As a child, Meera Nair was hopelessly in love with the wholly unreal English childhood that Enid Blyton invented. As a grown-up, she’s thrilled with the series of events in the U.K. that are celebrating the once-out-of-favour author’s works.
As a 10-year-old growing up in Panaji, there was nothing I wanted more than to live at a boarding school. I literally begged my bewildered mother to ship me off. Over the course of countless afternoons spent under our cashew trees, I had finessed every last detail of my future: a brown tunic with an orange belt would be my uniform. My tuck box would burst with shortbread biscuits and almond fruit cake. My social life would be a giddy round of lacrosse matches and midnight feasts featuring potted meat. And, given my moral fibre and firm, generous leadership I’d rise to the exalted position of Head Girl in no time.
Looking back, I have no one to blame for those childhood fantasies but Enid Blyton. It was all Ms. Blyton’s fault that I grew up in love with the white, posh, wholly unreal English childhood that she invented. My obsession was all-consuming. On Sunday mornings I would walk to our lending library, my exasperated father steering me by my elbow, speed-reading the final pages of Famous Five Go Off in a Caravan or Fourth Form at Mallory Towers. Like an addict who lights up a new cigarette from the last one, I needed my fix, the next one in the series.
And like any addict, I was enabled by my friends. No one in Blyton’s books looked like us. Yet we all wanted to be them. We argued over who got to be Georgina, a.k.a George, the heroine of the Famous Five series. Ponder that image: Indian girls fighting to mimic a fictitious British girl who pretends to be a boy. Post-colonial trauma meets gender envy. That’s a Brit-Lit dissertation right there. In our avatars as George, Julian, Dick, Anne and Timmy the dog, we roamed our Goan red-mud version of the Cornish countryside, spying on poor Mr. Desai as he bought his bangda from the fish-wallah and skulked away in, what seemed to us, a thrillingly suspicious manner.
As an adult I still feel squeamish about how I let these offspring (albeit made-up) of our former colonial overlords hijack my childhood imagination. What did it say about me that my imaginary friends had been white Britishers who exclaimed, “Jolly good show,” at regular intervals?
Even more cringe-inducing, was the fact that I didn’t have a clue that Blyton had fallen out of favour in the U.K. Or that her books had been rejected from libraries and banished from schools. Even the BBC had banned Blyton as a “second-rater” and wondered why she hadn't “died of boredom” from her own “Pink-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm.” Phillip Pullman, the celebrated author of His Dark Materials, had dismissed her as a writer of stories that were “mechanically recovered, like mechanically recovered meat.”
The criticism didn’t stop at bad writing.
There were concerns about her “old fashioned xenophobia”. Critics contended that in Blyton-world, anything that got stolen was often nicked by “foreigners.” Americans were always loud and boorishly nouveau riche. French people had atrocious accents. Eastern Europeans were invariably sinister, but no more than the “swarthy” Gypsies. And it was perfectly okay for everyone, including the omniscient narrator, to make fun of them.
Lefty types called her a racist. As early as 1850, there were 40,000 Indians living in England and by the time Blyton started publishing in the 1920’s, brown students, nurses, shopkeepers, restaurateurs and nannies would have been hard to miss. But the dark people who got the most play in her writing were the Gollywogs — Gollie, Woggie and, umm....N*gger. And they were the ones who attacked Noddy, an upstanding citizen of Toyland, stole his car and left him naked in the road. Some fans argued she was a product of her era, but her publishers, perhaps with an eye to sales, were having none of it. The Gollywogs were replaced by teddy-bears. And references to thieving blacks and suspicious foreigners were purged.
The funny thing is, despite the bad press, Enid Blyton’s books have never been out of print. Her mind-boggling output of 600 novels and short stories, has been translated into 90 languages and have sold over 600 million copies. And continue to sell at an enviable clip (for an author who died in 1968) of eight million a year in the U.K. alone. She continues to attract children the world over from Malaysia to Australia to Africa, certainly every place the British once hung their sola-topees. The old Empire maybe defunct, but the sun hasn’t set on hers. In 2012, even as Harry Potter, assorted vampires and dire dystopias reigned supreme, Enid Blyton was the second most popular “classic” author borrowed in libraries in England. And in 2008, the Costa Award celebrated her as that nation’s best loved author.
Lately the pendulum has swung the other way and Blyton-bashing has turned into a full-fledged love fest. Last month, an exhibition opened in Newcastle called Mystery, Magic and Midnight Feasts: the Many Adventures of Enid Blyton. Kids can explore the Famous Fives’ Kirrin Castle, the Common Room at Mallory Towers, hide in the Secret Seven’s shed.
And in late June, Beaconsfield Village, where Blyton lived from 1938 until her death in 1968 will mark the 75th anniversary of her arrival. On its website, the festival boasts that it will have a full scale, working replica of Noddy’s car and show a film made by the BBC starring Helena Bonham Carter as Blyton, presumably on an endless loop. It’s ironic that even the BBC is climbing on to the Blyton bandwagon, without so much as a “Come back, all is forgiven!”
Last summer, my 12-year-old daughter A. discovered my collection of Blytons in a trunk on my mother’s farm in Kerala. Watching her race through them, I began wondering about the secret of Blyton’s deathless appeal. I think it’s because Blyton presents a childhood that is as much a fantasy to A. as Harry’s life at Hogwarts. In Blyton’s world, parents are either wholly absent or hover unseen like wraiths, only popping up once in a while to hand out a sandwich. Perhaps what attracts my modern, over-scheduled child is the uncomplicated world Blyton conjures — an utopia where kids are left alone to roam the cliffs of Cornwall and pack their summer hols with spying games, surprise picnics and midnight feasts; not Math Enrichment. Blyton’s children discover secret caves or hidden treasure, not the forbidden corners of the Internet.
Blyton’s world is simple and, even though set in a bygone Britain, familiar. Her characters are Jello-ed into easily identifiable moulds. George loves her dog and her island and nothing about her changes over the course of 21 books. Sensible Darrel gets older and wiser at Mallory Towers, but doesn’t discover boys or pimples or heartache. There are no surprises. No one’s parents get killed, a la Potter. The sun shines on, the surf rolls in, the dog happily licks everyone, the school bell rings right on time.
Even the language is straightforward. There are no extended descriptions, no complicated sentences to puzzle over, the dialogue is written to be read aloud — and underneath everything, beats the constant page-turning drum roll of the plot. There are no ambiguities to work through--the comforting authorial voice, all-knowing and parental, never fails to firmly state an opinion. The reader knows who is right and wrong, is told what to think.
Critics can quibble all they want about Blyton’s boring story-telling, but perhaps in these anxious times, where grievious harm is only a news cycle away, children need a haven. A sunlit happy place to linger in. Blyton gives them the safety of the familiar in book after book; after all Famous Five is just the Secret Seven recycled.
Watching A. curled shrimp-like around her Blyton, I knew she’d return soon enough to the moral conundrums of the Hunger Games. But for that moment she seemed happy, comforted by the promise that even the wildest of adventures would end in a scrumptious tea.
Meera Nair’s book for children, Maya Saves the Day, was published last month by Duckbill Books.
Contact the author @MeeraNairNY