The secret Dorset life of Enid Blyton
PUBLISHED: 11:20 30 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:20 30 May 2017
As Enid Blyton's Famous Five celebrate their 75th anniversary, Adam Lee-Potter reveals the secret life of the woman behind these thrilling tales inspired by Dorset
Enid Blyton remains a fascinating contradiction. Her books – The Famous Five series, in particular – have always been adored by children, even if the feeling wasn’t always mutual.
Absent, yet doting parents, dastardly but dim villains and rugged, rural adventures in an idealised Dorset, all washed down with lashings of ginger beer. And, of course, Timmy the dog. What’s not to like?
The books are as refreshingly uncool as they are un-PC.
I remember, aged eight, being so desperate to find out what happens at the end of Five Go Off in a Caravan, yet embarrassed to be seen reading Blyton on the school bus, that I hid my well-thumbed copy inside Whizzer and Chips.
But the author was, at best, a distant mother to her own two children, a cruel wife – to her first husband at least – and she has often been accused of racist and xenophobic views because of her reference to golliwogs and unlikeable black characters such as the appallingly-named Sooty Lenoir, a French schoolboy in Five Go to Smuggler’s Top.
Poor, put-upon Anne – who is scared of spiders and invariably ends up with the washing-up – is also a figure of feminist contention while Julian is, all too often, a pompous bully, a grown-up Dick.
Still, we should remember that Blyton was a product of her time when such gender and race preconceptions were common. And, to be fair, tomboy George – Blyton’s favourite character, largely modelled on herself – is rightly feted as one of the first female role models in children’s fiction.
Also, Blyton’s love of Dorset shines through. She fell for the county after visiting Corfe Castle – the inspiration for Kirrin – in 1931. Twenty years later, she and her second husband bought the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club in Studland, only selling it 14 years later. Her old putter is still there to this day, proudly on display.
The couple also owned a farm in Sturminster Newton – the fictional Finniston Farm. Whispering Island is based on Brownsea while Mystery Moor stands in for Stoborough Heath.
The plots are equally compulsive, the magic escapism endures and Blyton – who died in 1968, aged 71 – was anything but dull. She was not only a stand-out female voice in the then fiercely patriarchal world of publishing but a literary trailblazer, to boot.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first of the 21-book series, Five On a Treasure Island. Despite the fact that the author died nearly 50 years ago, and in the eye of mixed critical opinion, two million books are still sold each year: 600 million and rising.
Blyton had a groundbreaking grasp of marketing, publicity and branding. She launched her own magazine, Sunny Stories, aimed at her young readers. She also masterminded the design of her books, insisting that her distinctive signature grace every cover, and boldly set out the stall for her successors, from Ursula Le Guin to JK Rowling.
Helena Bonham Carter, who played the author in the warts-and-all 2009 TV biopic, Enid, explains: “She was unbelievably modern, a complete workaholic, an achievement junkie and an extremely canny businesswoman.”
The film tells how Blyton used her family to further bolster her brand. Her two daughters from her first marriage to Hugh Pollock, Gillian and Imogen, were routinely wheeled out for the press as Blyton portrayed herself as a devoted mother. The reality, however, was quite different.
After her mother’s death, Imogen wrote a scathing autobiography, A Childhood at Green Hedges.
She said: “My mother was arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct. Her approach to life was childlike, and she could be spiteful, like a teenager.”
One of the most telling scenes in Enid features a tea party that Blyton organises for a group of her young fans. While the writer makes a fuss of the visitors, her own children are locked away, out of view.
Lee Morris, who produced the drama, said: “She was dedicated to her fans. Her relationship with her children, on the other hand, was quite distant. Her fans were her real family.”
She was equally ruthless with Hugh. When their 15-year marriage ended, largely because of Pollock’s depression and alcoholism, Enid’s married lover Kenneth Darrell Waters was moved, overnight, into the family home.
Aware of the potential damage to her image, Blyton agreed a deal with Pollock that if he admitted to adultery, she would grant him access to his daughters after the divorce.
He agreed but she then welched, going out of her way to hamper his contact.
Blyton was – but then, aren’t we all? – forged by her own childhood.
The daughter of a successful cutlery salesman, she lived a solid middle-class existence in London but the idyll was broken when her adored – and adoring – father left home to live with another woman when she was just 12.
“Life up to then was delicious and fantastic,” Bonham Carter explains. “Her dad was around and she was the centre of his life. She felt secure and safe. Then everything was thrown up in the air. This bomb went off in her life and she couldn’t cope.”
It later transpired that, at this exact time, she suffered a serious gynaecological condition: her womb stopped growing. Only subsequent hormone treatment enabled her to have children.
“Her success, and what was wrong with her life, seems to come from exactly the same place,” says Blyton expert and film director James Hawes. “This is armchair psychology, but she did in some way come to an emotional halt at that point and some part of her did stay forever young.”
Perhaps it was this emotional hiatus that necessitated and fostered Blyton’s make-believe world of the Famous Five.
“She retreated to a place where life was lovely and carried on creating that world,” says Bonham Carter. “She didn’t want to deal with anything that interrupted it. In her personal life she was cruel by accident because that’s what she needed to keep herself afloat. She just wanted to carry on creating this fantastic world that, actually, millions of others wanted to escape to because it was so convincing.”
Her books are – as they should be for any author – her best legacy.
Alexandra Antscherl, editorial director at Enid Blyton Entertainment, believes the author is now enjoying a well-deserved critical resurgence after years in the wilderness.
While her public popularity has never waned, her literary reputation has wavered.
A recently released BBC memo revealed that, as far back as 1938, executives unforgettably dismissed Blyton’s work as “rather a lot of Pinky-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm”.
In a recent poll, however, The Famous Five books were voted British adults’ favourite childhood books of all time.
“It’s to do with the page-turning nature of her plots,” says Alex. “Children still aspire to have exciting adventures, to be in charge of their own destiny, free of adult interference.
“We’ve had the PC backlash. I think everyone now realises that if a book encourages kids to curl up and read, it’s a force for good. And in a sense, Blyton helps children understand that we live in a different time and prompts questions. Certainly, I don’t want children thinking it’s OK for Anne always to be doing the washing-up.
“Blyton started out as a nature writer and the sense of place is very important to her. Her landscape descriptions are brilliant. Let’s not forget, she was creating fantasy, not documentary, and it’s a fantasy that children love. She should be applauded and celebrated for that.”