Synopsis: Enid Blyton (Helena Bonham Carter) is a successful and prolific children’s author, married to publisher Hugh Pollock (Matthew Macfadyen), and mother to two daughters. Just before the second world war breaks out, her marriage starts to fail, as Hugh drinks heavily and she devotes more and more time to her writing and her ‘friends’ – the children who love her books. She embarks on an affair with surgeon Kenneth Darrell Waters (Denis Lawson) and forces Hugh to divorce her, then refuses him the promised access to their children and uses her clout with her publisher to see that he can no longer work in the industry. Despite all this, the main source of discomfort to Enid is the persistent accusation from the press that she is not the sole author of her tremendous catalogue of authored works…
I’m unsure how well-known it is that the BBC had a semi-official embargo on Enid Blyton, the prolific children’s author. Her stories were never broadcast on BBC radio during her lifetime, and it was only with the arrival of ITV in 1955 that her stories made it to television The digitised BBC archive provides a fascinating selection of letters by and about Blyton, which reveal some comically condescending attitudes to a hugely popular storyteller. The view that Blyton was a second-rate writer, and that the popularity of her work was inexplicable became more or less official BBC policy, as is indicated in this memo by Jean Sutcliffe of the School’s broadcasting department, sent in 1954:
No writer of real merit could possibly go on believing that this mediocre material is of the highest quality and turn it out in such incredible quantities. Her capacity to do so amounts to genius and it is here that she has beaten everyone to a standstill. Anyone else would have died of boredom long ago.
Ouch. Sutcliffe goes on to say that the trouble with Blyton isn’t necessarily the work itself, but that its popularity (or, tellingly for a BBC document of this time) its ‘commercial success’ is being mistakenly confused by parents for ‘quality’.
Knowing this about the BBC’s attitude to Enid Blyton makes Enid a much more fascinating watch. It feels a little like an ex post facto justification for the institutional shunning of the author. It’s not just that Blyton’s work was second-rate, it seems Auntie was right to be suspicious – as Enid was truly awful as a human being as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC’s Blyton ban is not mentioned or even alluded to in the drama. Indeed, it opens with an image of Enid nestled behind a BBC radio microphone, being questioned on the “subterranean rumblings” that she does not write her own books. Enid responds with haughty disgust, implying that a lack of public belief in her is tantamount to child cruelty, since she is the moral bedrock for her young readers. The very next image is a close-up of Enid applying lipstick. What better symbol of (feminine) mendacity could there be than make up – literally concealing your ‘real’ face? This first sequence can easily be read as the thesis statement for the programme, and, to some extent, the Women We Loved season, as a whole. This woman really is not what she seems.
The film amounts to a character assassination of the author. Enid, played with relish by Helena Bonham Carter, queen of the wild-eyed baddies, is cruel, selfish, childish and callous. She puts her career before husband and children (gasp), but continues to portray herself publicly as perfect wife and mother.
The film enjoys tearing apart the Enid Blyton PR machine, for instance, in a sequence which reconstructs the making of a Pathe Newsreel about the family, the voiceover of which ironically marks the distance between Enid’s self-created public image, as a driven career woman who nevertheless makes time to mother her children, and the reality that the children spend most of their time with nannies. There is here a clear delineation between the public face of Blyton (in grainy black and white), and the reality of her cold abandonment of her daughters. Enid is, according to the film, a fundamentally dishonest person.
She is also a determined one: her gynaecologist tells her she is unlikely to have children because of an underdeveloped uterus, she retorts, “If I want a child, I shall jolly well have one.” According to Blyton biographer Barbara Stoney, the stalled growth of Blyton’s reproductive organs at the age of 13, which coincided with her father absconding, can explain much about her perpetual adolescence. This seems an oddly antique idea about the location of female agency and experience – it reminds me of the ‘wandering womb as the cause of hysteria‘ notion. Stoney argues that the combination of Blyton’s childish outlook on life combined with adult literacy skills allowed her to write so successfully for young readers. The film takes this argument one step further, by implying that Enid actually uses her writing for a children as a crutch that allows her to escape from the realities of adult life.
For example, after spotting her husband Hugh through a window drunkenly stumbling around the garden, Enid retreats to her desk to compose lines from The Magic Wishing Chair. As Bonham Carter’s voiceover reads lines from the story, the image consists of a gradual dissolve between the printed words on a page, and grainy, brilliant blue and white images of sky and clouds. We move through these clouds in a first-person point of view shot, implying that we are in Enid’s imagination, where she is herself in the ‘wishing chair’, wishing, we assume, that she could be rid of Hugh.
Enid presents the version of Blyton famously described by her daughter Imogen Smallwood:
The truth is, Enid Blyton was arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct.
Enid’s other daughter, Gillian Baverstock, has given a wildly different account of her mother, that she was nurturing, fun to be with and hardworking. I suppose, though, that ‘beloved children’s author was a bit of a shit’ makes for a more compelling story than ‘beloved children’s author was an angel on earth’.
Still, I found the film’s incessant desire to judge Enid on the grounds of being a cold, egotistical fantasist frustrating. Enid Blyton was a troubling figure for many reasons. Her books were limited, repetitive and formulaic – hence the BBC ban. She had no compunction about including awful gender, race, class stereotypes in her books, and normalised a very narrow, middle-class view of the world. Criticisms of the author on these grounds – on grounds that actually have something to do with her public-facing career – seem to me to be more legitimate than ‘she was a bad mother who didn’t get along with her first husband’. By creating a pantomime villain of Enid in this way, the film dilutes its own critique. As an intelligent reassessment of a prominent cultural figure, then, it fails, even where it succeeds brilliantly as a compelling maternal melodrama.