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Andrew Maunder, Enid Blyton, A Literary Life

Elizabeth West
Référence(s) :

Andrew Maunder, Enid Blyton, A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2021.

Notes de la rédaction

L'auteure anglaise Enid Blyton est bien connue en France pour ses séries best-sellers Le Club des Cinq, Le Clan des Sept et Oui-Oui (Hachette, 1955-présent). Or, en Angleterre, elle occupe une place à part et plutôt controversée dans le canon des écrivains pour la jeunesse. Souvent considérée comme emblématique d’une vision nostalgique de l’Angleterre rurale d’antan, son œuvre est aussi férocement dénoncée par les prescripteurs pour son racisme et son snobisme virulents. Mais elle perdure. Une nouvelle biographie littéraire de Blyton par Andrew Maunder tente de prendre la mesure de ce phénomène.
Pour la rédaction, Sophie Heywood.

Texte intégral

1Enid Blyton, A Literary Life is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of its longstanding Literary Lives series, which places influential writers within their historical, cultural and social contexts. That Enid Blyton has, over fifty five years since her death, achieved a place within this series is testament to the curious position she has occupied at the cusp of commercial and cultural conversations for three quarters of a century. The series professes to publish writers “both canonical and rediscovered”: whilst it might seem contradictory to lay claim to “rediscovering” an author who has remained in print, and a household name, not just in the UK but globally, for all these years, Maunder’s book certainly breaks new ground in its examination of a divisive, complex and essentially mysterious figure who has been hiding in plain sight for a long time.

2Maunder’s approach to his subject is thorough, systematic and thought-provoking. He combines biographical elements with in-depth literary analysis of Blyton’s writing, focussing particularly valuably on areas of her canon beyond her more well-known – and notorious – creations. He also, by contextualising her activities within the historical period in which she operated, provides a more nuanced portrait of a woman who has been perhaps too easily categorised as a racist snob. This is no hagiography though: Maunder provides a clear-sighted appraisal of the more problematic areas of Blyton’s legacy. Enid Blyton, A Literary Life makes excellent use of primary source material gleaned from Blyton’s correspondence and editorial files. The result is a fresh and convincing portrait of a woman whose signature might be instantly recognisable to generations of young readers, but who remains an enigmatic and contested figure.

3The book is usefully structured into chapters which, whilst tracing Blyton’s career in chronological order, explore the various facets of her life and work. This format works particularly well in illuminating quite how dispersed Blyton’s activities were across formats, genres and media, as well as positioning them within a wider cultural, historical context. The book’s introduction asssesses Blyton’s position in the 2020s: still a best-selling author (by 2019, total sales were estimated at “600 million”, p. 2), she continues to exercise a powerful hold over popular imagination. Maunder discusses her position as part of “Britain’s ‘natural myth’” (p. 2), and her seemingly inextricable link to a certain commercialised brand of British nostalgia, manifest in a set of commemorative Blyton postage stamps produced by the Post Office in 1997 and themed countryside holidays. There is, of course, another side to this “national treasure”: for many, Blyton is, at best, a symbol of a less diverse past, at worst, a racist. Additionally, as Maunder observes, fictional representations of Blyton, which draw from her own daughters’ memories, paint a picture of a “tyrant who could be ruthless and self serving” (p. 3).

  • 1 Alison Uttley (1884-1976) is best remembered for her Little Grey Rabbit series of children’s books, (...)
  • 2 See, for example, Peter Hunt, Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History, Oxford, Oxford Univers (...)

4The second chapter, “Blyton and the Critics”, grounds these discussions by providing a detailed assessment of the way in which academics and media commentators have approached Blyton and her career. It traces how Blyton’s reputation has changed over the years, from her iconic status at the height of her career in the 1940s and 50s, to the beginnings of dissent which gained momentum in the early 1960s. This movement was precipitated by attacks from teachers and librarians, amplified by media coverage and “helped create a picture of Blyton as a self-important, over-indulged figure who had been given free rein over children’s literature for long enough” (p. 22). Maunder provides plenty of examples to bring these arguments to life, and this counters the assumption that it was Blyton’s racism which was the focus of her detractors; rather was her lack of “grit” and “realism” which was the subject of most criticism (p. 23). As Maunder also observes, Blyton was also the subject of some irritation to her fellow authors due to her ubiquity and commercial success. Indeed, Alison Uttley’s dislike of Blyton is entertainingly glimpsed in vignettes positioned throughout the book.1 Maunder’s survey of the critical assessment of Blyton also covers the turn to a more favourable appraisal by well-known children’s literature academics in the 1990s, led by Peter Hunt and subsequently reinforced by the work of David Rudd and others.2 He also provides a useful overview of the various critical approaches taken, questioning the easy belief that Blyton’s work contains elements of autobiography: as he observes, “it is an assumption often made of female authors” (p. 29). Finally, this chapter also foregrounds the extensive use that Maunder has made of primary sources relating to Blyton, including her diaries and correspondence. Whilst much of this material deals with Blyton’s more mundane day to day life (golf and the card game bridge appear to be recurring entries), Maunder makes the most of these sources as a vital counterpoint to some of more fanciful mythology that has grown up around Blyton.

5Chapter three returns to Blyton’s early life and traces the beginnings of her career as a writer of short stories for children in the 1920s. Again, Maunder effectively positions Blyton within the context of post-World War I Britain: although the country was struggling economically, the book trade was booming and the developments in the education system and public libraries meant that there was increasing demand for popular fiction for readers of all ages. Maunder gives a fascinating insight into the career opportunities which presented themselves to aspiring writers during this period. One such opportunity, which Blyton seized, was a regular column in a journal called Teacher’s World, which was to provide a valuable training ground as well as a platform from which Blyton could exercise her views on a range of topics.

6By the end of the 1920s, Blyton had married her first husband, Hugh Pollock, and moved to a cottage in Buckinghamshire. Chapter Four explores the importance of Blyton’s home life to her developing career. As Maunder observes, home and family life is a recurring theme in Blyton’s work across a range of sub-genres, and the chapter gives an insight into her dual role as a prolific author and mother to two daughters. It is a fascinating and complex portrait of a woman who used carefully curated, but possibly less than accurate, aspects of her family life to contribute to the Blyton “brand”. This discussion is interestingly juxtaposed with a detailed case study of her successful series of circus-based novels, which began with Mr Galliano’s Circus in 1938. Maunder contextualises the circus setting of these books by outlining the particular popularity of circuses within “the cultural landscape” of this period (p. 103). In a fascinating example of the contradictory forces present within Blyton’s work, the case study illuminates the appeal of “an unconventional and alternative space” offered by the circus, which offers children freedom and the opportunity for creative self-expression, whilst still ensuring that there remained “great emphasis on brushing hair and cleaning teeth” (p. 107).

7Moving chronologically as well as thematically through Blyton’s career, chapter five focusses on the Second World War, opening with an extract from a letter written by Blyton to Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, full of praise for his diplomacy in joining with Germany, France and Italy to sign the Munich Treaty. When war ensued, Blyton’s contribution was to become “a reassuring voice to the nation’s children” (p. 114). Her magazine for children, Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories was selling “59 000” per issue in 1940 and, as Maunder points out, the number of children reading each copy would have been significantly higher. Blyton wrote the entire magazine, every week and maintained a resolutely up-beat tone throughout, encouraging children to write to her and share their own stories. Many of the books she subsequently published, including The Naughtiest Girl in the School and The Secret of Spiggy Holes were serialised in Sunny Stories, giving readers “the comforting sense of meeting up with old friends, as well as filling their need for spaces to escape to” (p. 116). Blyton’s extravagant output during the war was to have another effect however, and it certainly goes some way to explaining the antipathy she provoked amongst other authors writing during this period. Amidst unprecedented demand for reading material – from both adults and children – the effects of wartime paper shortages meant that publishers were forced to make pragmatic, commercial decisions about what books to publish – and, in the world of children’s publishing, more often than not, the choice was Blyton. Judged by publishers to be a reliably saleable author, her coverage grew ever wider, with titles spread across several publishing houses including but not limited to Hodder, William Collins and Newnes. This dominance of children’s publishing lists has been a familiar component of the mythology surrounding Blyton: what has been less discussed, and what Maunder rightly draws attention to, is a consideration of why publishers invested so heavily in her, beyond the obvious reason of her marketability: “Blyton was conscientious and punctual; she was willing to cut or extend stories as required; she did not ask for an advance and was never greedy about royalties (ten or twelve per cent), not least because she wanted children to be able to afford her books.” (p. 127) This is not a side of Blyton that has been much discussed hitherto.

8It is in chapter six that we encounter Blyton’s best known work; her adventure series which included The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. Maunder rightly admits that, in these, Blyton was not an innovator: her speciality was to rework popular genres to appeal to her young audience and reproduce variations on a theme ad infinitum. She described this very successful formula as “(G)ood, sound books, written in straightforward language with live characters in a first-rate story” (p. 142). Maunder’s discussion of these books centers particularly on the “celebration of Englishness” they represent (p. 144) and the contrast between Blyton’s uncomfortably xenophobic portrayal of other nationalities and her more “modern interest in gender identities” (p. 144). Maunder uses the example of The Island of Adventure in a particularly fascinating discussion of racism in Blyton’s writing. Whilst he acknowledges the historical context in which she was writing, he does not let her off the hook; the League of Coloured Peoples, for example, were active during this period in calling out “crude representation of black people in literature, media and film” (p. 158). Equally interesting, however, is the fact that Blyton was clearly not operating in isolation – her publishers were equally complicit, an obvious fact perhaps not as widely acknowledged as it might be. Maunder offers a rather chilling illustration of this: when Macmillan’s North American office suggested that The Island of Adventure “would go down especially well in the Southern States’, a box of books was promptly sent to Alabama schools” (p. 158).

9Chapters seven and eight focus on the post-war period, whilst also examining the impact of her second marriage to Kenneth Darrell Waters. There is also a fascinating analysis of one of Blyton’s less-known works, The Six Bad Boys, in which she exercises her views on juvenile delinquency and the breakdown of family values (the responsibility for which is laid firmly at the door of working mothers). Blyton herself continued her entrepreneurial activities, launching Enid Blyton’s Magazine in 1953. Not only did she write the entire content of the weekly magazine, but she also coordinated the three charitable clubs with which it was associated, including the Famous Five Club. Membership had reached 30 000 by the end of 1953. Whilst Maunder acknowledges that Blyton’s attempts at addressing what she saw as contemporary social problems could be construed as heavy-handed and – in the case of her vilification of other women – hypocritical, he also makes the point that her charitable activities, facilitated by her ability to mobilise her huge audience to contribute to the causes she promoted, did benefit many good causes.

10Blyton’s approach to gender is discussed in detail in chapter nine, opening with a look at the way in which her work was received by contemporary audiences. Maunder uses Blyton’s school stories, particularly those series set in St Clare’s and Malory Towers, to look more closely at her depiction of girls and “the female experience” (p. 208). It is, as one would expect, a typically complex and contradictory picture. On the one hand, Blyton can be read as a great proponent of girls’ education, yet, as has been discussed in previous chapters, her attitudes to working mothers was damning. Alongside a biographical discussion of the impact of Blyton’s own life experiences on her writing, and her approach to gender, Maunder also argues that it is important to place her work within its historical context and, certainly, debates about the role of women in the home and in the workplace were exercised throughout the post-war period. Maunder follows his discussion of the school stories with an analysis of another lesser-known work, a family story called House-at-the-Corner which he believes is one of her best. It is one of the greatest strengths of this study of Blyton that Maunder analyses such works with seriousness and rigour, in a way which makes the reader want to seek out the book described so clearly and read it for oneself: it is, according to Maunder: “gripping and insightful, tautly plotted but also multi-layered” (222).

11There is a wonderful phrase in chapter ten, a further exploration of Blyton’s work of the 1950s: “Mustering cheerfulness while being emotionally claustrophobic was, of course, what Enid Blyton did well” (p. 238) It summarises both Blyton’s raison d’être and the atmosphere of Britain in the 1950s. As her reign as the commercially most successful children’s author continued – she was, as The New York Times put it “a category all by herself” (p. 238) – her reach spreads to Europe and the British Commonwealth. However, as Maunder illustrates, she was also the subject of criticism, satire and even ridicule within the media. It is another example of the contradictions present within both her public and private personas: “she was a natural and likeable storyteller, a humourless moralist, a public-spirited citizen, a self-effacing celebrity, a greedy opportunist […]” (p. 242). The 1950s saw the creation of one of her most notorious characters, Noddy, and Maunder explores the rather strange world of Toyland, and its repercussions for Blyton’s reputation.

12Remaining with Noddy, chapter eleven moves into another, now less familiar, area of Blyton’s career: her work as a playwright, and her successful adaptation of Noddy for the West End stage in 1954. It enabled Blyton to extend her reach into yet another genre, in this case, pantomime. Noddy in Toyland was well-reviewed (even by the legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan) and became a fixture in the West End well into the 1960s. By this time, however, Blyton’s health was failing, and the book’s final chapter records how her output began to fall off. She died in a nursing home in 1968 and, although there was some news coverage, it did not garner the headlines that it might have done in earlier years. As Maunder observes, obituarists focused more on Blyton’s sales figures than her personality: even at that point she was an elusive figure, despite her high profile professionally.

13In assessing Blyton’s legacy, Maunder discusses the way in which her books sold, and continue to sell, in the years following her death. Notable too is the way in which her characters have been revisited in new stories including sequels to Malory Towers and the Secret Seven. Maunder also mentions Claude Voilier’s long-running Le Club des Cinq series, and I would have liked to have had more information about Blyton’s work in translation. Indeed, the only failing of the book is that it does not extend its focus to Blyton’s reception beyond Britain, although I acknowledge that this is a fascinating avenue of research which warrants a book all to itself. This was not part of Maunder’s remit, which was to provide a nuanced, contextualised and fair assessment of Blyton’s life and work, and which he has admirably achieved in this exceptionally well-researched, well-argued and very readable book.

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Notes

1 Alison Uttley (1884-1976) is best remembered for her Little Grey Rabbit series of children’s books, as well as her novel for older children, A Traveller in Time.

2 See, for example, Peter Hunt, Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995; David Rudd, Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature, London, Palgrave, 1995.

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Référence électronique

Elizabeth West, « Andrew Maunder, Enid Blyton, A Literary Life »Strenæ [En ligne], 22 | 2023, mis en ligne le 04 mai 2023, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/10181 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/strenae.10181

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Elizabeth West

Centre for Book Cultures and Publishing, University of Reading, Royaume-Uni

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