Enid Blyton has recently been accused of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and lack of literary merit. Well! After 70 years, an organization called English Heritage chooses to reappraise her works through the filter of the current value system. Not my circus, not my monkeys, except that I grew up loving her books in faraway India, and feel impelled to speak up.
Even if some of this harsh criticism were true, I would say her characters simply reflected the mores of those times, or at least what most ordinary people of that time might have agreed with. As someone who has read her books over and over as a child, and later as a mom, here’s my take.
Sexism: That Georgina of Famous Five wanted to be George was not hard to understand. Growing up with brothers who had more freedom, I could see the advantages of being a boy too! Cousin Anne preferred being protected to being free, so she was considered a normal girl, in keeping with patriarchal attitudes that, by the way, are still widely prevalent. Then there was the fiercely independent Henrietta, who went by Henry, in Five go to Mystery Moor, and the fearless Wilhelmina, who went by Bill, in Malory Towers. Wilhelmina didn’t want to be a boy, but growing up with seven brothers might’ve made her boyish.
Racism: There’s ambivalence towards the French in many of her books for sure. She often said that French kids did not have the ‘famous English sense of honour’ and, therefore, lied to get out of things like swimming and nature walks, but in the next breath she hastened to highlight their cleverness, artistic talent, sense of humour and forgiving nature. Actually, her ambivalence comes through more clearly in the characterisation of the various Mam’zelles.
She talked up the Irish, Scots and Welsh who were always frank, outspoken, dependable and righteous people, loyal to the idea of a united Britain, perhaps reflecting Enid Blyton’s own pride in the British Empire.
Circus folk in the Mr. Galliano’s circus series, Circus of Adventure and Five Have a Wonderful Time were multiracial and exotic and she gave them a wide berth when it came to bad manners, a lack of hygiene, lack of integrity, bad grammar (yes! like “didn’t ought to”), and other traits she disapproved of in civilized folks.
Americans were ‘large’ and hearty and addressed people as ‘Honey’. They longed to acquire an English accent. They had big cars and were rich and vain, but also generous.
Enid Blyton did try to balance the yin and yang of a lot of her characters!
However, Indians were caricatured, like Mr. Hohoha of Bong Castle, India, in the Mystery of Tallyho Cottage, or used as a simile to describe a sunburnt White person’s skin tone.
Xenophobia: No. In fact, she was careful to not ruffle international feathers and invented countries like Prince Paul’s Baronia (Spiggy Holes) and Prince Gussy’s Tauri-Hessia (Circus of Adventure) instead of setting villainous kidnappings and murders in real countries. Villains whose names sounded Spanish or German usually belonged to unnamed European countries, though she sometimes slipped up, like making Engler the villain an Austrian in the Mystery of Banshee Towers. But, frankly, nine out of ten criminals were White and British, so I won’t even make a representational list here.
Homophobia: There was hero-worship of older boys/girls by younger boys/girls certainly, but there was nothing sexual, not even the hint of a crush anywhere! Blushing was either due to shyness or because a bolder child had made public a secret talent or good deed of a timid one!
The slight snobbery of the upper middleclass Find-outers was obvious to me because I recognized it here too. They had a benevolent but faintly patronizing attitude towards the house help and the policeman’s nephew, Ern Goon. But the fact that the children were always trying to be fair in giving respect, praise and criticism registered subliminally. It did bring about a subtle positive change in how I interacted with people who worked for my family.
The Famous Five seemed to mix around with gypsies on equal terms though, but mostly because the gypsies were unscrupulous and dangerous. The Five came in contact with all sorts of lowlife but dealt with them with dignity, with Timmy the dog’s help, of course. Even the bickering and making up among them influenced me to behave better when my siblings and I squabbled.
The School stories derided snobbery and strongly advocated looking at the strength of a girl’s character and not her parents’ wealth or social standing. Character was a big deal, a common thread running through most of her books. That, and a sense of honour. Humility was much appreciated. Even gifted girls with musical or artistic abilities of a high standard were ‘taken down a peg’ if they thought too much of themselves.
What I’m saying is that I – and many of my generation – benefitted from Enid Blyton’s books, apart from truly enjoying her stories in the mystery, adventure and school genres. Younger children enjoyed the magic realism in The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree series, and fantasy in the Noddy (wooden boy who comes to life, like Pinocchio) and Mr. Pinkwhistle (half man, half brownie) series. I remember how much my sister loved Mr. Pinkwhistle and Mr. Meddle stories when she was in second grade.
There are two genres that I have not seen mentioned in any of the articles that have been in the media recently: Drama, and what could be called Documentary.
There are a whole lot of books, family dramas, from which I imbibed many good values as a girl. Being children’s books, the characters are necessarily black and white, but that doesn’t matter, as I realized during my multiple readings for each of my kids.
Each story deals beautifully and lovingly, but sensibly and firmly, with how families cope when bad luck befalls them and they are beset by difficulties; how they all pitch in and pull their weight; how each member contributes and grows from the experience. The stories deal with relationships and family dynamics, often including extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – and farm animals and pets too.
There is a strong emphasis on consequences of actions like lying, stealing, shirking responsibility, laziness, procrastination, carelessness, etc. Some books focus exclusively on the importance and value of friends. Issues of fairness, loyalty, trust, dependability and courage get spotlighted in these.
This is the list of family dramas that I read to my children, simply explaining anachronisms as I went along, like telling them that there used to be dolls called ‘gollywog’ a long time ago. In the welter of gnomes, goblins, fairies and elves, plus toys that came alive at night, I felt it was okay for the moment to not launch into details, given that children are naturally accepting of differences.
- The family at Red-Roofs
- Those dreadful children
- The children at Green Meadows
- Six cousins at Mistletoe farm
- Six cousins again
- The Put-em-rights
I had read a book by Enid Blyton called The Six Bad Boys when I was 11 years old. It was about neglected children ending up in a gang and getting in trouble with the police, then going through the Juvenile Court. I was deeply impacted – cried buckets – by this book because it is about kids with uncaring, irresponsible parents, something unexpected in Enid Blyton’s books, and something unexpected in my 11-year-old life. I wanted to buy a copy (as the one I had read was from a library that happened to shut down soon after) but it wasn’t available for years.
A few years ago I came across it in a bookstore and bought it. I read it again, as a parent this time. It’s a book that is still relevant, maybe even more so now, and I wish every parent would read it.
In Norse mythology the gods amused themselves by throwing objects at Baldr, the much-loved son of Odin, because he was not susceptible to harm. Loki the evil god handed a sprig of mistletoe to Höd the blind god to toss at Baldr. It was the only thing that could kill him. And it did.
Like Loki, the National Heritage people seem to be handing out sprigs of mistletoe in the shape of a bunch of modern –isms to the blind Höds among us who cannot see the joy Enid Blyton has given millions of children all over the world. Her books have been translated into 90 languages and sold 600million copies!
Do we really want interest in her books to die? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to use instances of her biases to learn and educate, so we don’t make the same mistakes? Or even better, pick up what is good and worth emulating in her characters? Surely, cancel culture is not the most effective use of history.