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Enid Blyton and the mystery of the blue plaques

The Famous Five react to Auntie Enid’s cancellation

Artillery Row

Julian, Dick, Anne and George — not forgetting the dog, Timmy — had come home from a hearty day’s hiking and adventuring in the wilds of Crystal Palace. They had enjoyed a delicious picnic of fizzy pop and sausage rolls, and even an unexpected encounter with a local ragamuffin or two had not shaken their equilibrium. So it came as something of a surprise to them on their return to find that Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin were sitting at the dinner table with very, very grave expressions indeed.

“What’s up, Aunt?” Julian said, with the hearty good cheer and premature manliness that had made him a favourite with readers of children’s novels for generations. “You’re both looking rather glum. Is it a demand from the Income Tax people again?”

Without speaking, Uncle Quentin passed Julian the lead news story from the day’s Telegraph. Julian looked at it with horror, mixed with incomprehension. Then he passed the paper over to Dick, Anne and George, who each looked at it with similar distaste. After each of them had read it, there was a stunned silence in the household, broken only by the ticking of the clock.

“That wonderful woman who was always so kind to us… Auntie Enid?”

Uncle Quentin nodded, sorrowfully and slowly. “Yes, although she isn’t your real auntie. She’s always been so kind to us, and to so many others, making sure that she tells the world about our adventures and making sure that everyone loves us. She is what you’d call a bestselling author.”

“What’s that?” Anne asked, with the pertness of youth leavened only slightly with the ignorance of those who have not been exposed to the Times Literary Supplement from an early age.

Aunt Fanny looked dismayed by the enquiry, but Uncle Quentin, who had read English at Oxford and thus Knew About Things, took charge. “A bestselling author, Anne, is someone who can write about people, and events, and make it sound like the most wonderful fun. And Auntie Enid’s real name is Enid Blyton. She has sold over 600 million copies of her books and has been translated into 90 languages.”

“Does that include Mumbo-Jumbo?” The look of innocence on Dick’s face did not preclude the smirk that came over it, and Uncle Quentin, looking sterner than before, replied, “No, Enid Blyton’s books were not translated into Mumbo-Jumbo. But by the sound of what English Heritage have had to say about her, it might have been better if they had been.”

He looked at the offending paragraph once again, with growing scorn. “It says here that Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit. And apparently the Royal Mint refused to commemorate her on a coin in 2016 because the advisory committee described her as ‘a racist, sexist, homophobe, and not a very well-regarded writer’.”

In quite a different tone of voice, Uncle Quentin said, “Well, that’s balderdash if you ask me, the worst expression of stuff and nonsense that I’ve ever seen. The books give such pleasure to tens, nay, hundreds of millions, and this is simply liberal claptrap at its most egregious. And it sets a dangerous precedent, too. If they write this tommyrot about lovely Enid, who’ll be next? The great Cecil Rhodes? Even…” — and they heard a catch in his voice now — “…Winston Churchill himself?”

The Famous Five noticed that Aunt Fanny was looking at Uncle Quentin with a slightly dyspeptic expression, as if she was about to say something controversial. Sure enough, with an unusual catch in her voice, she replied:

But darling… surely there is an argument to be made that times change, and that what was once regarded as all good clean fun could now be seen as problematic? It doesn’t take an English Heritage expert to point out that some of the issues in Mrs Blyton’s writing are offensive, even when you take out any questions of literary merit. Why, I remember that scene in The Little Black Doll that I refused to read to the children, because the doll, Sambo, has his ‘ugly black face washed clean’ by rain. And didn’t her publishers even turn down one book, The Mystery That Never Was, for what they called its ‘faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia?’

A tense silence developed among the Famous Five. They had occasionally heard rumours that Aunt Fanny had Opinions, but they had never actually seen any evidence of these being offered. And from the expression on Uncle Quentin’s face, the Opinion that Aunt Fanny had expressed was not one that could simply be swatted away with his usual cry of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, woman.”

They had vague memories of Auntie Enid not being quite as nice as they had hoped, now that they thought of it, and hadn’t her lovely daughter Imogen described her mother as “arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct.” They weren’t quite sure what this meant, but it didn’t sound good.

Uncle Quentin turned to his magazine that had arrived that morning, The Critic, and flicked to a page, muttering something about there being a young writer who was very sound on these cultural matters. With a look of triumph, he announced:

There’s a fellow named Philip Womack, who writes children’s books and suchlike. He’s quoted here as saying that ‘Blyton herself disputed accusations of racism, and an academic has tackled her entire oeuvre to show that her golliwogs are overwhelmingly kind. It’s teddy bears you want to watch out for. Enid Blyton cared deeply about children, education and the natural world. Her books do have literary merit — The Children of Cherry Tree Farm has some lovely passages. Ultimately, she puts the child right at the centre of things — and that’s why children continue to read her.

In quite a different tone, Uncle Quentin shouted, “You see! Even Womack gets it. English Heritage are nothing more than a bunch of philistines and nonsense peddlers! It’s about time that they woke up, otherwise we’ll cancel our membership tomorrow!” Then he reached for a bottle on the table, poured himself a large glass of something red, and looked angry.

Julian, Dick and Anne exchanged glances, and Timmy growled gently. This was turning into a first-class and thoroughly boring grown-up to-do, and they wondered if they should leave the adults to their arguing. Aunt Fanny was already turning to her copy of the Guardian and was about to start citing some young man with a short haircut and an angry expression who said that Auntie Enid was a vicious racist whose books should all be pulped.

The Famous Five exchanged conspiratorial nods. Time to head back to the park for another evening’s fun and games. And if they did happen to walk past that old house with a silly blue plaque on it, they’d make sure to throw stones at its windows, just in case someone thoroughly bad had once lived there.

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