Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Enid Blyton Story, by Gillian E Hamer

Following on from our Children's/YA theme in the June 2011 issue, a piece on Enid Blyton ...

Ask many of today’s writers who their childhood writing heroes were and I’d like to bet the majority will name Enid Blyton in their top three. Whether it was my personal favourite, The Famous Five, or The Secret Seven, Mallory Towers … or even the wonderful Noddy books … there was something in this author’s work that captivated children for generations in a way no one has been able to replicate until the recent phenomena of JK Rowling and Harry Potter.

But in the style of many authors of her day, very little is known about the vehemently private person. She was born in Beckenham, South London, on August 11th 1897, the eldest of three children, to Thomas and Theresa Blyton. Enid had a lonely and relatively unhappy childhood, as her parents separated in 1910 when she was aged only thirteen.

Enid showed creative talents from an early age. From her earliest childhood she had been schooled in the belief that she would eventually be a musician. However, she had also developed a love of poetry, and had started to send stories, articles and poems to various periodicals. Although a talented pianist, her writing successes convinced Enid to give up her budding musical career, and in 1916 she enrolled on a teacher-training course in attempt to develop her literary skills further.

She trained successfully as a governess and had several posts around the Surrey area, before opening her own infants’ school. Throughout her years in teaching she continued to achieve success with her children’s writing. When the literary commitments increased, Enid decided to devote herself entirely to writing.

Her first book, Child Whispers, a collection of verse, was published in 1922. This short, twenty four-page work was quickly followed by Real Fairies: Poems (1923), Responsive Singing Games (1923), The Enid Blyton Book of Fairies (1924), Songs of Gladness (1924) and The Zoo Book (1924). Enid produced work of publishable quality at an amazing rate. She could write 10,000 – 12,000 words a day when on a project. She later confessed that she could write a complete Noddy book in two days, and a Famous Five book in only four!

Between 1922 and 1937 her growing output of books, mainly for younger children, included stories, plays, poems, nature books, folk and classic tales retold, bible stories and school readers. Her first longer books for older children, Mr. Galliano’s Circus and The Secret Island were published in 1938.

Over the next six years almost all of her major series were begun, including Noddy and The Secret Seven. The Secret Seven series was written about a group of real life children who started their own secret seven society. One of the children’s fathers was a publishing agent who knew Enid, and asked her to write a story about their escapades. This she did with The Secrets of the Old Mill.

By the outbreak of World War II, Enid Blyton had become a household name. As such Enid’s publishers managed to bypass the war time publishing restrictions and get her work into print by ruling them in the field of juvenile literature. In 1940 eleven books were published under her own name, and two under her pseudonym name of Mary Pollack.

Along with continuing to produce novels at an alarming rate, Enid set up her own magazine named after herself in 1953. The main object of the magazine was to help young spastic children and a special centre in London. It gave regular news for sponsored clubs, and set up The Famous Five Club along the way. There must be many people, myself included, who had a ‘secret club’ during their own childhood – based on the adventures of Anne, Dick, Julian, George and Timmy the dog!

In 1949 Blyton published Little Noddy Goes to Toyland, the first tale of a little toy man who ended up in all kinds of scrapes and seeks help from his Toyland friends. Its sales more than exceeded expectations. Other Noddy books of various types and sizes followed in rapid succession. The series also produced a play, a film and many years later a popular television series. ‘Noddy’ became a household name and the subject of music hall jokes and sketches.

The 1950’s were a more difficult decade for Blyton, as her work came under constant attack by critics and librarians. Many libraries imposed sanctions on her work because of what they considered its limited vocabulary. They labelled her characters as ‘mean and class biased’, with the main target for the anti-Blyton brigade being Noddy who they called ‘the most egocentric, joyless, snivelling and pious anti-hero in the history of British fiction.’ Luckily the majority of the readership did not agree. Noddy was loved from countries as far afield as France (known as Oui Oui) to China (known as No-di or little brother). By the end of the 1950’s Blyton was one of the four most read authors in the world.

Rumours were also spread that Blyton did not write all her own work – probably due to the speed with which she produced her novels. Her furious reaction to the debate sparked a heated public debate on the extent with which children’s reading should be controlled. And she refuted the allegations of sexism and outdated attitudes, by pointing out her books overwhelming popularity despite continued boycotting of her work.

The ‘banning’ did not last long and has probably been exaggerated. In recent years Blyton’s ability to encourage children’s reading has been widely recognised. Today well over 300 Blyton titles were still in print and have been translated into over 40 languages, selling over 400 million copies to date throughout the world. In total she wrote over 700 books and 10,000 short stories all aimed for the children’s market.

Enid continued to write until the mid-1960’s but due to a mental illness, she became confused and found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on her writing, and she passed away peacefully in her sleep on November 25th 1968 in a Hampstead nursing home.

The legacy that she left behind is one that has captivated children of all ages for generations. Even now more than forty years after her death more than 10 million of her books are sold every year. Psychologist Michael Woods once commented on one of the reasons for her success as ‘She was a child, she thought as a child and she wrote as a child.’

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