So, I came to Barbara Stoney’s biography of this best-selling 20th century storyteller, Enid Blyton, originally published in 1974—not knowing what to expect. But in the back of my mind, I had an impression of her as a matronly figure in the mold of Agatha Christie’s female detective Jane Marple—single, serene, even stout. The book’s vanilla cover only reinforced that notion. I didn’t think that I’d take to it, but I fell into the narrative quite effortlessly and enjoyed the portrait enough to pick up one of her books today.
Diehard fans would remember how long they sat curled up in their beds or by an open window, devouring one slim volume after another. And when they reached the end, they looked forward to the next—and they kept coming serially, too.
Over her lifetime, Blyton penned 750 books, at the astonishing rate of 23 a year. Six hundred million copies of her books have been sold worldwide. Incredulous detractors refused to believe that a single individual could have this phenomenal output, fueling rumors that she’d employed a stable of ghost writers. Sure enough, achieving this feat of creative derring-do called for boundless literary stamina, one that was her own, though developed during some of the saddest days of her childhood. For her, pen and paper was an escape from an unhappy home environment. A silent spectator to stormy exchanges between her parents, she took comfort in the sweet tales she came up with.
In Stoney’s rich narrative, there’s a turning point in Blyton’s life, without which the world would likely never have heard of her—Blyton, the writer, that is. Had she not spent a short holiday with her bestie’s family on a farm in Suffolk to take a break from the tedium of the enforced piano lessons her dad wanted her to take, she’d never have become who she became. While there, she’d join one of the older girls, a teacher, to Sunday school. Much to her delight, she discovered that her pupils were always eager to listen to her.
It was during that holiday that she found both her calling as well as her market. In September 1916, she began as a kindergarten teacher at the Ipswich High School. Soon afterwards, she took up a writing gig with Teachers’ World, an educational magazine—where she wrote a wildly popular column, “From My Window.” At 25, she published her maiden book, Child Whispers, a skinny, 24-page picture book of verses that came out in the summer of 1922.
She could turn, what would seem to most, a humdrum incident, into, well, an event and channel it into her writings, such as the comings and goings of the animal life into her garden and the blooming of the flowers. Her life was a fountain of material for her work. In fact, the lead character of the winning, 21-volume adventure series, The Famous Five, Georgina—a tomboy who liked to be called George—was based on herself. An editor once told her that his four kids had just formed a secret society, with a password aimed to keep out intruders from their ramshackle headquarters, a shed at the bottom of the garden. Out of this was born the 15 Secret Seven books.
There’s little doubt that Blyton had a fecund mind, who wrote at the speed of a reckless Manhattan cab, never seeming to have suffered from writer’s block. A veritable lexical factory, in a day, she tapped out about 10,000 words. That prodigious gift combined with opportunity. She was fortunate to have been born in an age when domestic help liberated her from household chores. She’d tell her cook what meals to prepare for the family—for the simplest of cookery challenged her—and delegate housework to the maids and sit down to work at 8 a.m., after breakfast, if she was home. She’d sit in the balcony, overlooking her lush garden in the summer or indoors, by the fire in the winter, but always with her typewriter on a board, perched on her knees; not on a table. Close at hand was her red silk shawl, a color that provided her intellectual stimulus.
Her skill for producing a brand of fiction that had widespread appeal to tots, teens and young adults, everywhere, stems chiefly, from her ability to gauge what they’d like. Example: At “Elfin Cottage,” her starter home, she put a Peter Pan door knocker and expected it to be rapped a certain way: kids, four times; grown-ups, twice; and “the little folk from the woods,” seven.
Yes, Blyton connected with kids wonderfully—but only when that contact was filtered through the medium of words. When it came to her own two daughters, she was cold to them. A woman of mercurial temper, she’d fly into a rage should there be the smallest of intrusions into her routine that she couldn’t tolerate.
Nearly all of her stories are set in the charming landscape of her own life in the English country. But they didn’t always reflect the reality of her environment. She had the habit of editing out episodes that were unpleasant and ugly. In her Country Letter in The Nature Lover magazine, she wrote:
“My adult cats earn their keep well, for no rat is ever allowed to creep in under the thatched roof, as often happens in old cottages.” In reality, though, her home had been invaded by an army of menacing rats who were carrying off bushels of apples or a sack of vegetables overnight and the noise of their traffic kept the whole household awake. Yet another example of how her words broke from the reality around her.
In 1932, she embarked on something she’d always wanted to do: a full-length novel for adults. When her agent returned it, she was crushed.
No one in Edwardian England would’ve deemed Blyton a savvy salesperson, but as I see it, judged by the lens of 21st century capitalism, she appears to have possessed a sharp knack for tapping into her readers’ sentiments. Through her columns, she was able to establish a two-way communication with them: she, keeping them updated on what she was up to and they, telling her what they thought of it by sending her postbags full of letters (which, she, herself replied to.) She was so in touch with her base that she even polled her readers about what she should name her residence. When she bought a red brick house in a pleasant, tree-lined road in Beaconsfield, a London suburb, she asked her young devotees for suggestions. They were thrilled with her request. Recommendations streamed in by the truckload. “Green Hedges” got the top vote.
During World War II paper was in short supply. In an effort to stay afloat, publishing houses were cutting back on the volume of their publications. Still, Blyton had no trouble obtaining commissions, for booksellers had long realized that a title by her was sure to fly off the shelves. But the most inventive plan for engaging her talent and what little newsprint was available goes to Brockhampton Press and its managing editor, E.A. Roker, who came up with a clever format: strip book, six inches long; three, wide, made from cuts-off reclaimed from a discontinued magazine. Blyton was to be the writer. By late 1942, Mary Mouse and the Dolls’ House, printed in two colors, selling at a shilling a pop, rolled out. Its Lilliputian size endeared them at once to the little ones.
Even today, it’s hard to escape the cuteness of a small wood boy with a nodding head, but a boy with a house of his own and a sleek red and yellow car. So beloved was he that by the mid-1950s, Noddy merchandise was everywhere in department stores: Noddy toothbrushes, Noddy soap, Noddy pencils, Noddy, chocolate, Noddy clothing, Noddy furniture, Noddy cookie jars. The ways in which words envelop young minds fueling the imagination of generations of young children are truly mind boggling.
That being said, Blyton presents us with another mind bogglingly strange contradiction: how could someone who could bring so much joy to so many young ‘uns have been an uncaring mother?
Alakananda Mookerjee is a New York-based writer who loves science fiction.