The best girls are the ones who want to be boys, Europeans are seen as caricatures and no one in the world seems to have the British sense of “fairness.”
Whether intentionally or not, Enid Blyton seems to have created stereotypical characters and possibly since the ‘90s, her pedestrian vocabulary and simple plots have taken flak from many a distinguished critic. Blyton is seen to be sexist, racist – and in too many ways, confoundedly British. The banishment of the black golliwogs from all her books and their replacement with white – or pink-pixies was just one of many decisions made by the powers who felt Enid Blyton should be cut down to size.
In spite of these attacks, I recommended Enid Blyton to a fairly disinterested student of standard 6.
My student began with The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters.
One of her earliest observations was that the children in The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters conversed casually without necessarily moving the plot forward. While this idle chatter may drag the story for those in pursuit of plot, my student felt the lively repartee made the characters more fun to know. She found the children “very active,” and said, almost wistfully, “They do things. They don’t sit at home watching television and playing on the i-pad like we do.” She added that because the children met freely in the holidays (the book was essentially a holiday mystery book), they didn’t have to rely on parents to co-ordinate classes or times and places to meet (“play-dates”). “It must have been a safer time,” she concluded, aptly.
The characters, however flat Blyton’s critics would have us believe, quite appealed to my student. “They didn’t keep fighting with each other. They wanted to do the same thing, and they knew they had to work together to do it.” However, when discussing the events of The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters, there wasn’t much that my student found to say except that parts of the plot did not quite add up.
The Naughtiest Girl in School and its two immediate sequels were also read by my student. In these books, concerning Whyteleafe boarding school, Blyton has a signature Student Government – a very respected Head Boy and Head Girl. They have meetings with the students, allot duties and responsibilities to various monitors and arrange for every student to receive the same amount of weekly pocket money. Any gift money students receive from home is deposited in a school box and is used for only specific purposes that the Heads deem appropriate. At regular meetings, the Heads congratulate school achievers, pull up errant students and administer justice. “The teachers stay out,” my student remarked, quite pleased. “Children learn to share and not waste money on stupid things. They have to look after themselves and obey rules that they themselves have made. I also liked the tricks the students play.” However, Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series grew from interesting to predictable – (“new child – problem – meetings – solutions,” my student summed up) and by the end of the second book in the series, her interest level had waned.
The only other series my student has read is Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. The Potter books needed the movies and peer pressure to prod her along. While the Potter series was to do with excitement and magic and friendship, Blyton’s books offered more to understand about people and relationships in general.
Another student (Standard 8) has read more of Enid Blyton. She knows of Wilhelmina who would rather be called Bill (Malory Towers series), and Roberta who would rather be called Bobby (St Clare’s series), and Georgina (of The Famous Five) who prefers being called George. Blyton may suggest boyish girls are more attractive than girly-girls like Alison O’ Sullivan, the “pretty little feather head,” of St Clare’s, but, my student argued, “There are people who are like that.”
When we discussed racist implications in the boarding school series, my student said, “They are British schools in England with fair-minded British principals and teachers. They could just as well have been Indian schools in India with fair-minded Indian principals and teachers.”
“What do you think about the mischievous French girls, Claudine and Antoinette?”
“They were just naughty girls who were French. There were British naughty girls as well.”
“Did the students laugh more at French teachers?”
“Oh, come on! We laugh at all our teachers, especially the Hindi teachers!”
“Do you think Carlotta, the Spanish girl from the circus was looked down on because of her not being English?”
“No. Nobody looked down on her. Remember, she was dark and beautiful. She was wild because of her circus life, not because she was Spanish.”
“How do you feel about Enid Blyton’s language – the dialogue?”
“It’s the way we talk. Actually, her characters speak better than we do! And they are fun people – real people.”
“Do you think there should be more descriptions?”
“Why? Everyone can imagine a school building, beds, and classrooms.”
It is of interest to me, as a teacher that Blyton’s characters (especially in the Malory Towers and St Clare’s boarding school series) overcome their shortcomings in the course of time and events. Spoilt children are made to realize that instant gratification is not always possible. Misfits shape up and learn to toe the line. Courageous youngsters are physical cliff hangers saving drowning people and animals. Students who excel or are talented make for the top of the class but the lazy ones are not allowed to languish. Reasons for being the way they are come to light as they are pushed and encouraged by their peers. Insecure children learn not to let petty jealousies and sibling rivalries destroy good relationships and family ties. Dishonesty is unacceptable and cheating is no substitute for what is earned through perseverance. Facing up to one’s shortcomings is just as important as standing up for what one believes in. And to learn to laugh at oneself is a big takeaway from all Blyton’s books.
Irrespective of whether readers find other lessons and messages, while Blyton’s writing is not the ultimate vocabulary builder, it is not heavy-handed or pretentious. Her books are humorous and inviting, and she is still a bestselling author for children (and also for adults whose childhoods were spent in the worlds she created for them when they were children). Blyton’s books have been translated into over 40 languages; surely this cannot come from (only) being sexist, racist, and confoundedly British.
The author is an educationist and children’s writer based in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.