentence : It was really most extraordinary’. After that, since I could read the damn thing, I got to take it home where I read a chapter a day for 29 heart-stopping days. The book was every bit as exciting, exotic and wonderful as it had promised to be. I pestered and pestered to get more books and by the sheer luck of having a sister 10 years older than me there was an entire giant box of books in the attic (hundreds of Enid Blytons – with a few other authors – but none came close to Enid in numbers), and my Dad (moaning quite a bit) lugged the lot downstairs for me.
The first book I read from my magic box of attic books was ‘The Mystery of Banshee Towers’, the very last in Enid’s ‘Fatty and Five Find-Outers’ series of mystery stories. I adored it. I read every other find-outer book (they were all in the box), then I moved on to the school stories, ‘St Clare’s’, ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘the naughtiest Girl’ series (to this day I can remember how thrilled I was whenever a girl went down to the local shop to buy toffees and records, which they did as often as the famous five had lashings of ginger beer – oddly enough I never took to the Famous Five, apart from ‘Five go to Smuggler’s Top’, I didn’t manage to finish any of their books). I then took on the Circus series, the Faraway Tree and its sequels, Mr Pinkwhistle, The Three Golliwogs (in uncensored 1950s form), various sunny/toyland anthologies and my absolute favourite, which I acted out in the school playground for years afterwards, ‘The Land of Far Beyond’, a retelling of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.
At about the age of 10, I moved on. I didn’t re-read the books but, whenever she was insulted on a book programme (which was quite a lot in the 90s, when her reputation was being reassessed) I was pretty sure the insulters were wrong and her books were fantastic. Then on a whim, a few months ago, I picked up the ‘The Island of Adventure’ and it was dire. All the magic and adventure were resolutely missing. It also had a rather blunt, harsh tone I didn’t like, like being talked at by child hater who was doing her best to cover it up with sugar-sweet niceness (this is quite possibly what was happening).
I’m an adult who likes children’s books (arrested development!) so something was wrong. How could an author I adored so much be so bad?
Enid Blyton was born 1897 and always wanted to be a writer. Her mother disapproved of women having a career, her father nurtured her ambitions, but left the family home when she was eleven. Enid was distraught but the family pretended everything was fine. Denying all unpleasantness (to the point of cutting her first husband out of the lives of their two daughters forever, after she cheated on him with another man and divorced him) would be a habit for the rest of her life. In her teens she became deeply religious and considered joining the Catholic Church (its attitude to divorce would prevent her), she became a Sunday School teacher instead and her first successful stories (from her teens onwards her walls were papered with rejection slips) were religious in nature. The sugary, but clear tone of 1920s Christian writing would define her style. She believed that she wrote in a trance, she would sit down, think of an opening line, and then, without any research or prior thinking, would bash out the novel in a few weeks (and a short story in a couple of days).
Her books were best-sellers, but she was never approved of by teachers, or librarians or anyone who read a broadsheet. Part of it was snobbery, she was suburban and she wrote for a suburban audience. She didn’t attend fashionable parties, didn’t try to join the upper class, loathed abroad… her idea of heaven was her own home and the local golf club. First ‘Old Thatch’ and then ‘Green Hedges’ became iconic to her readers worldwide, as much part of her world as ‘Noddy’. She was accused of racism, but she was no more racist than any other writer of her generation. She didn’t go out of her way to be abusive to anyone who wasn’t English, but she didn’t know much about them, and never would. She was accused of being sexist, but again, she was no more than any other non-feminist writer of her generation. All her boys and girls were independent from adults, and mostly mucked along together the same way, even if they did say a girl should be like ‘x’ and a boy should be like ‘y’. It didn’t matter to the story. She was accused of being classist, but she wasn’t. Her books were nice. Having a nice home was nice. It wasn’t about looking down at children who had squalid homes, it was about not thinking about these things in the first place. She believed in escape. In thinking of the best, not the worst. All her work had to have a happy ending. I don’t think she could have coped with anything less.
She tried to write adult books, but none were acceptable. Her big failing as a writer, from which all accusations flow, is that she couldn’t write real people. She didn’t take the time to create them, she didn’t get out in the real world enough, she didn’t face her own demons. Her characters were defined by a physical characteristic (red hair, turned up nose, short…) and by a personality quirk (shouty, loves animals, clumsy…) and occasionally by a catchphrase (Lord love a duck… ). They can be in a rage, or in raptures, but none of it amounts to much. They were involved in endless incidents, crimes, misunderstandings, accidents; they sailed seas, climbed mountains, speeded in cars, had midnight feasts… but they learnt only the simplest of lessons. No one was hurt, or radically changed or deeply affected. Even for a children’s author this was thin stuff. Her genius was knowing, consciously or accidentally, that a child’s world is concrete. It’s here and now. It’s full of objects. Even the word on the page is an object to a child, it doesn’t need subtext, its fascinating enough. Once the child starts to look for a wider meaning, Enid is useless.
Her masterpiece is ‘The Land of Far Beyond’. It’s the only book of hers that holds up when read by an adult. It’s half forgotten, out of print, unappreciated. It’s ignored because it’s Christian, but that’s an injustice. Its allegory, of a disparate group of people being inspired by a kindly wanderer to leave the city of Turmoil and journey to the city of Happiness to meet the Prince of Peace, could be applied to any religion from Islam to Buddhism or could simply stand for negative emotions being turned into positive emotions with experience. Nothing is given its Christian name. Sins are physical burdens that need to be removed. Angels are wanderers. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Earth is turmoil. Heaven is happiness. The main characters are ordinary children and everyone they encounter is named after an internal or external obstacle they must overcome to reach their destination : Mr Scornful, Mr Doubt, Fancy, Despair and Dismay, Giant Cruelty and his page-boy Fright, Trickery, Bluff and Gamble, the marsh of dishonesty, the plains of weariness… The copy I read as a child is illustrated in a gorgeous medieval style by Harold Knowles, which adds to the power of the story. It’s a classic. There should be essays on it, and special editions. It should be up there with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Peter Pan’. Her imagination found its perfect subject. The characters don’t need to be real people, the pages are packed with all the personified, complex, emotions she couldn’t put in to her heroes or her villains, they go on the ultimate adventure, into our psyches, or our souls, our deepest needs and darkest flaws, the place Enid tried so hard to avoid.
Today her books still sell in the thousands, much to the bewilderment of most book-loving adults. Her detractors would rather see her as a dragon, an example of Britain’s nasty Imperial past, but one we can camp up and laugh at. Her house ‘Green Hedges’ was pulled down shortly after she died, and some would like to see this as a symbol of her defeat. A sad footnote. A sign that her success was built on sand. But the truth was her house was sold by her bloody awful business manager for a quick buck and would almost certainly have been made into a museum by anyone with some foresight.
Enid is a great children’s author. She deserves her place in literary history. Children benefit from reading her.
Adults – well – we should keep her books in a box. In the attic.