Into the Enchanted Forest and up the Faraway Tree

Why is there a corner of the Indian heart that is forever Enid Blyton?

01 March, 2010

RAM ADVANI BOOKSELLERS sits in the heart of Hazratganj, an upscale shopping district in Lucknow, India. The store opened in 1947, just a few months before Partition, when Ram Advani fled Lahore, in the newly forming Pakistan, and set up shop in his new (old) country. In a city known at the time for its devotion to highbrow culture, aristocratic pleasures, and courtly manners, the place quickly became a destination and meeting point for the intellectual crowd, and Advani, now 88 and still running the business, acquired a reputation as an erudite host, known particularly for hand-picking recommendations for his customers based on long discussions with them.

Advani’s son, Rukun, who spent much of his childhood in the store, remembers the refinement and polish of the place, the neat rows of books, and the near-constant flow of learned patrons seeking to converse with his father. What he recalls most, however, is the single shelf in the children’s section that prominently displayed the work of the British children’s author Enid Blyton. “I was all of eight and a half years old in 1964, when I took The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage off the shelf,” says Rukun, who now runs Permanent Black, a well-known publishing house in Delhi. “I hadn’t read anything as good as that book before, ever, so I was hooked and read everything else by Blyton that I could lay my hands on for the next three or so years.”

At the time, Blyton’s books were just starting to become widely available in India, though Ram Advani recalls having seen stray copies in the 1940s and 50s. “I stocked these books,” Advani says, “because there was a demand, and it was taken for granted that a store like mine, which kept only books in the English language, would have the whole lot of the Enid Blyton series on hand. I confess I never read them.”

British children had been devouring Blyton’s work since the early 1920s. A poll recently conducted by one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Costa Book Awards, identified Blyton—who produced more than 700 books and 5,000 short stories during her 45-year career—as Britain’s most beloved writer of all time, ranking her above Jane Austen (fourth), William Shakespeare (fifth), and Charles Dickens (sixth). (Two other children’s writers, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling, ranked second and third, respectively.) Judging by sales figures alone, Blyton is adored not just by Britain, but by the entire world. Her books still sell more than eight million copies a year worldwide, for a running total of over 600 million copies sold. She’s the fifth most translated author in the world (behind Shakespeare and before Lenin).

What that means, of course, is that the majority of the kids reading Blyton in the second half of the 20th century were not British. In fact, most of them were the children of former British subjects. Life, for many of them, was something vastly different from the life Blyton portrayed, one in which childhood was a fun, glorious, liberated, comfortable, empowered experience. In his essay The Lost Childhood, published in 1947—the same year Ram Advani moved to Lucknow, Partition began the end of the British Empire, and Blyton published no fewer than 21 novels—Graham Greene wrote: “In childhood, all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and, like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water, they influence the future.” For many of Blyton’s young readers in places far away from the author’s home in the southwest corner of England, her books created a future, forging in them a passion for narrative, for written suspense, for words; shaping early ambitions and providing models; and planting the seeds for complicated literary relationships with the West.

Her books, as you probably know (unless you grew up in the United States, where Blyton remains puzzlingly obscure), typically feature groups of four or five children, often accompanied by a preternaturally smart and much-cherished pet, who find adventure and suspense, overcome obstacles, and generally have a jolly good time in ancient castles, on the Channel Islands, on ships, at boarding school, on mountaintops, by the sea. Her most popular volumes belong to series—some with as few as three books, some with as many as 33—in which recurring characters repeatedly engage in exploits that follow a formula established in the inaugural volume. There’s The Famous Five (21 books), for example, in which four kids and a dog get together when school’s out and set about becoming entangled in a mystery—not to be confused with The Five Find-Outers (15 books), in which five kids and a dog meet up on school holidays and become entangled in a mystery.

Other series place less emphasis on suspense and more on relationships among children, such as the St Clare’s and Malory Towers books, set at girls’ boarding schools. Some feature fantastic worlds, like The Faraway Tree series, about three children who climb to the top of a tree, where they find strange lands full of wizards and fairies, goblins and trolls. All of Blyton’s books have one key element in common: their child protagonists are free from adult interference. Though mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles appear, they’re usually too bookish and distracted (fathers and uncles) or too overworked and tired (mothers and aunts) to pay much attention to what their charges are doing. In addition, almost all of Blyton’s books share a foundation in an idealised English childhood. Though some of her protagonists experience difficulty in their lives (mild poverty, parents long dead, peevish guardians), their stories have happy endings (treasure is found and restored to its rightful owners, usually the children’s families; parents thought to have been killed in plane crashes turn out merely to have been stranded on deserted islands), and their days are filled with carefree picnics in the woods, holiday feasts, school competitions, visits from fun-loving cousins. Blyton’s children are so happy that their eyes are constantly described as “shining.” In other words, though her protagonists often find themselves in challenging, potentially dangerous situations, they generally lead safe, fulfilling, structured existences, where there’s plenty of food, a place to call home, and the general benevolence and care of grown-ups.

AGAIN, MOST OF BLYTON’S readers led, and lead, lives very different from the ones she portrayed. This is particularly true of her legions of readers from former British colonies. In the 1960s and 70s—just as Blyton’s work was beginning to come under attack in Britain for its casual racism—kids across the faded empire were eagerly discovering Blyton’s superlative vision of childhood. Today, those no-longer kids are happy to testify to the pure joy that vision gave them. Dozens of blogs from India, Pakistan, Australia, the West Indies, Nigeria and elsewhere mention Blyton at great length; others are completely devoted to her legacy, such as  Heather’s Blyton Pages, run by the 27-year-old administrator of a small software company in Australia. Nairaland Forum, a Nigeria-based website, maintains a running Blyton thread full of comments like: “Dame Enid Blyton was the best. I lived to read her.” A post on Aangirfan, from Pakistan, implores concerned readers to “note well that Blyton’s books do not encourage kids to overdose on heroin or commit gang rape.”

Hundreds of comments posted by international readers of these blogs confirm that Blyton’s books were a consistent source of happiness throughout her readers’ childhoods, beginning with Noddy when they were four or five years old and moving up to the Secret Seven by the time they were 12 or 13. Many, probably most, of the people attesting online to their nostalgia are in their 30s or 40s; they read Blyton in the late 1960s, 70s and early 80s, before television arrived in their countries, and well before it became available to middle and lower-middle-class families. Scrolling through, you can practically see their shining eyes.

Of course, stories for children have been around as long as children have, and some postcolonial countries were producing juvenile literature before Western Europe even dreamed up the printing press. In India, for example, Amir Khusro wrote verse for children in the 14th century. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rabindranath Tagore and Sukumar Ray became famous in part for the children’s stories and dramas they composed. In the mid-20th century, the Bengali author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay wrote children’s detective novels not unlike Blyton’s. But before the 1960s, much of what was available for children was transmitted orally or published in regional tongues. Plus Blyton’s books worked their own special magic. As Rukun Advani puts it:

There is something very specifically British about Blyton’s imagination which appealed at that time to the English-colonised Indian imaginations of urban kids who had access to English books. A very partial explanation of this is political. Upper-class Indian kids who had the reading habit were normally taught to look towards British culture as superior and worthy of emulation. A larger explanation is probably psychological or plainly to do with how imagination works: You tend to like what you’re deprived of in your own situation.

I grew up in the United States and was deprived of Blyton altogether. In fact, I had never heard of her until I met and married an Indian man, a writer. My husband, Siddhartha Deb, made occasional, maybe even frequent, references to Blyton, to the Famous Five, to Timmy the dog—they meant nothing to me, and for years I didn’t pay much attention. But I slowly began to notice that talking about Blyton transformed Siddhartha. He would get alarmingly excited when describing the island owned by Georgina, the tomboy who went by George in The Famous Five books. A youthful smile would take over his face. He’d pump his fist in the air and become animated in unfamiliar ways. Indeed, his eyes would shine. Essentially, he would look like a nine-year-old boy, his imagination apparently just as ignited in his nearly middle age as it must have been back around 1979, when he first encountered Blyton at the house of a rich relative.

“George’s crazy scientist father built a laboratory beneath George’s island!” he’d tell me. “George and her three cousins rowed out to the island all the time. They camped out. They ate ham, they ate egg sandwiches! Fruitcake!” Kidnappings, gold thieves, plots to steal plans for providing endless reusable energy to the entire world, then use those plans for selfish, nefarious purposes—it became apparent that I had no idea what I’d missed.

And then I began to notice that other Indian novelists I met and read about, and writers from other former British colonies (and from Japan, France, Germany, Holland and, of course, Britain itself) also talked often about Blyton, and that they underwent similar transformations whenever they did. They displayed intense nostalgia, as if they’d actually visited the worlds Blyton had created, and they knew they could never return. I heard them saying that, more than any other writer, Blyton had exposed them to the pleasures of fiction. For many, she opened up the English language, saturating the dry lessons learnt in school. She brought them inside an idealised world, the world of the former conquerors; in a funny kind of reversal, that world seemed as exotic as it did quixotic. Kids owned their own islands, ate Christmas goose for dinner, slept outdoors in fields of heather and explored moors and gorse and rocky shores. For a kid, especially a lower-middle-class kid from Calcutta, Delhi or smaller urban centres in India or other parts of the former empire, how could you get more exotic than that?

And then there was the food. Ham, goose, fruitcake? Siddhartha had no idea what those things were, but Blyton’s lavish descriptions of her characters’ dinners, teatimes and suppers, and the zeal with which the children in her books tucked into those meals, instilled in him a desperate longing for a taste. “The great punishment,” he told me, “is to land up in the West as an adult and to eat ham, and to realise it’s nothing exciting at all; it’s not even very good.” The Argentine writer and critic Alberto Manguel, who read Enid Blyton as a child in Tel Aviv, has voiced a similar sentiment: “Jelly was a mysterious substance which I had never seen but which I knew about from Enid Blyton’s books, and which never matched, when I finally tasted it, the quality of that literary ambrosia.”

“What were muffins?” said the Indian literary critic Nilanjana Roy when I asked her what she found so strange and wonderful about Blyton’s books as a kid. “How did you toast them?” Paro Anand, an acclaimed Indian children’s writer, had her fancy caught by scones with clotted cream—and tongue sandwiches. Subhadra Sengupta, an Indian children’s writer whose series The Foxy Four features a mystery-solving, adventurous group of girls, says that she has been more influenced by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay and other compatriot writers than by Blyton. But she still remembers feeling transfixed by Blyton’s descriptions of food, particularly éclairs. For the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it was those mysterious egg sandwiches: “I was puzzled by those,” she says. “We had fried eggs and boiled eggs, but egg sandwiches?” The writer Amitava Kumar, who grew up in Patna, explains it this way: “I had never encountered scones in my life, but the Famous Five would eat scones with butter or jam. For me they were signs of modernity. I desired them.”

PANKAJ MISHRA HAS WRITTEN extensively about the postcolonial desire for things modern and things Western. In his mesmerising novel, The Romantics, Samar, a provincial young man infatuated with Western erudition, moves to the swiftly modernising and increasingly cosmopolitan city of Benares, where he becomes part of an expat enclave, both finding and losing himself within its confines. Part of the conflict Samar experiences results from his love for books; he knows of the West, its intellectual and artistic culture, only through his extensive reading (of, for example, Schopenhauer and Turgenev, Henry James and Edmund Wilson). The difference between reading about it and exposing himself to it proves cataclysmic for his sense of identity.

While Samar is not an autobiographical creation, Mishra himself knows something of the difference between reading about the West and encountering it. Growing up in small towns across central and north India, his access to the outside world was extremely limited. Until he was eight or nine years old, he had not read fiction in English, nor any books written explicitly for children. He remembers going to visit his wealthy uncle in Bengal one summer, while his cousins were away. “I was given access to their books,” he recalls. “There were 25 or 30 of Blyton’s on the shelf. I devoured them all in the few weeks I was there. It was kind of a revelation.” They exposed him to the idea of the foreign, of faraway-ness, and to all of that idea’s exotic underpinnings; they let him feel the temptation of flight.

“The basic thrill Blyton’s books offered was one of fantasy,” he says. “I discovered there the urge for individual fantasy and escape, the whole idea that it was possible to escape into a different reality. And the details I found there, such as the presence of benevolent, if clownish, policemen, who were so different from the policemen around me, softened the harsh edges of the world I was in.”

But for Mishra, the repercussions of such discoveries were not entirely beneficial. “I think ultimately, reading Blyton’s books—and the more mature versions of fantasy that I sought out afterwards, like Agatha Christie—had a harmful effect; it delayed my progression as a writer. I didn’t think of books as anything I could write, or anything that could be written about the people I knew.” Other writers voice a similar sense of setback. In a talk at Harvard in 2007, Adichie talked about growing up consuming Blyton’s tales of gallivanting white children. As a result, she said, it wasn’t until she countered Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that she realised novelists could write about black people too.

Kirsty Murray, a young-adult novelist from Melbourne, Australia, also felt stymied. “My problem with the British/European landscapes in Blyton’s work,” she says, “is they had colonised my imagination so effectively that I felt nothing interesting could possibly happen in an Australian setting. Our ragged, sun-baked landscapes were so in contrast to Cherry Tree Farm, and our dry creeks so lustreless beside the babbling brooks of Blyton’s England, that I felt self-conscious about my country’s lack of twee charm.”

For the Indian novelist and poet Amit Chaudhuri, the unease came from a more direct feeling of humiliation. “I felt the same enchantment others did upon discovering travelling circuses, English villages, bobbies, seasides, picnics, bicycles, hams, scones, rashers of bacon and pints of milk,” he says, “but I have to confess to a discomfort with that world even as I was reading about it—not a retrospective disquiet based on what I learnt about Blyton later, but something I encountered as a child: a slight sense of alienation in the midst of the immersion. I sensed a cruelty even as I was devouring the stories, and a contempt for countries far away from England.”

As an example, Chaudhuri proffers one of the few references in Blyton’s oeuvre to people from other cultures. In The Mystery of the Vanished Prince, the Five Find-Outers have just returned from holiday and are nicely tanned. Then they hear that Prince Bongawah is in town, visiting from a faraway land. Playing a joke on their local constable, the butt of many of their jokes, the Find-Outers dress one of their members up as the prince’s sister, Princess Bongawee, who struts about in colourful clothes and a headscarf and bosses people around. “She acts pampered and pushy,” Chaudhuri recalls, “and someone in the books says that people from that part of the world are just like that.” (Blyton herself never travelled far from her rural England, and so one can only imagine—or understand all too well—where she might have obtained such ideas.)

Various critics have taken umbrage with what they’ve described as Blyton’s racism—as well as her classism and sexism. In the 1970s and 80s, British newspapers were flooded with calls for Blyton bans. The late Meenakshi Mukherjee, a well-known Indian scholar of English literature, once wrote an essay lambasting Blyton for having provided young Indians with, as she put it, “an effective insulation against reality.” Salman Rushdie has written similarly (but with far more fondness) of Blyton’s collusion, along with many other British writers, in creating a dream England, a perfect imaginary homeland, one which many postcolonials are conditioned to yearn for—despite it being, in his words, “no more than a dream.”

But it could be argued that the food and landscapes—the ham sandwiches on Kirrin Island—that both fascinated and alienated so many readers in the former colonies also helped them form the beginnings of their own voices. In Mishra’s The Romantics, Samar initially sees the West through his book-gleaned images of it, but the more he experiences the world, the more those images prove a mirage. He finds himself, and his own voice, only by navigating the gap between what he imagined and what is real; likewise, the writers who encountered Blyton in their formative years. If Blyton gave them their love for reading, their first taste of narrative in the language they would ultimately write in, their appreciation for escape, suspense and wonder, she also gave then an image of what they themselves were not, something to define themselves against once the wonder wore off. Or, as Rukun Advani says:

One of the key things about Blyton, as about any great writer, is to provide you with what in its broadest sense could be termed a secular worldview – that is, a sense of the coexistence of diversity, and of the many forms of life and livelihood and living, and of cultures and ways of thinking and being that are very distant from your own, and overarching them all the feeling that many of these things are exciting and worth exploring and worth absorbing as some part of your own identity.

Children nowadays don’t find Blyton very cool. In a poll conducted alongside the one by the Costa Book Awards, British young adults (as opposed to full grown-ups) ranked her only their 10th most favourite author (with Roald Dahl coming in first, CS Lewis second, and JM Barrie third). Nevertheless, she is, even now, 40 years after her death, never far from the public’s mind. Her books still sell well – albeit in edited versions that erase the most objected-to bits (for example: golliwogs, offhand references to slavery and corporal punishment, the description of a soot-covered George as “black as a nigger”). Recently, as part of its Women We Loved series, Britain’s BBC4 broadcast, Enid, a 90-minute, largely unflattering, biopic about Blyton’s life, starring Helena Bonham Carter. Last year, Disney launched an updated, hi-tech version of The Famous Five, digitally animated for television. In The Famous Five: On the Case, the original four adventurers are now the middle-aged parents of a new generation of adventure-seekers: Jo, short for Jyoti, George’s Anglo-Indian daughter; Ally, Anne’s daughter, raised in California, radiating glamour and bling; Dylan, the 11-year-old son of Dick, already a stock market wizard; and Max, son of Julian, hunky but dumb. To solve mysteries, they use laptops and cell phones.

Somehow, it’s hard to imagine this new bunch making the same impression their parents did. Globalisation and the growth of the middle class in places like India and Nigeria mean that there are fewer places in the world where scones are still exotic. At any rate, the new Famous Five salivate over pizza, not scones. Plus, in urban centres and small towns across the Commonwealth today, books have to compete with television, not to mention the Internet and video games.

Even the original Famous Five, or any of the other original series, though still read widely today, cannot shape young readers as they once did; their particular spell has been broken by political correctness brigades, British decline, and American superheroism, among other things. Shreya Krishnan, a college-age Indian blogger who now lives in Texas, writes thoughtfully about how irrelevant Blyton seems in India now. “There are only three years between my brother and me,” she notes. “However, his childhood is completely different from mine. We could have been in different generations. I grew up reading Enid Blyton, PG Wodehouse and Asterix… He started off reading American comic books, playing PS2, watching the Cartoon Network…I was mostly British with a little bit of American thrown in, while he was the other way around.”

For postcolonials like Krishnan’s younger brother, the Enid Blyton moment has passed. There is no longer a generation of young Indians, Nigerians or Australians aching for the taste of colonial victuals, for the realisation of colonial myths, for the possibility that they might one day become as free and happy as the children of a mythical England. This is, of course, in many ways a good thing (though their new set of longings, inspired more by globalisation then by traditional empire, is no less problematic). But reading today’s postcolonial writers—reading about love-hate relationships with the West, the anger and striving those relationships entail, the political awareness that is almost a birthright (and sometimes a burden), the forced self-examination and cultural confusion, the devastating effects of colonialism that still ripple through so many countries—it is hard to feel sorry that so many of them received Blyton’s books with such wonder.

In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Blyton addressed her readers directly: “I am your storyteller.” She wasn’t talking, we can be fairly sure, to the kids in Calcutta, Melbourne, Islamabad or Lagos. But those kids took what they could from her anyway, and they did more with it than she likely ever began to imagine they would.

This article first appeared in the Review section of The National in Abu Dhabi.