The Enid Blyton exhibition, Magic, Mystery and Midnight Feasts, at Scarborough Art gallery is fascinating. There are photographs, books, toys, letters, plenty for those like me who read her books years ago to enjoy and plenty of interactive play things for todays tots to have fun with. It’s the first major exhibition that there has ever been about her and it is in a small provincial gallery, a fact which is very telling. In her heyday Enid Blyton was hugely popular and the young woman at the ticket desk said that it had been a busy exhibition and the museum would be sorry to see it go. Her work rate was phenomenal- so much so that she liked to produce her typescripts as proof of authorship to people who doubted that one person could write so much. Unless it was a school story when she needed to keep track of characters as they moved up through the school years she never wrote notes. It all poured out onto a manual typewriter sitting on her desk or her knee.
She understood in a way that no children’s writer had done before her how important it was to build a connection with her young readers. Any of them who wrote to her would receive a hand written reply- a big commitment in the days before social media- and there were competitions and invitations to teas at her home, Green Hedges.
She took her commitment to her young readers very seriously. It was a very carefully managed public persona and it worked. Games, toys and books were marketed. Even her signature became a familiar logo which is still used. This is all commonplace today but back then it was very unusual for anything much to be known about an author outside the content of their books. Childhood reading was a private, solitary activity and authors were just names. Enid Blyton broke through that. She understood how powerful it was for readers to feel that they were being allowed into her world in just the same way that JK Rowling does today. All very cosy- she doesn’t sound like a controversial character but she was. She was disliked by teachers and librarians and eventually her books were banned, but nothing could stop children reading them. I will be kind and say that she was a woman of her time but plenty of people have examined the attitudes displayed in her prose and said much worse. Her books have proved lastingly popular- while not as omnipresent as they were- but they need careful editing before they are acceptable today. Here is an extract from Last Term at Malory Towers as a quite gentle way of showing what I mean without getting into accusations of racism or snobbery. I picked up the book in the exhibition and it took me seconds to find what I needed.
“Clarissa said she wished you would do it again, when she was looking” said Suzanne in French. “We would like to see it done. Me also I would like it very much. We are too big and old and prudent to do tricks- but we do not mind watching you!”
This was very naughty of Suzanne. No sixth-former would be silly enough to encourage the younger ones to come and play tricks in their room as much as they liked- which is what Suzanne was telling them to do! But Suzanne was French. She hadn’t quite the same ideas of responsibility that the British girls had.
It’s a very strong, moralistic authorial voice which I find unpleasant now but when I was very young I lapped it up along with everybody else. She had a way of making her readers feel grown up and important which was very flattering. You got to know her, even if you were never one of the lucky ones who got to visit Green Hedges. Her stories were exciting. There were girls who stood up for themselves, schools which allowed the pupils to bring their ponies with them, children who could outwit policemen, brave dogs, spooky islands and secrets. Her style was sometimes clunky- she did write very fast- but you were more interested in what was happening on the page. Her attitudes were never questioned because the stories pulled you along with them and your limited experience of the world allowed you to take them at face value. Enid Blyton was a nice smiley author who loved everybody who read her books so she had to be all right and you knew exactly what to expect from her.
I left feeling quite sorry that this was the first exhibition devoted to someone who was such a major figure in so many children’s lives but also quite glad that nobody had mentioned the golliwogs. Some things are best left in the past and perhaps Enid Blyton is one of them.