Tuesday, 2 November 2010

My Enid - by Elen Caldecott

I was charmed and delighted when the Bookwitch reviewed How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini. She compared it to Enid Blyton, but much better written. I loved the review, but this comment has stayed with me. Is Enid really that bad?
I am sure that we all watched Enid, the BBC4 dramatisation of her life. I watched in shock as Helena Bonham Carter turned a childhood hero into a monster. Apparently, she was self-absorbed, manipulative and borderline abusive towards her own children.
But the critical-rot for Blyton set in much earlier than this drama. For years, she has been dismissed as a writer; not simply for her archaic attitudes (it is always the 'swarthy' character that has to be watched in the Famous Five), but also because of her carbon copy plots, her 2D characters, her wilful use of adverbs.

Even in the 1980s, when I was a child, some of my friends weren't allowed to read her. These same friends were also subjected to such outlandish things as soya milk and yoga, so in my eight-year-old eyes they were already to be pitied. But to be deprived of Enid Blyton seemed especially cruel, because for me, Enid Blyton was so much more than a writer. She was a haven. There were days when I desperately needed to hide and I hid inside my collection of Blytons.

Don't worry, this post isn't the opening of a misery memoir. Rather, I'd like to consider what it was about these critically trashed books that made them so powerful.

I knew that the Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers and the Secret Seven and the 'of Adventure' lot were all the same characters but with different names. I knew that. But I didn't care. In fact, the very opposite. I was glad to see them again in their different incarnations.

And I knew that Malory Towers and St Claire's weren't real (although that didn't stop me demanding a detour when, on a family holiday in South Wales, I misread a signpost). But despite the fact that I knew it was fiction, I had such a yearning to be part of the stable, unchanging world of lacrosse and midnight feasts and the upper fourth. It didn't matter that I couldn't tell a lacrosse stick from a liquorice stick. These girls were my friends. I loved that their characters didn't change, that there wasn't an emotional journey in sight.

I guess I'm saying that Enid Blyton's faults were the things that I loved - the unchanging, predictable world of a middle-class country I had never known.

It is telling, I think, that in the 9-12 section of my local Waterstones, Enid Blyton still takes up the most shelf space - yes, Michael Morpurgo has a fair spread and Jacqueline Wilson does even better. But Blyton is still Queen. Kids still need stories they can rely on.

Recently I read Ali Sparkes' Frozen in Time. It is a deliberate and well-observed homage to the Famous Five. I enjoyed reading it very much. I was so pleased to find that the shades of Blyton live on in contemporary children's literature because we can be too snobbish, I think. We want our books to be weighty and meaningful. We want them to explore the 'real' world - I do this myself, so I do know this is a pot-kettle situation. But, sometimes, when life gets tough, you don't want to read about woe. Sometimes, all you want is to whiz around country lanes with a knapsack full of ginger beer. Sometimes, you just need Enid.
www.elencaldecott.com
Elen's Facebook Page

13 comments:

Alison Waller said...

Quite right, Elen, Blyton should never be dismissed as a mere jobbing writer (although she was an incredibly prolific and efficient author). In academia, her status in the world of children's literature has been carefully re-evaluated by David Rudd, amongst others. Check out his Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?is=0333747186

Linda said...

Too right - children want to escape into books and have implausible, even impossible, adventures just as much as we do. Grown-ups know there must be ugly people, and women over 30, in Miami, for example, but if you watch CSI . . . Like you I longed to join that middle-class world of schools and freedom, and unless a book completely messed up the plot, I was would read anything that was a ticket there.

Linda said...

Too right - children want to escape into books and have implausible, even impossible, adventures just as much as we do. Grown-ups know there must be ugly people, and women over 30, in Miami, for example, but if you watch CSI . . . Like you I longed to join that middle-class world of schools and freedom, and unless a book completely messed up the plot, I was would read anything that was a ticket there.

Elen Caldecott said...

Alison - thank you! That book looks right up my street. The price tag is a bit heafty, but I can always put it on my Christmas list!

Linda - yes, it is escapist. But I never really considered it impossible as a kid. I was always on the look-out for secret passages!

Sue Purkiss said...

Enid Blyton was an impoortant stage for me - the Noddy books first, and later the Famous Five. My favourite was Shadow the Sheepdog. My children all liked her books too. I think you're absolutely right - we all need to go off on an adventure sometimes, to be in jeopardy but be sure we'll soon be out of it by our own efforts - and to have lashings of ginger beer, thick slices of ham, fruit cake, and a delicious apple pie with dollops of cream...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I remember waiting for the streetlights to go off in the mornings... the signal I could put on my own bedside light and read Noddy. I remember countless nights of reading Secret Seven and then the Famous Five books snuggled up in a bunk-bed on a train en route to visit cousins in the then Rhodesia. What kept me reading so earnestly? A jolly good adventure I think... and longing to be like them. I wonder if future generations will condemn JK Rowling for writing the Harry Potter books?

Gillian Philip said...

Yes, I adored Enid Blyton! My big ambition when I was 7 or 8 was to own all 21 Famous Fives, and when I had painstakingly collected them I read them till they fell apart. I desperately wanted to BE them (especially George). I firmly believed there were secret tunnels in our house that I just hadn't found yet.

And Shadow the Sheepdog - yes, that was fabulous, and I must get a copy for my dog-mad daughter... because my kids love Enid Blyton too, despite being clued-up little modernists with a Mario-Bros fixation. Enid B is too easily dismissed, but the books just work.

I must buy Frozen In Time!

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post Elen - and yes,I too was a Blyton fan!

Catherine Johnson said...

I am obviously some kind of heretic. I never liked the FF they didn't speak to me at all - Noddy left me cold too.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, good, I'm not the only one. We had Blyton in the house - my brother read FF but I thought they were dreadfully boring, exceptionally, since I was a kid who read everything, I couldn't finish one of her books - except for the Faraway Tree, which I did really really enjoy. Must look at it some time and see why. But I do think it was at least partly because of the illustrations, which I still remember. I read Noddy and Big-Ears and found them dull, too. I started by writing: Maybe there's something wrong with me. But maybe not. Genuine childhood Blyton non-fans, stand up and be counted!!

catdownunder said...

I read my way through Blyton too - finished when I was about six or seven and have not looked at one since. I really must find one and look at it again! It was a very long time ago.
As children have the same need to escape as adults why should they be deprived of writers like Blyton?

ireneintheworld said...

Spot on Elen. Enid turned me into an avid reader and I will always love her for that. I read her to my children and they read her to theirs. When I die I'm going to live in the Faraway Tree and take trips in the Wishing Chair :-)

bookwitch said...

I need to point out that I loved Blyton, too. That's presumably why Ali and his pals suited me just fine. I think I meant that Elen managed to write a famous Five adventure using normal words and normal sentence structure and having a story set in a place many children must recognise, rather than the exotic Kirrin Island.
Most authors that I admire seem to have a past with Blyton in it. Even hardboiled crimewriters, and they are not ashamed to admit Blyton's importance.