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Nineteen twenty-two, the literary annus mirabilis that produced The Waste Land and Ulysses, also saw the publication of Enid Blyton’s first book. Child Whispers, a saccharine collection of nursery verse (“I found a little fairy flute / Beneath a harebell blue”), may not have enjoyed critical acclaim, but it marked the beginning of an influential and immensely productive literary career. Blyton shovelled monosyllables by the sackload: one estimate, after her death in 1968, calculated her books had sold 85 million copies across 700 titles.
Much of Blyton’s oeuvre is dismissed today for its casual racism, social conservatism and deliberate lack of intellectual challenge – one author described her books as “for children who are not very old, or not very clever, or not very well”. Nonetheless, Andrew Maunder’s Enid Blyton: A literary life insists that an author with such commercial success deserves serious evaluation. There are already more than half a dozen Blyton biographies, but most are crippled by their subject’s obsessive secrecy. Maunder circumvents this by seeking to understand Blyton through her creative output rather than her veiled memoir or tight-lipped diaries: her description of a Blitz attack as “a very noisy evening with planes, guns and bombs” could be a reference to a bad night in Toy Town.
Maunder does good work situating Blyton in the twentieth-century literary marketplace, and includes some deliciously waspish comments from fellow children’s author Alison Uttley, who detested her “vulgar, curled” rival. Critical opinion started turning against Blyton as early as the 1950s, with critics describing her characters as “idiotic” and “second-rate”, or accusing her of having “written too much” – an odd charge to level against a writer.
Curiously missing from this biography is an analysis of Blyton’s work for Teachers World, the magazine that launched her career. Her reworkings of classic tales, from the ancient Greeks to Arthurian legends, provide particular insight into her casual racism and jingoism. Her description of the death of Socrates quickly turns antisemitic: “We feel ashamed of the Athenians for putting to death such a good and wise man and we feel horrified when we think of the Jews killing another man, better and wiser … Jesus Christ”. With drivel such as this, it is hard to agree with Maunder’s final claim, in an otherwise excellent study, that Blyton’s rehabilitation is “long overdue”.