Enid Blyton School Stories
The category of musical ‘guilty pleasures’ is something of a misnomer. The lists of songs we can’t quite admit to loving contain some classic and cult gems which we are, in fact, proud to hold dear.
Brian Protheroe’s quirky, noir-ish Pinball, anyone? Or Carole Bayer Sager’s cheeky, offbeat, You’re Moving Out Today? They don’t belong anywhere in the ‘so bad they’re good’ field. They’re ultimately cool.
But with books, it’s a little bit different. Some writers are just irredeemably uncool, and Enid Blyton has always been one of them. Not that we realised it at the time.
For lots of avid readers growing up in the post-war era, Blyton’s books provided an inexhaustible supply of entertainment and created lifelong habits of reading.
The school series St Clare’s and Malory Towers were just the job for pre-teen girls. They were easy to read, with a lot of comforting repetition of plots and people, the characters were clearly presented, and the world the stories described combined the glamour of the unknown with the authenticity of the just-about-familiar.
A boarding school on the Cornish coast, looking remarkably like the University of St Andrews, was as magical as Hogwarts Academy. The girls play lacrosse. (We played a game called King-He which involved throwing a ball to hit someone below the knees.) They have dormitories and common rooms, stables and a swimming pool. They are all rich.
The characters have a robust school life. They work for exams, play tricks on teachers and on each other, put on plays, compose music, write poetry, participate in a variety of competitive sports, go riding, have midnight feasts.
The same values are promoted over and again. It’s good to be decent and kind. It’s good to work hard and be dependable. Courage and strong-mindedness and common sense are applauded. The head of Malory Towers says she wants to educate ‘sound women the world can lean on’. Can’t argue with that.
But tolerant they are not. Anyone who fails to display the approved characteristics is criticised, ridiculed or expelled. You can’t be different. You can’t be foreign, a category which includes anyone outside the UK’s Home Counties. You can’t be poor. You can’t be fat. (Slight contemporary vibe?) Silliness, fluffiness, sentimentality are derided. No drama queens tolerated here.
And yet the books present the same elements of popular drama which hook us in today.
Alpha Girls and Queen Bees: ‘I’m a bit afraid of her’
Bullies and victims: ‘We’d never choose rabbit-teeth to play Cinderella’
Nice girls and too-nice girls: ‘She’s a little-friend-of-all-the-world’
Jealousy and feuds: ‘Surely she wasn’t going to make that awful Daphne her friend’
Friendship and betrayal: ‘You know what happened last term. You stick to Susan.’
The rules of the closed world: ‘It simply wasn’t done for a new girl to speak out of turn like this’
Life lessons and personal growth: ‘You’re a strong character gone wrong’
Aren’t we talking every boardroom and workplace drama, every group hug finale, every series of Gossip Girl? In fact, aren’t these books the equivalent of today’s teen dramas? They feature mean girls, rich families, set codes of behaviour, insiders and outsiders, sibling rivalry, privileged institutions, sympathetic and non-sympathetic authority figures, spoilt brats. All the usual suspects are there.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Blyton’s books took a pasting in certain circles. They couldn’t withstand even the mildest critical analysis in terms of sociology, gender issues, linguistics, multi-culturalism. They were racist and xenophobic.
Shamefaced, we looked back and thought how could we not have noticed? Carlotta the Circus Girl. The jokes about the French teacher’s poor English. All those girls with boys’ names. The obsession with horses. The assumed superiority of the white English middle class. No, you wouldn’t have wanted a copy of Malory Towers or St Clare’s peeping out of your dungaree pocket, not even ironically.
Readers are still under the spell
Revisiting the books, I was surprised to find a little more substance than I had remembered. Of course, there is nothing like the sophistication of say, Antonia Forest’s school stories, and Blyton’s characters are painted in broad strokes, but they have more psychological depth and realism than I had thought.
The writing isn’t that banal. The two French teachers are described: ‘She was as sharp as Mam’zelle Dupont was simple, and as irritable as the other was good-tempered.’ Of another we hear that ‘Her ready sympathy was easily stirred.’
The most surprising thing was visiting the local library to find copies of the school series. There are plenty in stock, but they are not on the shelves. They are all out on loan, or reserved.
Recently, it was estimated that an Enid Blyton book is sold every minute. So in spite of the dodgy ideology and the generally flaccid prose, there’s another generation of kids reading with a torchlight under the bedclothes, falling under the spell of the most uncool writer in the world.