One of the most popular British 20th century children’s authors, Enid Blyton’s relationship with her own children was, to put it mildly, strained. Blyton was a prodigious author: Wikipedia lists a total of 762 published works written by Blyton.
Although she is best remembered today for her children’s fictional writing, particularly The Famous Five, Noddy, and The Secret Seven, Blyton, who initially faced rejection by publishers and trained as a teacher, first gained recognition in the 1920s and 30s for her poetry and educational writing.
Blyton had what was for the time a fairly conventional English middle-class upbringing. She was the eldest of three children born in London to a cutlery salesman and his wife. She was very close to her father, who passed on to her his love of nature, gardening, literature and the like. However, she had a poor relationship with her mother and was devastated when her father left the family for another woman not long after she turned thirteen. Her mother never supported her interest in writing, and Blyton didn’t attend either parent’s funeral.
It was during the 1930s and 40s the Blyton came into her own as a children’s writer. One of her first enduring successes was with the Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937), while the first book in the Famous Five series, Five on a Treasure Island was published in 1942. Many of Blyton’s books follow a predictable formula: a group of children, usually four or five with at least two girls, encounter some form of criminal activity, typically while on holiday with what today seems like a worrying lack of adult supervision. Rather than take their suspicions to the police or some other responsible adult they manage to solve the crime themselves. Jolly good.
‘Formulaic’ is actually one of the mildest accusations levelled against Blyton, who is also accused of being racist, sexist, xenophobic, elitist, and producing works of poor quality, with limited vocabulary and literary merit, which were behind the times even in the 1950s. Which is really a rather impressive list of criticism.
It’s also a list which has done nothing to diminish her popularity. I still have all the Famous Five books in a box in my mother’s garage. Her works have been translated into almost ninety languages and have sold over 600 million copies. Many of them remain in print today. Blyton was also a supporter of charities supporting children and animals, and believed in encouraging her readers to develop a strong moral framework and a commitment to helping others.
Her personal life was troubled. She had two children, Gillian and Imogen, by her first husband, High Pollock, but he (possibly affected by PTSD following his WWI service), developed a drinking habit and, in an echo of her father’s desertion, left Blyton for another woman. Blyton reacted by having a string of affairs, which would have destroyed her career if they had become public at the time, and, following her divorce from Pollock in 1942, prevented him from seeing their daughters, and may also have conspired to ruin his career. She remarried in 1943, to Kenneth Darrell Waters, a doctor, but lost their only child when she fell from a ladder while five months pregnant.
Blyton’s health deteriorated in the 1960s, and she developed dementia – a cruel blow for a woman who had lived so much by her intellect. Darrell Waters died in 1967, and Blyton passed away on 28th November 1968. She was 71 years old.
Blyton’s work is controversial, but my love for her books remains a guilty pleasure and a part of me will forever wish that I could have joined Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and Timmy the dog on their gloriously unsupervised adventures in the English countryside. What about you?