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Millions of children have followed the adventures of beloved characters created by Enid Blyton. Writer Helen Cordery explains what Blyton’s stories meant to her and reveals unexpected details about the author’s life.
Text: Helen Cordery
Country: English Literature

n 1999 a young girl sat down in a chair and opened a book. It was a novel—hard and shiny on the outside, brown and crinkly on the inside— with that musty -but-fresh smell that only a book can have. The cover had a picture of four children in a rowing boat, two girls and two boys, though one of the girls had suspiciously short hair. They were being sprayed by dangerously high waves; a tumultuous sea that surrounded a rocky island with a crumbling, weathered castle on the top. The girl turned the first page, The Famous Five—the title was printed in large letters—and then the next, and the next, until several hours had passed and the sun was low in the sky, and she heard her name being called. “What have you been doing, Helen?” her mother asked her over dinner, and the girl responded, “I want to be called George from now on,” and for many years after she read that first story, she was.

That girl was me, and I grew up obsessed with the Famous Five. The infamous George was part of a group of cousins, Julian (the oldest), Dick, Anne (the youngest) and Timmy (Timothy) the dog, who spent their school holidays solving the crime cases that fell upon the small seaside village of Kirrin Bay. George was the star of the show for me, a sullen, introverted tomboy that blossomed into a charismatic, likeable character when her three cousins came to stay at the crumbling country cottage she shared with her forever sandwich-making mother, Mrs. Fanny, and her scientist father, known as Uncle Quentin, who very rarely exited his study.

I started reading the Famous Five series in the mid-1990s although they were first published in 1942. By 1953 they had sold more than 6 million copies and today they continue to sell around 2 million copies each year, thus making their author, Enid Blyton, one of the most successful and beloved children’s book authors of all time.

Being 11 and reading about children of the same age doing such amazing things made them resonate strongly with me. The Adventure Series was another collection of novels, and these seemed to wake every sense in my body as I read about secret castle rooms, underground tunnels, dastardly kidnapping plots and magnificent Middle-Eastern buried cities, as well as the possible friendship you can have with a parrot named Kiki, who also possessed the remarkable ability to always save the day.

I am not alone in my admiration.

“I grew up on Enid Blyton’s books,” clinical therapist Marcela Wagner tells me. “They taught me how to be righteous and what to do in several situations. I loved, loved, loved them all.”

I also fantasised about leaving my comparatively dull school in favour of boarding school, which I was quite certain was a world of midnight feasts, lacrosse games and clear seaside pools as depicted in Mallory Towers. It was like Blyton injected magic into the ordinary, and the world of her stories was the real life I should be leading.

If her stories of everyday life appeared magical, then her fantastical books took on the squeaky-clean shine of reality. The enchanted world of the Magic Faraway Tree may contain strange fairy characters with names like Silky, Moon-Face, and Saucepan, but there was always something a little bit normal—a little bit real—in the mix too. Likewise, the Adventures of Noddy may have been about a wooden elf living in a place called Toyland, but he had pure qualities and an innocence that all children could admire and aspire to.

As a woman, Blyton was complicated. She was born on the 11th of August, 1897, in London, England, but grew up with two younger brothers in the nearby county of Kent. In 1910 her life took a dramatic turn when it was revealed that her father had had an affair and was leaving the family to live with his mistress. Blyton suffered under this news, and convinced her brothers to pretend with her that their father was away on a very long holiday. It was around this time that Blyton seriously took to writing, in an attempt to avoid contact with her mother, with whom she struggled to connect. In 1916 she left on a teacher training course, and never returned to her childhood home again, instead choosing to spend all school holidays at a friend’s house. In 1924 she had an affair with the then-married book editor, Hugh Alexander Pollock, whom she later married. He played a key role in the development of Blyton’s career.

It may come as a surprise that Blyton’s relationship with her own children was anything but idyllic. A Childhood at Green Hedges (1989) is the memoir of her youngest daughter, Imogen, and it paints a shocking picture of the woman we think we know from her books. “The truth is, Enid Blyton was arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct,” the book describes. “Most of my mother’s visits to the nursery were hasty, angry ones, rather than benevolent. The nursery was a lonely place. The world she was living in was too important to her to embrace those who intruded on her.”

The relationship between Blyton and Pollock became strained due to the stress of work, the Second World War, and Pollock’s subsequent posting to Surrey with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. They divorced in 1942, and Blyton married surgeon Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters the following year. Controversially she cut all ties with her former husband and forbade him from ever contacting their daughters again.

Despite her personal history, Blyton was a prolific writer. At final count, she is the author of 700 books (including short stories) and various poems and magazine articles, as well as being the force behind her own magazines, the Enid Blyton Magazine and Sunny Stories.

Blyton died peacefully in 1968, aged 71. She was an avid promoter of charity, developing her own charitable clubs and raising £35,000 in donations, a huge sum at the time.

Her legacy as an extraordinary author is indisputable. These aren’t mere stories to pass the time—reading them is an adventure. As English teacher Emma Higgins says, “I always imagined I was the invisible sixth friend in the Famous Five books—I went on all their adventures with them.” Like Emma, I did too. It is thanks to a childhood of late-night reading under the covers that I credit my own skills as a writer, and it was through traveling alongside George and her cousins to Kirrin Island that my own thirst for adventure was shaped. Her stories—all 600 million copies of them—are gifts to be savoured, treasured and passed down to the next generation.

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Blyton wrote over 700 stories, including series such as The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Adventures of Noddy, Mallory Towers, St Clare’s, The Wishing-Chair, and many more. She also published three separate magazines: the Enid Blyton Magazine, Sunny Stories for Little Folks, and Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories. She also contributed non-fiction articles and stories to various magazines, newspapers and comics.




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History in Every Glass


In 1999 I read my first book by Enid Blyton: The Famous Five. The book is about a group of 5 cousins who spent their school holidays solving crimes in the small seaside village of Kirrin Bay. My favourite character was George: a sullen, introverted tomboy that blossomed into a charismatic, likeable character when her three cousins visited.

I was so obsessed with the famous five, and George in particular, that for many years I insisted everyone call me George. I read the Famous Five Series in the 1990s, but they were published in 1942. I then followed other characters on their fantastic adventures in the Adventure Series. With Mallory Towers, I fantasised about leaving my dull school and going to boarding school. The Magic Faraway Tree introduced me to strange fairy characters and in the Adventures of Noddy I discovered a wooden elf living in a place called Toyland.

Enid Blyton's stories were magical, but her family life and her relationship with her children were very complicated. Her father had an affair and left the family when she was a young girl. This was very hard for her and she decided to pretend he was away on holiday. At this time she also started writing to avoid facing reality and to avoid her mother. Her relationship with her children was also strained. She was not a caring mother and did not spend much time with her daughters. Her youngest daughter remembers her as an arrogant, insecure, and pretentious person.

Blyton was a prolific writer. She is the author of 700 books (including short stories) and various poems and magazine articles. She even started her own magazines: the Enid Blyton Magazine and Sunny Stories. She was also an avid promoter of charity and developed her own charitable clubs and raised huge sums. It is indisputable that she was an extraordinary writer and her books continue to inspire children all over the world.

 

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