BY RUCHIRA GHOSH
In India, the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton have mercifully never fallen out of fashion or favour. It is through these novels that many Indians learn not only the English language but also about British culture.
Even on Enid Blyton’s 123rd birthday, she is as relevant as when I was a child and growing up on her many works. From toddlers to teens, generations after generations of boys and girls – majorly in English speaking countries across the globe – have savoured Blyton’s stories. Through the crests and troughs of a turbulent personal life, Enid kept on writing, pouring out her emotions, imagination and fantasy – mingled with subtle affection for the little ones – into magical words, weaving a myriad of colourful shapes and forms into one whimsical whole. Indeed, no other English author has so steadfastly devoted their writing to young imaginations.
I loved, and still love, everything about Enid Blyton. Her unique and characteristic signature is like none other: that idyllic chocolate box countryside for which tourists yearn and in which the English wish to live. Enid Blyton’s style and diction have a spontaneous direct appeal to the hearts and minds of all her readers no matter what social category or age group they may belong to. In each short story or novel, the readers perceive the language to be crystal clear; it is the feeling one gets when watching freshly poured champagne fizzle against a fragile flute. The vocabulary is simple and hassle free, thus, for Indians, eliminating the necessity to ferret out a dictionary in the midst of reading.
As a South Asian child of the 1960’s, I had the privilege of growing up on a staple diet of Blyton’s works. On a personal note, my entire schooling was accomplished in missionary (a.k.a convent) schools. Since Blyton’s works formed an integral part of that social milieu, I took to reading them just as fish take to water. In fact, a vast chunk of Enid’s novels are mystery and adventure stories peopled by sleuths who are rather young but plucky and intelligent as well.
Day in and day out I delighted myself by sharing the adventures of the “Five Find outers”, Fatty (Fredrick Algernon Trotville), Larry, Pip, Daisy, Bets and Buster the dog, all of whom are residents of Peterswood village. Who hasn’t heard of the “Famous Five” siblings Julian, Dick and Anne, along with their tomboyish cousin George (Georgina) who is inseparable from her pet dog Timothy? The dogs of England so loved and well-cared for – it seems they too have a nose for mystery.
Then there are the juvenile detectives of The Barney Mysteries series: Roger, his sister Diana, their cousin Snubby, his dog Loony, and mutual friend Barney with his monkey named Miranda, who often get waylaid by baffling cases but invariably end up solving them. There are so many great Blyton novels.
Enid also penned two series of “boarding school” stories via Malory Towers and St Clare’s. The protagonist of the former is the gutsy Darrell Waters while that of the latter are the O’Sullivan twins, Patricia and Isabel. Two unforgettable characters of Malory Towers series are the pampered, rich spoilt brat Gwendolyn Mary Lacy and Ma’amzelle Dupont, the French tutor whose interjections alternate between ooh la la and tiens! Between the two of them, the school series presents vignettes of life in English boarding schools in the 19th century.
In the popular Amelia Jane series, the drama unfolds in the nursery of a comfortable British household. It is populated by lots of toys: Golliwog, Teddy Bear, Clockwork Mouse, Clown, Rabbit, golden-haired doll and last but not least the mischievous doll Amelia Jane. Blyton conceptualised the series particularly with toddlers and infants in mind.
Blyton’s other exclusively child-oriented works include the Circus series and the Mr Meddle series, the last one being chockablock with comic scenes, tomfoolery and such like.
Enid Blyton’s deep love for pets can be gleaned from the fact that pet animals and birds abound in most of her works. One of her novels Bimbo & Topsy appears to be a take-off of her own life since the pet owners happen to be siblings Gillian and Imogen – namesakes of the author’s own daughters.
For non-native English readers like me, Enid’s novels open up new vistas of life; the way it used to be in the English countryside many decades ago. We gaped in wonder to learn that even village homes had telephones, motor cars, electricity and that fire brigades were just a call away – some of these services are unheard of in remote Indian villages even to this day. Generations of Indian children grew up craving things they had not the faintest idea about all thanks to her. I wanted to have picnics in the woods with hampers filled with potted meat and ginger ale. I wanted tea with clotted cream and crumpets. I had no idea what any of it tasted like but that I even craved something clotted and something potted shows the extraordinary power of Blyton. She made even English food sound fabulously exotic!
We learnt that a larder was a place to stock food items; that scones were consumed with afternoon tea; that young sleuths often ate sandwiches stuffed with tongue of ham or lettuce or cucumber, other eatables include baked potatoes in their jackets, sausages and so forth.
Now the flip side… even at the height of her creativity during the 1960s, Enid Blyton was lambasted for her ideas and views and even branded as racist, homophobic and xenophobic. A case in point is The Little Black Doll who is detested not only by its owner but also by its fellow dolls. Crestfallen, it leaves the house to wander into a rain shower which washes its paint away to pink. After this metamorphosis, the owner and other toys duly welcome the doll back into the fold.
In another novel The Island of Adventure potential racism crops up as the family in question have a black servant named Jo-Jo who is very cruel to the children. Then there are the modern charges of sexism towards Blyton as the Famous Five novels often depict young female characters trying to act like boys only to be then cut down to size. On one occasion, Dick tells George: “It’s really time you gave up thinking you’re as good as a boy.” Furthermore, Anne makes sexist remarks such as boys not being able to wear pretty dresses or to like dolls.
In earlier editions of the novel Five on a Hike Together, Blyton wrote George’s short and spiky hair made her “look like a boy”. These lines were later removed as they appeared to indicate that girls needed to have long hair to be feminine or “normal.”
I – and millions of new readers in India – can live with these stereotypes from a bygone age.
Critics of Enid Blyton ought to ponder the fact that an author, however liberal they may have been, cannot be held to the standards of ever-changing societal norms and ideas. It would be worth their while to be less touchy about each and every word, phrase or sentence that falls foul of modern sensibilities. Instead, why not have a go at reading – and enjoying – Blyton’s works, so replete with humour, with imagination and with adventure?
In a sense, Blyton’s influence over Indians is likely far greater than her influence over British children. In England, she might have been a highly successful children’s author. In India she was, as we call it nowadays, an influencer. She colonised young Indian minds far more effectively than the East India Company. And she has remained in the enchanted woods of Blyton long after the British left.
New Delhi-based journalist Ruchira Adhikari Ghosh has regularly contributed to noted dailies The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Pioneer and journals like Society and Savvy.