Enid Blyton Broke my Heart

As a rather gauche and bookish kid, growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Enid Blyton was my Saturday best friend. I would take my pocket money to T & G Allan’s in North Shields and choose a new paperback. I drove my dad to distraction by having it half-finished by the time we got home.

In my head, I was an honorary member of the Secret Seven and later the Five Find-Outers (and Dog). That was before I mentally left home to attend St Clare’s and Malory Towers boarding schools, of course, where they played games and ate foods I didn’t even know how to pronounce.

At the time, I sensed that my mother and teachers thought reading Enid Blyton was not much of a progression from reading The Bunty comic, but I didn’t understand why. At least, not until I started to read one of Blyton’s works to my own daughter.

I’d so much looked forward to this moment. I chose The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage from the complete set on my bookshelves, excited to see my daughter fall for the charms of Fatty and Buster and discover the world that occupied so much of my imagination at a similar age.

And that’s when Enid broke my heart.

I won’t dwell on the way I found myself editing the racism, the sexism and the class snobbery as I went along. They were, after all, written in a different time, not that I believe this excuses the attitudes.

But what really shocked me was this: the discovery that the stories are all the same, churned out to a formula, with two-dimensional characters and repetitive plot lines. I was even more horrified to find the prose was so clumsy it was hard to read aloud, even if you ignore the way I skimmed ahead to make sure I wasn’t about to utter something offensive.
I mentioned this on an OCA forum and found myself the subject of a polite but firm backlash. (It’s a good job I didn’t say it on twitter – I’d probably have had to move house by now). But I stand by my opinion.

It doesn’t matter that these were written in another era: so too were Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and the children’s novels of Penelope Lively, and they don’t make a reader wince today.

So what if lots of uncritical – and limited for choice – kids loved them, 50 years ago? True literature stands the test of time. Today’s young readers are not turning to Blyton anymore, because there is now a wonderful choice of thoughtful, inventive work in what is surely a new golden age for children’s writing.

I’ve been accused of reading her ‘as a writer’. But when my eldest daughter was young, in the mid-1980s, I had no presumption that I would write my own children’s stories for publication and I certainly hadn’t studied the craft of writing. I just wanted my girl to love the stories as I had and I expected to love them all over again. So thanks for the memories, Enid – but I won’t be picking your books up any more.

Ever gone back to a much-loved book and found it disappointing?

Barbara Henderson. OCA Tutor and Assessor

7 Comments

  1. Carlie 16 July 2015 at 10:30 am

    You’re absolutely right! Whilst I loved Blyton in every way and the Magic Faraway Tree will always be my first paper love, reading it out loud these days is hard to do without laughing. I still respect the memories though. But if I ever have children, I’ll be reading the likes of Harry Potter and Philip Pullman to them 🙂

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  2. Kirsten 16 July 2015 at 5:12 pm

    I agree with Carlie in that I respect the memories. My mother expressed her concerns to a school teacher friend who said as long as Enid Blyton encouraged my love of reading she shouldn’t worry. I can categorically say EB did just that. It’s just a shame that rereading those stories of adventure that inspired many childhood games are such a disappointment and best kept in childhood memories.

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  3. Jane Edmonds 20 July 2015 at 11:21 am

    I re-read Hemingway’s ‘Fiesta: The Sun also rises’, and also ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. It was interesting to see that his technique was still in the making in the former. Some of the attitudes were very dismissive of Jews and the ‘n’ word figures quite casually. But mostly it was the style of Fiesta, which struggled, but which is finally brilliant in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.

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  4. johnsonyvonne3 20 July 2015 at 12:41 pm

    I too loved Enid Blyton stories. My first book was The Enchanted Wood, I was absolutely lost in another world,totally engrossed with entering the wood and the Faraway tree, that was so magical, I must admit my Grandaughter would insist on the video collection of the magic chair, still with the magical feel of going up the faraway tree to faraway lands and the charactors on the way up the tree, what an imagination. I did learn later in life,via a tv programme about her life, that she had parties at her home for children and never let her own children attend, and the fact that she wasn’t a nice person in real life. I was astounded at that programme. But her stories will remain to be the start of my love of books.

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  5. liz cashdan 22 July 2015 at 3:36 pm

    I’m with you on Enid Blyton every inch of the way, Barbara. I struggled hard to stop my kids reading her, both my own and the ones I taught. Her weak writing and characterisation cannot be excused and neither can her sexism and racism. And Carlie, stick to Philip Pullman – J.K.Rowling is simply a modern Enid Blyton writ large!

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  6. crazee1adyJan 22 July 2015 at 8:10 pm

    I too loved many of her books: The Secret 7, Famous Five, the Barney Mysteries, The Adventure Stories and of course Mallory Towers. I never was so keen on the younger style books. I also had the opportunity to re-read one of the Famous 5 novels recently and wanted to slap Anne hard….wanted her to be less of the girly homemaker etc. I agree they have not aged well but I still love the adventures, characters and thank her introducing all those adventures and imaginings to me and for my passion for reading. On a separate note I love Scooby-Doo and you can’t get more formulaic than that!

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  7. Cathy B 23 July 2015 at 5:38 pm

    I think what I loved about the stories – and I particularly liked the Famous Five, all of which I had read (rather than had read to me) by the time I was 7 – was in part the formulaic element. There was no character development; once you had met Julian, Dick George and Anne (and Uncle Quentin) in the pages of the first book, their responses to any situation were always the same. One might compare them to the work of Georgette Heyer or Agatha Christie – you know exactly what you are getting, so the fun lies in the variety of “adventures” and anticipating how they will foil the baddies. Also, they are all (even Anne) portrayed as fairly resourceful (their list of what to take on a camping trip pretty much still holds up, apart from potted/tinned meat..), so there is a resonance for a child just starting to explore their own independence. I even wrote my own FF book, aged 7, when I went to “big school” – about George doing the same thing, which must have been part of making sense of it.
    So even though they may disappoint an adult revisiting, many lifelong readers or wordsmiths of my vintage owe something to Ms Blyton (and yes, I loved Scooby too!)

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