Enid Mary Blyton (11 August 1897 – 28 November 1968) has been among the world’s best-selling writers of children’s fiction since the 1930s, selling more than 600 million copies. Her books are still enormously popular, and have been translated into ninety languages; her first, Child Whispers, a 24-page collection of poems, was published in 1922. Blyton wrote on a wide range of topics including education, natural history, fantasy, mystery, and biblical narratives but is best remembered today for her Noddy, Famous Five, Secret Seven and Malory Towers series.
Following the commercial success of her early novels such as Adventures of the Wishing-Chair (1937) and The Enchanted Wood (1939), Blyton went on to build a literary empire, sometimes producing fifty books a year in addition to her prolific magazine and newspaper contributions. Her writing was unplanned and sprang largely from her unconscious mind; she typed her stories as events unfolded before her. The sheer volume of her work and the speed with which it was produced led to rumours that Blyton employed an army of ghost writers, a charge she vigorously denied.
Enid Blyton was born on 11 August 1897 in East Dulwich, South London, the oldest of the three children, to Thomas Carey Blyton (1870–1920), a cutlery salesman, and his wife Theresa Mary (née Harrison; 1874–1950). Enid’s younger brothers, Hanly (1899–1983) and Carey (1902–1976), were born after the family had moved to a semi-detached villa in Beckenham, then a village in Kent. A few months after her birth Enid almost died from whooping cough, but was nursed back to health by her father, whom she adored. Thomas Blyton ignited Enid’s interest in nature; in her autobiography she wrote that he “loved flowers and birds and wild animals, and knew more about them than anyone I had ever met”. He also passed on his interest in gardening, art, music, literature and the theatre, and the pair often went on nature walks, much to the disapproval of Enid’s mother, who showed little interest in her daughter’s pursuits. Enid was devastated when he left the family shortly after her thirteenth birthday to live with another woman. Enid and her mother did not have a good relationship, and she did not attend either of her parents’ funerals.
From 1907 to 1915 Blyton attended St Christopher’s School in Beckenham, where she enjoyed physical activities and became school tennis champion and captain of lacrosse. She was not so keen on all the academic subjects but excelled in writing, and in 1911 she entered Arthur Mee’s children’s poetry competition. Mee offered to print her verses, encouraging her to produce more. Blyton’s mother considered her efforts at writing to be a “waste of time and money”, but she was encouraged to persevere by Mabel Attenborough, the aunt of school friend Mary Potter.
Blyton’s father taught her to play the piano, which she mastered well enough for him to believe that she might follow in his sister’s footsteps and become a professional musician. Blyton considered enrolling at the Guildhall School of Music, but decided she was better suited to becoming a writer. After finishing school in 1915 as head girl, she moved out of the family home to live with her friend Mary Attenborough, before going to stay with George and Emily Hunt at Seckford Hall near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Seckford Hall, with its allegedly haunted room and secret passageway provided inspiration for her later writing. At Woodbridge Congregational Church Blyton met Ida Hunt, who taught at Ipswich High School, and suggested that she train as a teacher. Blyton was introduced to the children at the nursery school, and recognising her natural affinity with them she enrolled in a National Froebel Union teacher training course at the school in September 1916. By this time she had almost ceased contact with her family.
Blyton’s manuscripts had been rejected by publishers on many occasions, which only made her more determined to succeed: “it is partly the struggle that helps you so much, that gives you determination, character, self-reliance – all things that help in any profession or trade, and most certainly in writing”. In March 1916 her first poems were published in Nash’s Magazine. She completed her teacher training course in December 1918, and the following month obtained a teaching appointment at Bickley Park School, a small independent establishment for boys in Bickley, Kent. Two months later Blyton received a teaching certificate with distinctions in zoology and principles of education, 1st class in botany, geography, practice and history of education, child hygiene and class teaching and 2nd class in literature and elementary mathematics. In 1920 she moved to Southernhay in Hook Road Surbiton as nursery governess to the four sons of architect Horace Thompson and his wife Gertrude, with whom Blyton spent four happy years. Owing to a shortage of schools in the area her charges were soon joined by the children of neighbours, and a small school developed at the house.
In 1920 Blyton relocated to Chessington, and began writing in her spare time. The following year she won the Saturday Westminster Review writing competition with her essay “On the Popular Fallacy that to the Pure All Things are Pure”. Publications such as The Londoner, Home Weekly and The Bystander began to show an interest in her short stories and poems.
Blyton’s first book, Child Whispers, a 24-page collection of poems, was published in 1922. Also in that year Blyton began writing in annuals for Cassell and George Newnes, and her first piece of writing, “Peronel and his Pot of Glue”, was accepted for publication in Teachers’ World. Blyton’s educational texts were quite influential in the 1920s and ’30s, her most sizeable being the three-volume The Teacher’s Treasury (1926), the six-volume Modern Teaching (1928), the ten-volume Pictorial Knowledge (1930), and the four-volume Modern Teaching in the Infant School (1932).
In the 1930s Blyton developed an interest in writing stories related to various myths, including those of ancient Greece and Rome; The Knights of the Round Table, Tales of Ancient Greece and Tales of Robin Hood were published in 1930. The Adventures of Odysseus, Tales of the Ancient Greeks and Persians and Tales of the Romans followed in 1934.
New series: 1934–1948
The first of twenty-eight books in Blyton’s Old Thatch series, The Talking Teapot and Other Tales, was published in 1934, the same year as the first book in her Brer Rabbit series, Brer Rabbit Retold;[a] her first serial story and first full-length book, Adventures of the Wishing-Chair, followed in 1937. The Enchanted Wood, the first book in the Faraway Tree series, was published in 1939. These fantasy books typically involve children being transported into a magical world in which they meet fairies, goblins, elves, pixies and other mythological creatures.
Blyton’s first full-length adventure novel, The Secret Island, was published in 1938, and featured the characters of Jack, Mike, Peggy and Nora. Described by The Glasgow Herald as a “Robinson Crusoe-style adventure on an island in an English lake”, The Secret Island was a lifelong favourite of Blyton’s daughter Gillian, and spawned the Secret series. The following year Blyton released her first book in the Circus series and her initial book in the Amelia Jane series, Naughty Amelia Jane! According to Gillian the main character was based on a large handmade doll given to her by her mother on her third birthday.
During the 1940s Blyton became a prolific author, her success enhanced by her “marketing, publicity and branding that was far ahead of its time”. She published two books in 1940 – Three Boys and a Circus and Children of Kidillin – under the pseudonym of Mary Pollock (her middle name plus first married name), in addition to the eleven published under her own name that year. So popular were Pollock’s books that one reviewer was prompted to observe that “Enid Blyton had better look to her laurels”. But Blyton’s readers were not so easily deceived and many complained about the subterfuge to her and her publisher, with the result that all six books published under the name of Mary Pollock – two in 1940 and four in 1943 – were reissued under Blyton’s name.
Writing style and technique
Blyton worked in a wide range of fictional genres, from fairy tales to animal, nature, detective, mystery, and circus stories, but she often “blurred the boundaries” in her books, and encompassed a range of genres even in her short stories. In a 1958 article published in The Author, she wrote that there were a “dozen or more different types of stories for children”, and she had tried them all, but her favourites were those with a family at their centre.
In a letter to the psychologist Peter McKellar,[b] Blyton describes her writing technique:
I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee – I make my mind a blank and wait – and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind’s eye … The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don’t have to think of it – I don’t have to think of anything.
In another letter to McKellar Blyton describes how in just five days she wrote the 60,000-word book The River of Adventure, the eighth in her Adventure Series, by listening to what she referred to as her “under-mind”, which she contrasted with her “upper conscious mind”. Blyton was unwilling to conduct any research or planning before beginning work on a new book, which coupled with the lack of variety in her life[c] according to Druce almost inevitably presented the danger that she might unconsciously, and clearly did, plagiarise the books she had read, including her own.
From the 1930s to the 1950s the BBC operated a de facto ban on dramatising Blyton’s books for radio, considering her to be a “second-rater” whose work was without literary merit.[d] The children’s literary critic Margery Fisher likened Blyton’s books to “slow poison”, and Jean E. Sutcliffe of the BBC’s schools broadcast department wrote of Blyton’s ability to churn out “mediocre material”, noting that “her capacity to do so amounts to genius … anyone else would have died of boredom long ago”.
Some librarians felt that Blyton’s restricted use of language, a conscious product of her teaching background, was prejudicial to an appreciation of more literary qualities. In a scathing article published in Encounter in 1958, the journalist Colin Welch remarked that it was “hard to see how a diet of Miss Blyton could help with the 11-plus or even with the Cambridge English Tripos”, but reserved his harshest criticism for Blyton’s Noddy, describing him as an “unnaturally priggish … sanctimonious … witless, spiritless, snivelling, sneaking doll.”
Blyton’s range of plots and settings has been described as limited and continually recycled, and her books assessed by teachers and librarians as unfit for children to read. Responding to claims that her moral views were “dependably predictable”, Blyton commented that “most of you could write down perfectly correctly all the things that I believe in and stand for – you have found them in my books, and a writer’s books are always a faithful reflection of himself”.
Blyton’s work became increasingly controversial among literary critics, teachers and parents from the 1950s onwards, because of the alleged unchallenging nature of her writing and the themes of her books, particularly the Noddy series. Some libraries and schools banned her works, which the BBC had refused to broadcast from the 1930s until the 1950s because they were perceived to lack literary merit. Her books have been criticised as being elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic and at odds with the more liberal environment emerging in post-war Britain, but they have continued to be best-sellers since her death in 1968.
Blyton felt she had a responsibility to provide her readers with a strong moral framework, so she encouraged them to support worthy causes; through the clubs she set up or supported, she organised them to raise funds for animal and paediatric charities.
- Brer Rabbit originally featured in the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris
- McKellar had written to Blyton in February 1953 asking for the imagery techniques she employed in her writing, for a research project he had undertaken. The results of his investigation were published in Imagination and Thinking (1957).
- In her leisure time Blyton led the life of a typical suburban housewife, gardening, and playing golf or bridge. She rarely left England, preferring to holiday by the English coast, almost invariably in Dorset, where she and her husband took over the lease of an 18-hole golf course at Studland Bay in 1951.
- Blyton submitted her first proposal to the BBC in 1936.