Blyton, Enid (1897–1968)
Blyton, Enid (1897–1968)
Prolific English writer of children's stories who has been consistently popular with young readers for over 50 years but whose writing has been frequently condemned by librarians, teachers, and literary critics. Name variations: Mary Pollock. Born Enid Mary Blyton on August 11, 1897, in East Dulwich, London; died on November 28, 1968 in Hampstead, London; eldest child and only daughter of Thomas Carey Blyton, Jr. (worker in a wholesale clothing business) and Theresa Mary (Harrison) Blyton; attended St. Christopher's School for Girls, Beckenham, 1907–15, and Ipswich High School, 1916–18; married Major Hugh Alexander Pollock, on August 28, 1924 (divorced 1943); married Kenneth Darrell Waters, on October 20, 1943 (died, September 15, 1967); children: (first marriage) Gillian Mary (b. July 15, 1931); Imogen Mary (b. October 27, 1935).
Father left home (1910); Enid left home (1916); three poems accepted by Nash's Magazine (1916–18); taught at Bickley Park School (Jan.–Dec. 1919); hired as nursery governess (January 1920–April 1924); collaborated with artist friend, Phyllis Chase (1921); wrote Child Whispers (1922); wrote Teachers' World (1923); began to edit Sunny Stories (1926); became interested in People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (1933); turned Sunny Stories into a weekly (1937); wrote last entry to Teachers' World (Nov. 14, 1945); met Harmsen van der Beek (1949); withdrew from editing Sunny Stories and started fortnightly Enid Blyton Magazine (1953); had first performance of Noddy in Toyland (December 1954); published last edition of Enid Blyton Magazine (September 9, 1959).
well over 400 publications, not counting numerous articles and stories in periodicals, including (fantasy) Adventures of the Wishing Chair, (1937); (holiday adventure) The Secret Island (1938), Five on a Treasure Island, (1942), The Island of Adventure (1944), The Rockingdown Mystery (1949); (detective fiction) The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), The Secret Seven, (1949); (circus stories) Mr. Galliano's Circus (1938); (family stories) The Children of Cherry Tree Farm (1940); (school stories) Naughtiest Girl in the School (1940), The Twins at St. Clare's (1941), First Term at Mallory Towers (1946); (nursery stories) Mary Muse and the Dolls' House (1942), Little Noddy Goes to Toyland, (1949).
In writing about Enid Blyton one is drawn into seemingly incredible statistics. It has been claimed that she negotiated personally with over 40 publishers and that she could stipulate a first printing of 25,000 copies even during the paper shortage of World War II. She is said to have written at the rate of 10,000 words a day and, according to the Oxford Guide to British Writers, "could complete a full-length children's book between Monday and Friday of the same week." Over 700 titles have been published bearing her name, and she has been translated into more than 126 languages and dialects. Ten years after her death, English language sales of her books had topped 200 million copies and were still increasing at the rate of 5 million books a year. Many of her stories are still read avidly by children the world over, and, since 1990, 792 of her books and their derivatives have been in print using virtually every well-known British publisher. Who was this woman who, even in her lifetime, was referred to on more than one occasion as "a phenomenon?"
Enid Blyton lived all her life in and around London, though both her parents came from Sheffield, an industrial town in Yorkshire. At the time of his marriage, Enid's father Thomas Carey Blyton was a salesperson with a cutlery firm, but he came from an intellectually minded family and his varied hobbies included astronomy, nature, languages, music, painting, photography, and collecting books. Enid's mother Theresa was dark and pretty, but she had little sympathy with her husband's many interests and was engrossed in being a highly efficient housewife. This disparity was to cause friction later in their marriage, but at first all went well. The Blytons moved to London shortly after their wedding in 1896, and on August 11 of the following year Enid Mary was born. She was followed two years later by Hanly and three years after by Carey. Enid had been born in a small apartment over a shop, but by 1902 Thomas' situation had improved. He was working in the wholesale clothing business, and the family was living in a solidly middle-class house with a garden in which the children could play.
From the beginning, Thomas seems to have felt a special bond with his daughter. He
claimed to have saved her life by nursing her through the night when she was dangerously ill with whooping cough when only three months old. In her early years, Thomas helped Enid tend her own little patch of garden, gave her the run of the library, quoted poetry, told her stories, and took her for country walks while teaching her all he knew about the things they saw. When she was six, he began to teach her the piano, for it was his ambition that his daughter should become a concert pianist.
In contrast, Theresa favored her sons. She felt that, as a girl, Enid should be content to help her in the house, and Theresa resented the way in which Thomas encouraged their daughter's other interests. Perhaps, too, Theresa was jealous of the warm relationship which existed between father and daughter, for she was a stern disciplinarian and found it hard to show affection even to her more tractable sons. It also has to be admitted that Enid had a fiery temper and could not tolerate her mother's domineering manner because she, too, wished to dominate.
Enid's first school was a small nursery class near home, run by two unmarried sisters. Although she always had difficulty with math, Enid was a ready pupil, and, in 1907, she went to St. Christopher's School for Girls, Beckenham. The Blytons had been steadily growing more antagonistic towards one another, and a move into an even larger house did nothing to ease the tension. The sounds of Thomas playing the piano in the evenings which had so often lulled the children to sleep were exchanged for the sounds of quarrelling and the name of another woman. But, following the conventions of the time, nothing was said to Enid or her brothers. Finally, shortly before Enid's 13th birthday, Thomas left home. He gave no explanation to the daughter whose companion he had been for so long, and Theresa, intent upon keeping up appearances before the neighbors, failed to give Enid the support she so badly needed; the children were instructed to say that their father was "away on a visit." Then, the family, minus Thomas, soon moved yet again. Thus, at a highly vulnerable age, Enid suffered rejection by the person she loved most, her father, and was taught by her mother to deal with the hurt by ignoring it. This lesson was to have repercussions throughout her life.
Outwardly Enid's school life was completely untouched by this domestic trauma. Even her best friend, Mary Attenborough , had no idea Thomas Blyton had left home. After becoming the first girl in the school to adopt the new fashion of shoulder-length hair rather than the conventional long plait, Enid's nickname among boarders was "the hairless daygirl." As a senior girl, helped by Mary and a small group of other friends, she organized end-of-term entertainments for the entire school which consisted of singing, dancing, and short sketches. Blyton was academically gifted, good at games (she became tennis champion and captain of the lacrosse team) and, despite a penchant for practical jokes, was sufficiently popular with both girls and staff to be made Head Girl towards the end of her time there. In company with many other girls before and since, she and two of her closest friends wrote a small magazine for awhile and, when apart, wrote to each other in code.
Although living with another woman, Thomas never lost touch with his family. His financial position was now such that he could afford to house them in an expensive residential area of Beckenham, pay the children's school fees and all household expenses. He still insisted on Enid doing her daily hour of piano practice and, in time, began to visit occasionally and to take her on outings. However, their former father-daughter intimacy had been lost forever.
Before Thomas left the family home, Enid had learned to shut out the sounds of discord downstairs by telling herself stories as she fell asleep. In the new house, she once again shut out her unhappiness, spending more and more time locked in her own room away from the unwelcome company of her mother and brothers and retreating into a fantasy world of stories and poetry. Encouraged by winning a poetry competition in Arthur Mee's Children's Magazine, she began to send off many articles, stories and poems to other periodicals but, apart from one poem accepted by Nash's Magazine, they were for many years rejected.
Her other method of dealing with the uncongeniality of her home was to stay away as much as possible. The Blytons had strong connections with the Baptist denomination (Enid's brother Carey was the third generation to hold the name of William Carey, the man who had helped to found the Baptist Missionary Society), and all three children had attended Sunday School at Elm Road Baptist Church. Here Mary Attenborough's father was superintendent, and her unmarried aunt, Mabel Attenborough , was teacher of the older girls' class. Mabel lived with her parents and was always glad to welcome Mary and Enid to her home. As time went by, Enid began to turn to Mabel for the sympathy, understanding, and encouragement which she had never received from her mother. When the Blytons moved yet again, this time to a smaller house, Enid spent more time than ever with Mabel.
Enid's life was to change completely in 1916. In accordance with her father's wishes, she was already enrolled as a student at the Guildhall School of Music in London for the autumn term, but before this she went on holiday to a farm in Suffolk run by George and Emily Hunt , friends of Mabel Attenborough. There, Blyton enjoyed helping with the animals, joking with the young officers billeted at the farm (for it was war time), and making friends with Ida and Marjory, the Hunts' daughters. Ida Hunt was a kindergarten teacher, and, when on Sunday she went to Woodbridge Congregational Church Sunday School, Enid accompanied her. Ida was surprised how well the children responded to Enid, while Enid was surprised by how much she enjoyed it.
Before the holiday was over, Blyton had decided not to take up her place at the Guildhall but rather to train as a teacher by taking the same National Froebel Union course that Ida had taken at Ipswich High School, about ten miles away from the Hunts' farm. Blyton received her father's permission over the telephone but for some reason seems not to have told her mother. What is more, she never again returned home. Theresa Blyton felt obliged to resort to lies once more in order to save face in front of neighbors. This time, she spread it about that Enid had joined the Women's Land Army. As Barbara Stoney writes in Enid Blyton, a Biography:
Such subterfuge may be difficult to understand in these days of emancipated women and reformed divorce laws, but in the narrow, suburban circles in which Theresa moved, not only was a wife living apart from her husband treated with suspicion but an unmarried daughter leaving home and not communicating with her family was even more suspect. No "nice" girl would consider such a step unless she had "something to hide."
During her time at Ipswich, Blyton shared lodgings with Ida and spent the holidays with the Hunts or with Mabel and her parents. She enjoyed her training and was an excellent student. In her testimonial, Miss Gale, the head mistress, called Enid "one of the best students we have had for some years." By January 1919, Blyton was teaching at Bickley Park School, Kent, but, at the end of the year, she left to become nursery governess to the four sons of Mabel's relations: Horace and Gertrude Thompson who lived in Surbiton, Surrey. Here she remained for four years, teaching not only the four boys, but also several other local children. All holidays were now spent at the Attenboroughs'.
It was during Blyton's time in Surbiton that her father died of a heart attack, aged only 50. She must have been grief-stricken, for the two were still in contact, but she never spoke of his death and did not attend the funeral. Slight contact with her brother Hanly was resumed, but Carey was in the Air Force, and Enid continued to ignore the existence of her mother.
Blyton submitted entries for publication with little success until, in 1920, she met up with an old school friend, illustrator Phyllis Chase , and they decided to do some work together. It was at this point that Blyton's literary fortunes began to improve, although it is important to note that not all the entries she submitted at this time were collaborations. However, the first story Blyton had published in Teachers' World on February 15, 1922, was illustrated by Chase, as well as the small book of verse, Child Whispers. The book was an instant success, and the story in Teachers' World marked the beginning of an association between that periodical and Blyton which lasted until 1945. Between 1923 and 1927, she wrote a column, "From my Window" and, from 1927 to 1929, a "Letter to Children" which was then expanded to a whole "Children's Page." She also began, in 1926, to edit and later write Sunny Stories.
Probably because of her teaching background and her early association with Teachers' World, many of Enid Blyton's first publications were of an educational nature. Between 1923 and 1936, she wrote plays (sometimes in collaboration with the composer Alec Rowley), as well as school readers and nature books; she also retold well-known folk stories and edited teaching manuals and books of information. Even as late as 1939, she published three books of plays for school performance. Though these were interspersed with occasional works of original fiction, it was not until the publication of Adventures of the Wishing Chair in 1937 that these began to predominate.
During her teens and early 20s, Blyton had little opportunity to meet young men of her own age and took little romantic interest with those she did meet. When she finally fell in love, it was with a man older and more experienced. Major Hugh Alexander Pollock was an editor at Newnes, the publishers. He was about ten years her senior, had fought with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and had been awarded the D.S.O. in 1919. Though he was already married, his wife had left him during the war, and Hugh obtained his divorce at Easter, 1924, the same time Blyton left her post at Surbiton. About a year after meeting, they were married on August 28, 1924, and moved into a topfloor apartment in Chelsea. Early in 1926, the couple relocated to a new house in Beckenham. Enid called it Elfin Cottage.
Her critics accused [Blyton] of using a limited and unchallenging vocabulary, of sexual stereotyping, of racism, and of middle-class bias. It had little effect on her popularity or her sales.
Her life soon fell into a comfortable pattern. She and Hugh tended the garden, though the heavy work was done by Barker, a jobbing gardener. While Hugh was at work, Enid wrote, for there was a maid to attend to household tasks as befitted a middle-class couple of the period. Sometimes she visited publishers or Mabel who lived nearby, but the evenings were devoted to Hugh. She bought her first domestic pet (a dog) and mastered both the typewriter and driving a car. When, in 1929, the Pollocks heard that a new arterial road was to be built near Elfin Cottage, they moved to a 16th-century thatched cottage at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire.
Life at Bourne End was rather different from that at Beckenham. Both Enid and Hugh became involved in the social life of the surrounding area, playing tennis and bridge, being entertained and entertaining in return. In October 1930, they went on a cruise to Madiera and the Canary Islands; on their return, Enid, who had found it difficult to conceive and had now been married six years, learned that she was pregnant. The much longed for baby, a girl named Gillian Mary, arrived on July 15, 1931. Like many a new mother, Blyton seems to have had prenatal fantasies that she would be able to look after the baby and still have time for all her other activities. When she found that this was not so, she employed a young girl to help her, and soon Betty was virtually in sole charge of Gillian while Enid continued to write and socialize as before.
It was while they were living at Old Thatch that Hugh began to be afflicted with a mental illness. He, like Enid and so many others at this time, had tried to deal with life's unpleasantnesses by refusing to talk about them. But when great responsibilities at work (including, significantly, helping to publish Winston Churchill's World War I memoirs) were coupled with frequent social commitments at home, he began to break down under the strain and turned to drink in an attempt to cope. During 1933 and 1934, he took a series of holidays to try to "get away from it all."
On October 27, 1935, following a miscarriage the previous year, Enid gave birth to a second daughter, Imogen Mary. The nurse employed to look after mother and new child, Dorothy Gertrude Richards , was (with gaps) to remain Enid's lifelong friend. This was the more surprising as Blyton was not an easy employer, demanding exceptionally hard work from her staff and often dismissing them on a whim, although this again was not particularly unusual for the period. Richards was a convert to Roman Catholicism, and Blyton toyed with the idea of converting likewise, but decided against it because she felt it would be "too constricting."
Hugh's mental state seems to have been more stable for awhile until, worrying about the deteriorating situation in Europe, he once again began secretly drinking in an attempt to shut out a problem which was beyond his control. A serious bout of pneumonia in early summer, 1938, revealed his secret. For a while his life was in danger, but the crisis passed and the whole family went on holiday to the seaside.
They returned, not to Old Thatch, but to Green Hedges, a larger house in Beaconsfield, a Buckinghamshire town about 25 miles from London. Although the Pollocks had been looking for another home for some time, it was chosen by Enid and Dorothy, without consulting Hugh. None of this seems to have impinged upon Blyton's writing, apart from providing her with material for her Teachers' World column. Even the naming of Green Hedges was turned into a competition.
For the next 25 years, Enid Blyton's literary output was prodigious. Gradually original fiction took over from her other writing. In 1938, she published the first of her circus books, Mr. Galliano's Circus, and also the first of her full-length adventure stories, The Secret Island. Both initially appeared in serial form in Sunny Stories. The year 1942 saw the first of the 21 "Famous Five" books about four children and a dog. The "Adventure" books started in 1944 with The Island of Adventure, and the "Secret Seven" series began in 1949. All these books catered for children of about the same age, but the "Barney" books, also started in 1949, seemed aimed at an older audience. Though her books have been criticized for their "unreality," Bob Mullan argues that they appeal to children because they are grounded in their imaginative play where an adult concept of "reality" has no place.
Blyton also wrote school stories. Her first series, started in 1940 with the Naughtiest Girl in the School, was set in a co-educational school. This is unusual for the genre, but as, once again, it was first serialized in Sunny Stories, it was probably aimed at both boys and girls. A series about an all-girls' school, St. Clare's, commenced the following year, while six books about "Malory Towers" immediately followed from 1946 to 1951.
Blyton was engaged, too, in writing for younger children. During the Second World War, she produced a highly successful set of tiny books making use of magazine offcuts which, in more affluent times, had been thrown away. And, in 1949, the character for whom Enid Blyton came to be best known first made its appearance. The earliest "Noddy" books were a collaboration between Enid and a Dutch illustrator, Harmsen van der Beek. Some people have claimed that it was he, rather than she, who was responsible for the books' popularity. The drawings were so distinctive that when van der Beek died in 1953 others were able to continue the series virtually unnoticed. Commercially, Noddy was a great success. As well as stories, Blyton wrote a Christmas play, Noddy in Toyland and, as Barbara Stoney says, "there were 'Noddy' toys and games of every description, toothbrushes, soap, stationery, chocolate, clothing, cutlery, pottery and furnishings." Noddy also had his own record and a British television series.
Though Blyton is best remembered for her stories, she raised thousands of pounds for charity during her life, both giving time and money and encouraging children to support worthy causes in her weekly publications. She was particularly involved with the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, the Shaftesbury Society Babies' Home at Beaconsfield, the Sunshine Homes for Blind Babies, and a center for spastic children at Chelsea. She was always aware of the responsibilities which her popularity with children laid upon her and, despite the criticisms which her books received even during her lifetime, sincerely felt that she provided her readers with a positive moral framework upon which to base their lives.
Although it did not appear to affect her writing and the more pressing affairs of wartime kept it out of the newspapers, there was great upheaval in the Pollock's domestic life in the early 1940s. When Hugh's wartime commitments kept him away from home for long periods, both began to form other romantic attachments and the situation culminated in divorce in 1943. On October 20, Blyton married a London surgeon, Kenneth Darrell Waters, and six days later Hugh married a colleague, Ida Crowe . Blyton's handling of her children at this time seems surprising in view of her own experience 30 years earlier. Neither was told of the breakup until a few days before the wedding, and Hugh was never allowed any further contact with his daughters.
Blyton seems to have been very happy with her second husband who was profoundly deaf, despite the fact that he had an uncertain temper and was not always easy to live with. However, he was proud of his wife's successes and protective of her interests. For many years, Enid had managed all her business affairs, but in 1950, at Kenneth's instigation, a company was formed, Darrell Waters Limited, to relieve her of some of the burden. Even so, she did not approve of all of its transactions and still insisted on dealing with her publishers personally over new manuscripts. In order to relax, Blyton added golf to her other hobbies. Gillian and Imogen adopted Kenneth's surname and went to boarding school and university. Gillian married in 1957 and Imogen ten years later. Sadly, at the end of her life, Enid's brain failed her. After suffering for several years from what Imogen called "pre-senile dementia," Blyton died in a Hampstead Nursing Home on November 28, 1968.
Blyton, Enid. The Story of My Life. London: Pitkins, 1952.
Mullan, Bob. The Enid Blyton Story. London: Boxtree, 1987.
Ray, Sheila. The Blyton Phenomenon. London: Andre Deutsch, 1982.
Smallwood, Imogen. A Childhood at Green Hedges. London: Methuen, 1989.
Barbara Evans , Research Associate in Women's Studies at Nene College, Northampton, England