Terry Deary’s recent remarks to The Guardian on why libraries have “had their day” sparked outrage among librarians, authors and readers alike. There was another comment in that article that went seemingly unnoticed, but raised my ire
Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby
Enid Blyton would have certainly disagreed with him, on both points. During the second World War publishing houses were subject to strict paper rationing, and despite her books being printed by more than a dozen publishing houses at the time, they were selling out in a matter of weeks. When inundated with letters from readers telling her they were unable to obtain copies of her books, her advice was to borrow either from friends, or from their local library.
There have always been a few derogatory myths surrounding Enid. The BBC’s television movie Enid from 2009 created a charming story about her first husband “discovering” her, which I am sure was aesthetically pleasing on paper. Between the BBC movie and ignorant remarks like those of Deary’s, one might think that Enid managed to pen a couple of books a year between attending bridge parties, collecting career-advancing husbands and finding time to torment her children and servants before tea.
It was in fact a childhood dream of Enid’s to become a writer. In 1911, at the tender age of fourteen she entered a children’s poetry competition run by Arthur Mee , and she received a letter from the author telling her that he intended to print her verses and would like to see more of her work. Enid was so encouraged she began sending submissions to other periodicals. It was not, however, the beginning of her meteoric rise to fame. Up until 1921 she only had one other poem accepted by a magazine. While Enid lived at home her mother constantly discouraged her writing, telling her it was a waste of time and money. While her mother wanted her to be a homemaker, her father was pushing for Enid to pursue a musical career.
Enid felt she was unsuited for a musical career, but as her father was still her legal guardian (despite now being separated from her mother) and as she had no success in writing, he refused to support it as a career option. It was in 1916 when Enid decided, after after helping her friend Ida Hunt at a Sunday school, that she might have a vocation as a teacher. Thankfully her father gave his permission. After completing her Froebel training in 1918, she went on to teach, first at a boys’ school, and then as a governess at what she called her “experimental school”.
In Surbiton, 1920, Enid was employed as a nursery governess for the Thompson family. Her teaching methods were such a success that several other families in the neighbourhood asked if their children could attend classes, and soon a small school with twelve pupils had developed. It was here that Enid began to hone her skills and she often tried out her stories on the children. By 1921 she had been published in several periodicals. By 1922 she began writing for Teacher’s World, and had her first book of poetry, Child Whispers, accepted for publication by J. Saville.
It was not, in fact, until 1924 that she collaborated with her future husband, Hugh Pollock, at Newnes to produce The Zoo Book. In 1923 she had earned well over £300 from her writing – the price of a small, suburban house. J. Saville published another two books, Real Fairies and Responsive Singing Games, and in that year 120 other items, stories, verses, book reviews and short plays were also brought out under her name.
It took her a little over a decade to become a published author. It may not seem like a long time. But in that decade she went through the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and the subsequent breakdown of her relationship with her mother, finished her education, left home and went out into the world on her own. Certainly she was born into a middle class family. Yet it was not a privileged upbringing or a convenient husband that was the key to her success. Far from a middle-class lady with an endearing hobby, Enid spent almost every day of her adult life creating the unmatched legacy she has left behind today.
To try to understand her, you must cast aside the image her detractors have tried to create of the imperious, heartless woman in her fox furs.
You must instead picture Enid sitting in her favourite chair, on the loggia, her typewriter balanced on her knees, a cardigan draped around her shoulders. Close your eyes, as she closed her eyes and waited for the characters to appear in her head. Then imagine Enid as she suddenly sat forward, hunched over her typewriter and launched into six thousand words for the day. A woman who created over 7500 published works, almost 750 books, that have sold over 500 million copies to date and continue to sell eight million copies a year. Imagine the woman who never really grew up, who put her childhood heart on page after page, that withstood the test of time, and that still endures.
Open your eyes, and you might just see her.