Long before Harry Potter was even a twinkle in J. K. Rowling's eye, another British author staked her claim as queen of children's literature.
Enid Blyton was a lean, keen, writing machine who churned out over 700 books in a career spanning forty years. Devoted readers from Portsmouth to Port Elizabeth devoured her stories in their hundreds of thousands. Even today, translations of her work outnumber those of Shakespeare and Dickens.
Barbara Stoney's biography of this gifted, single-minded woman was first published in 1974. The current edition brings the story up to date and uses recently discovered material from Enid's early life.
Born into a comfortable London home, Enid's carefree childhood came to an abrupt end when her beloved father left his wife for another woman. Unable to share her feelings about this trauma, young Enid retreated to her bedroom to write fairy stories. It was a coping mechanism that would often carry her through the harsh realities of life.
Turning her back on a promising career as a musician, Enid followed a vocation in teaching. Pupils adored the cheerful young woman who turned their lessons into games, and it was through teaching that she began to enjoy success as a contributor to children's magazines. Young readers responded warmly to Enid's tales of fairies and goblins, while older children enjoyed her weekly observations on nature. By her mid-twenties, Enid was able to forsake the classroom for a new career as a full-time writer.
Stoney's treatment of her subject is largely sympathetic, but she doesn't airbrush out the less appealing aspects of Enid's life. A broken marriage, the sometimes harsh treatment of her staff, a stubborn streak and quick temper are frankly acknowledged. But Enid also learned she was a brand that could be a force for good. The mere mention of a children's charity in her magazine was enough to ensure a tidal wave of donations.
The biography highlights other contradictions in Enid's character. Her young readers seemed to sense there was a part of Enid that had never grown up. This empathy was to prove invaluable during World War II. As many British children found themselves evacuated to the countryside, they took comfort from Enid, who gently encouraged them to identify the plants and wildlife she'd so often mentioned in her writing. Yet, Enid was also a formidable businesswoman. A card index memory and a confident manner served her well in negotiating publishing contracts. But her publishers knew they were on to a good thing, ensuring that even wartime paper shortages wouldn't stop Enid's books rolling off the presses.
After the war, her popularity reached new heights with the Famous Five and Secret Seven books. But critics started to worry that Enid's influence on children was not entirely beneficial. Some claimed the vocabulary in her books was too limited, while others warned that children might never tackle more challenging forms of literature. The criticism came to a head over one of her best-loved creations.
Like Harry Potter in our own times, Noddy became an unlikely hate figure for those who took it upon themselves to be the guardians of children's development. Some librarians removed the books from their shelves, prompting the Daily Mail to defend Enid in suitably Blytonesque style:
"We'd better face it, said Big Ears sternly. 'You and I and all the rest – and that goes for Mr Plod, the policeman too – are like Librarian says, caricatures. And what is more, we are members of the intellectually underprivileged class. Noddy could not believe his ears."
Enid herself never understood the furore. In any case, sales of the Noddy books went from strength to strength, and a stage version enjoyed similar success.
The final chapter of Stoney's biography underlines that Enid Blyton's death in 1968 was by no means the end of her story. Books, television programmes, fan clubs and websites have ensured that her fame lives on. Celebrations to mark her centenary, in 1997, included a set of Royal Mail stamps featuring her characters, while her famous signature appeared on that year's London Christmas lights. Enid's charitable works have also outlived her, and many deprived children continue to benefit from the work she began.
But more than anything else, it's Enid's writing that has proved her enduring appeal. Her books continue to sell in their millions, and many of those writing for children today – J. K. Rowling among them – enjoyed Enid Blyton's stories in their own formative years.
It's fair to call this the definitive biography of Enid Blyton. The foreword by her daughter, Gillian (who died aged 76 last month) and the author's access to Enid's letters and diaries give the book an air of authority, and the inclusion of a 40-page bibliography reinforces just how prolific she really was. Barbara Stoney's own observations about her subject also provide a helpful commentary to explain Enid Blyton's complex make-up. The book is an enjoyable and absorbing account of a woman who, even in her later years, remained a child at heart. And that may have been the real secret of her success.