Philip Hensher: The fatal childhood addiction to Enid Blyton

Probably every voracious reader now between 30 and 60 had exactly that heavy Blyton addiction

Tuesday 26 December 2006 01:00 GMT

A small and little-noticed event took place just before Christmas, with the publication of five translations in a less-spoken European language. Now, for the first time, Maltese readers can read Hamsa Jergghu Jmorru fuq Avventura and L-Ghaqda Sigrieta tas-Sebgha. It's taken some decades, but now Maltese children can read Enid Blyton in their own language.

A small step for Blyton's estate, which is already published in nearly a hundred different languages, but a large one to the children of this particular island. Because, as every parent knows, to small children, Enid Blyton is absolutely irresistible, and children who will read nothing will quite often read what you have of course recognised as the Famous Five and the Secret Seven.

Some children's books bear re-reading in adulthood. Even if they don't take the funny-uncle approach which winks at adult readers over the heads of the child audience, some children's books have a kind of noble simplicity which makes sense to a child, and makes sense again in a different way to an adult. The Alice books, The Secret Garden, even some of the lovely novels of Noel Streatfeild or Laura Ingalls Wilder can appeal again to a grown-up reader, so clear is their insight and so clean their literary style.

Indeed, some of the greatest classic novels, such as Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield or Catcher in the Rye have a kind of converse appeal to children; their mature simplicity making them accessible to quite young readers. The division between adult and child reader is very much more permeable than the conventional arrangements of libraries assume. In very many cases, a really good children's book can be read with enjoyment by an intelligent adult.

That absolutely isn't the case with Enid Blyton. One of the very startling experiences of growing up as a reader is picking up one of her books in adulthood, and trying to read it at all. I well remember, at six or seven, reading literally dozens of her novels - whole series, Secret Seven and Five Find-Outers and even Malory Towers and St Clare's - and being absolutely unable to put them down until they were finished. I could not imagine any book ever being as utterly exciting as those books were.

Probably every really voracious reader now between 30 and 60 had exactly that heavy Blyton addiction - I sincerely worry for the youth of Malta, who will, if they are anything like I was, finish the five books within two weeks and have nothing else, for the moment, to go on to. Probably every single reading experience ever embarked upon since then is an attempt to capture exactly that utter absorption, that wish that the world would just go away first experienced over The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat.

God knows how Blyton achieves this. To anyone over the age of 13, these books are literally unreadable. I tried to read The Fourth Form at Malory Towers a year or two ago; it was honestly about as demanding as Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies. It could hardly have been much less penetrable if I'd been attempting the Maltese translation itself.

Nothing seemed to make any sense at all; no act seemed at all motivated by anything; none of the characters seemed to be any different from any of the others, and when every detail of the landscape is only mentioned when it provides a plot function, the reader ought to feel exhausted.

They ought to be terrible books. The circumstances of their production are certainly not very encouraging. In some years, for instance in the early 1950s, Blyton published over 50 books a year, year after year. Some of these were just picture books, not far from licensed applications of her name as a trade-mark, but many are proper books, written entirely from beginning to end by Blyton herself - no one has ever found evidence of her farming out work to other writers, however mechanical her style and construction.

As is well known, Blyton's attitudes are often frankly antediluvian - they were reactionary at the time, and probably ought to have relegated her to the ranks of unread authors by now. Some tinkering with language and images of golliwogs has been bravely embarked upon by publishers, but still, "foreigners" are automatically funny, dirty or cowardly - it hardly becomes racism, so little does Blyton ever distinguish between different varieties of the non-English.

And, for a woman who made her own immense fortune, she is pretty clear about how women ought to behave. In one really remarkably nasty one, Six Bad Boys, a working single mother is condemned for not staying at home and cooking endless cakes for her demanding son - her neglect turns the hideous child delinquent. No child now, surely, would find this moral lesson anything but hilarious, or so one would hope.

And yet they are not terrible books, because they are written only for children, and children go on loving them, despite everything grown-ups can say. An impermeable curtain falls between the adult reader and the child in this particular case. You are absolutely wasting your time thinking these books, unreadable as they may seem to you, could be profitably replaced in your child's library by something better written, more amusing, more sympathetic in its moral outlook.

Basically, once a child has read one Secret Seven mystery, you might as well let the addiction run its ruinous course. The addiction to Blyton will come to an end, sooner or later; the addiction to reading she inculcates will go on forever.

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