In a recent exchange, my cousin and I, both in our early fifties, recast our schoolmates and teachers as characters from Enid Blyton’s school stories – “responsible” Hilary, “pretentious” Anne Marie, “sarcastic” Miss Roberts, “fashionable” Miss Willcox… By the end of it, my cousin was Belinda, the talented artist of Malory Towers, and I was “Don’t-Care-Bobby,” the lazy underachiever at St Clare’s. In the superbly illustrated Dragon publications of the early 1970s, we can still see the girls we grew up with.
Blyton wave riders often contend with the author being labelled the doyenne of “middlebrow” children’s fiction. Critics tell us that especially in her school stories, Blyton perpetuates the British colonial hangover and xenophobia; her thin plots and mediocre vocabulary do as little for literature as her elitist schoolgirl characters. Hailing from homes of governesses and gardens, these “jolly”, “sensible” (and British) girls join educators and parents to preach values in One White Voice. However, most Blyton bashers concede that they only felt the slow poison of the author seeping into their systems as they grew older.
While Blyton may display her “xenophobia” in adjectives for the half-Spanish Carlotta (“wild”) and the French Claudine (“unscrupulous”) the girls who actually commit seriously “dishonourable”, “irresponsible” and “spiteful” acts are in fact, British. The liars and pretenders (Daphne and Pauline), the cheats (Ellen and Elsie) the arrogant (Mirabel and Amanda) the brazen (June), the snobbish, the malicious and the foolish (Angela, Moira and Gwendoline) are all more in need of learning the “British sense of honour ” than Carlotta or Claudine, whose antics amount more to high spirits and plain mischief. Actually, the author drops in a self-deprecatory remark every so often through Claudine who says, “Ah, you English! Always so serious!”
Whether in or out of Blyton’s books, most parents and teachers do speak in One Voice. But there are other voices in the school stories too, and Blyton’s Brits are not all as “jolly” or “sensible” as critics concur. Miss Quentin is ready to take credit for what she has not done. Miss Roberts is often completely unfair and high-handed. The pretentious Miss Willcox has her façade shattered by a gloating student, and a matron is dismissed for being “vindictive.” While Blyton is compassionate towards parents who have genuine problems, she has no qualms in shining a harsh light on a bumptious, overbearing father or a spoilt mother who create embarrassing moments for their daughters and arouse sniggers from their classmates.
Sprinkled through the twelve books of St Clare’s and Malory Towers, we meet girls on scholarships as well as those who have difficult economic and family situations. These girls struggle for popularity and with many a “dishonourable” slip, learn to find their feet. At the same time, others learn to understand the insecurities of those less fortunate.
Some students have modest or professional backgrounds. Prudence was brought up in a vicarage. Darrell’s father is a surgeon. Claudine, Mamzelle’s niece, does not pay fees. Neither does Eileen, the daughter of a temporary matron. When snobbish Angela sneers at these “common” or “charity” girls, others stand up for them.
Perhaps adult intervention could have stopped such “bullying” earlier, but Blyton gives only peripheral positions to adults, equipping youngsters with enough spunk and sense to sort things out by themselves. Just as the girls discover their own courage and talents, they discover their own vulnerabilities. It may be true that most Blyton schoolgirls have hot heads, bright eyes, sharp tongues and typical adolescent humour, but the question for critics is whether all these characters can be dismissed as static, single-sized British goody-goodies.
Elite or otherwise, schoolgirls over the world live fairly predictable and repetitive lives – tests, sports, debates and the like – and more so in the confines of a boarding school. Blyton’s simple vocabulary, which riles her critics, is exactly what makes young readers quickly capture context. Her nifty imagination fits in the drama of a fire, a circus encounter, a near death by drowning accident, and even a kidnapping – not to mention the tricks in the classrooms and treats by the swimming pool at midnight!
As a teacher of many years now, I am particularly drawn to the manner in which student initiatives are encouraged and given importance in Blyton’s books. In The Naughtiest Girl in School series, a student government actually exercises financial control so that none have to scrimp and none can splurge. It also impresses me that the system of going up to the next form or staying back is more to do with maturity than academics.
At St Clare’s, Elsie, who has been spiteful and a failure in class, is sent up to a higher form to make a new beginning for herself and Margery, whose standard of work was so low that she was put in a junior class, moves up to join the class she should be in when she works for it. Lucy is allowed to take a senior class scholarship examination so that she can stay on at school.
For all the criticism and bowdlerising of Blyton’s texts, for all the misleading, cartoonish covers of the Egmont imprints, Enid Blyton’s school stories are still well-thumbed books to be kindled.