Enid Blyton. There, I’ve said it. Was there ever a more dreadful and more brilliant writer for children? Is there anyone in the UK under the age of about 80 who hasn’t had an Enid Blyton phase in their lives? (I was going to say anyone under 60, then a quick glance at The Adventures of the Wishing Chair shows me it was published in 1937).
Until the wishing chair fluttered on its red wings into our lives, I had been feeling quite negative towards EB. Yes, I’d devoured the stories as a kid – for me it started with the Secret Seven, who were quickly ditched for the Famous Five, Malory Towers and the ‘…of Adventure‘ books (Castle… Island… Circus… – you get the idea). Unlike other much-loved books from my childhood though, my general feelings on remembering them were ones of disdain and self-righteous horror at her sexism, racism and, most of all, iffy writing style. I have to say I half dreaded the day that she returned to my home, and I wasn’t going to be the one to welcome her back. It turned out to be sooner than I anticipated when my daughter’s teacher read the class some Wishing Chair stories in Year 1 (so fortunately I am absolved of responsibility).
Well, I owe Enid Blyton half an apology. My children begged me to read Adventures of the Wishing Chair as their bedtime story, so I put aside my literary snobbery, promising myself I would challenge any reference to soppy girls, women’s work, swarthy gypsies and men of the house. And I was right – these are not ‘well-written’ books. Events are utterly illogical – fairies and pixies co-exist with humans quite happily and no questions are ever asked as to how or why this could be. Fortunate coincidences occur, ‘luckily’ is used to move the story on whenever a sticky situation arises, things happen for no apparent reason and the characterisation of characters is minimal. The text is littered with stereotypes and inconsistencies, and I couldn’t say the pixie’s name (‘Chinky’) without wincing and doing a silent mea culpa.
And yet as I read I found myself developing a grudging respect for Ms Blyton’s abilities. This has been said before, but she really does write as if through the eyes of a child. My children are quite tough little souls, with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to magic. But they did not once question whether these brownies and fairies and gnomes were real, or how they came to be living in the garden. They didn’t wonder at the geographical location of the strange and marvellous countries to which the wishing chair flies, they accepted the existence of spinning houses, talking clocks and magic shrinking pills.
The story development, structure and even (limited) character development of the books is strangely satisfying. Scary characters don’t stay scary for long and are always defeated, and every tale ends reassuringly. Mollie, Peter and Chinky are friends, but they also have spats and fallings-out and arguments that are remarkably similar to those my kids have. The chapters are short enough for a newly-independent reader to tackle alone, and long enough to provide a satisfying story before bed. At the end of the day when I’m usually tired and low on patience, I actually found myself wanting to read another chapter.
In the summer, my daughter discovered an anthology of the Magic Faraway Tree in a Norfolk secondhand bookshop. “Three books in one!” she gasped, and I didn’t have the heart not to buy it. We barely heard from her for the rest of the holiday. She now carries it around with her like a comfort blanket – a metaphor for what I think Enid Blyton offers, and why she endures. She is safe, secure and escapist, the childish equivalent of wrapping yourself in a large blanket with a glass of wine and a copy of ‘Grazia’.
Update on 24th December: The Magic Faraway Tree is being serialised on the radio over two weeks. My daughter is almost more excited at the prospect than about Father Christmas.