Recently English children's writer Enid Blyton was in news, 53 years after her death, over the literary merit and intellectual worth of her writings. It all started with an English heritage website posting a comment on the writer who has sold more than 600 million copies.
In a recent report, The Daily Telegraph reported that English Heritage – a charity that maintains historic buildings and commemorates famous residents – had updated its website. The new update said that the work of Enid Blyton had been criticised "for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit".
This triggered accusations in the right-wing media that Blyton had fallen prey to "cancel culture".
There have been age old disagreements and controversies over Enid Blyton’s work. Debates mostly revolved around its intellectual worth, so-called inherent racism and problematic views on gender. Notably, the author's books were discarded from libraries across the globe. Also, her stories were struck off syllabi.
Between 1930 and 1950, BBC refused to dramatise her work. Moreover, it described her as a “tenacious second rater” in its internal correspondence. The obituary in The Times, UK, once wrote, “Miss Enid Blyton... was perhaps the most successful and most controversial children’s author of the postwar period.”
According to the charity English Heritage (which installs iconic blue plaques at sites that were once the working or living quarters of Britain’s culturati), had updated the information associated with Blyton’s plaque which states, “Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit.
A 1966 Guardian article noted the racism of The Little Black Doll (1966), in which the doll of the title, Sambo, is only accepted by his owner once his ‘ugly black face’ is washed ‘clean’ by rain. In 1960 the publisher Macmillan refused to publish her story The Mystery That Never Was for what it called its ‘faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia’…”
Moreover, it also mentions that Blyton was rejected by the Royal Mint for commemoration on a 50p coin back in 2016, because, “the advisory committee minutes record, she was ‘a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer’,” according to a report in The Indian Express.
According to reports, the charity had also stated that it has no intention of removing the plaque from outside Blyton’s home in London.
Blyton's work: Why is it problematic?
Work of Blyton has been a matter of debate for years. It may be noted that her problematic gender politics, apparently, perhaps, in her Famous Five series – divides domains into feminine and masculine.
In it, scientist fathers remain confined in studies; cheerful aunts and mothers produce “smashing” picnic hampers and teas. While, girls do the washing up after meals and are almost invariably feminine and certainly need someone to accompany them. Also, those who are tomboyish are never as wise or mature as a “real” boy, according to Blyton.
Blyton compiled most of her work between 1928 and 1960, a chaotic period in world history. During World War II, more women joined the workforce, whereas prior to that, majority of middle-class women, led a life where domesticity was the norm.
In majority of her books – “gypsies” and foreigners – are cast as sinister, who are at times dishonest. In her super popular series Noddy, the antagonists are almost always golliwogs which is a racial caricature of a Black rag doll. It was first introduced by cartoonist and author Florence Kate Upton in 1895.
In her series for older children (such as the Famous Five) there is a sense of racism where black or dark-skinned characters are often pitched as heartless or shown in a comical light.
Blyton's popularity remains undiminished
Despite all of her controversial writings, Blyton's works and popularity till date remains undiminished. Notably, in 2008, she was voted Britain’s favourite author, prior of Roald Dahl and J K Rowling. Her books have sold more than 600 million copies and she still hold the position of being the favourite among children in the subcontinent – including in India.
While it is important to recognise and acknowledge Blyton’s failures, it is nearly impossible to expel literary canons based on the immoral behaviour of writers. Certainly, English Heritage’s decision to call her out her failings while upholding her remarkable appeal is a firm step towards that direction.