Ideology: race, class and gender

The literary critique of Blyton’s work has continued well into the present, but by the early 1970s it was joined (and to some extent reinforced) by a rather different approach. The focus here was not so much on Blyton’s literary failings as on her political or ideological ones. Various examples of her work were accused of racism, sexism and class bias; and as her books were reissued, attempts were made to eradicate these. In this section, I will outline some of the main criticisms, and consider how her defenders – particularly David Rudd – have responded to them. Here again, my aim is not primarily to adjudicate on these claims. Rather, I want to look at some of the assumptions that inform them, particularly about child readers.

Blyton’s stories are set in a well-defined, stable moral universe. Distinctions between good and bad are very clearly drawn. It is comparatively rare for characters to change or develop. Characters who initially appear to be bad may turn out to be good, or (less frequently) vice-versa; and occasionally, bad characters will learn the error of their ways, and be redeemed. It is easy to map this morality in fairly absolute, binary terms. The forces of order, on one side, are ranged against those of disorder, on the other. Good characters are polite, clean and reliable; bad characters are nasty, dirty and feckless. And in many cases, these two sides are defined in terms of class and ‘race’ (or at least nationality).

The main focus of criticism in relation to racism has been the Noddy stories, and specifically the inclusion of the ‘golliwog’ characters. Bob Dixon, one of Blyton’s most powerful critics here, locates the figure of the golliwog in the long tradition of grotesque racial caricature associated with minstrelsy, alongside the black sambo, the merry coon and the pickaninny. In Blyton’s ‘The Three Golliwogs’, for example, the characters are named Golly, Woggie and Nigger, clearly indicating their racial identity. While the golliwogs are often represented as crude figures of fun, they are also seen as ‘naughty’ – as forces of disruption, and sometimes of evil. In ‘Here Comes Noddy Again’, for example, the golliwogs steal Noddy’s car and clothes, abandoning him naked in the dark forest. Meanwhile, in another Blyton story, ‘The Little Black Doll’, the lead character literally has to be washed white before she can be accepted by the other toys.

Critics also point to the fact that, in her books for older children, many of the villains are ‘foreigners’ of various kinds. In the Famous Five books, for example, the nation is often seen to be under threat from alien spies and traitors; while common criminals are sometimes given an ethnic identity (most notably as gypsies), as well as displaying a comical incompetence. Of course, Blyton is by no means alone among children’s writers here, and it’s important to recall that the first books in this series were written during wartime. More broadly, however, critics argue that her work is informed by a narrow and parochial notion of Englishness – embodied in her romanticized view of the countryside, and her picture of an unchanging, secure pastoral environment (although once more, Blyton is hardly unique in this respect).

On the side of Blyton’s defenders, David Rudd deals with this issue at length. Here, as in his response to the literary critics, he points to some striking inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the criticisms, as well as offering contrary evidence (both specific examples and statistical ‘head counts’). He disputes the claim that the golliwogs are always shown as bad, arguing that they are often fascinating, transgressive characters. He questions whether child readers will equate golliwogs with black people, and cites some interviews that suggest otherwise; and he questions whether ‘race’, or even skin colour, is necessarily the key issue at stake here. He also challenges the claim that Blyton’s villains are predominantly ‘foreigners’.

Similar arguments apply to social class. Here, Blyton is routinely accused of a kind of class snobbery. Her own background was certainly middle-class (although by no means affluent), and her success as a writer eventually enabled her to live in a large country house, insulated from the poverty and social unrest of the wider contemporary world. Her own political beliefs were rarely apparent, but it would not be unfair to characterize her as a traditional suburban conservative. Her books for older children largely feature privately educated, upper-middle-class children living in relatively privileged circumstances. Many of her leading characters – such as the children in the Famous Five – are themselves dismissive and patronizing towards the ‘lower orders’. Working-class children are often represented as smelly and dirty, as well as dishonest, vulgar and stupid: they are ‘dirty ragamuffins’ and ‘forlorn waifs’, only one step above animals. Like the character of Jo (who features in several books in the series), they have to be ritually washed and scrubbed before they can enter the world of the Five, or be morally redeemed. Meanwhile, many of Blyton’s adult criminal characters are implicitly working-class, and they are often held up to ridicule (not least by being given absurd names). According to the critics, Blyton‘s world is one in which social hierarchy is taken as a given; and greater wealth and social status often seem to equate with greater moral virtue.

Again, Rudd disputes many of these arguments. He shows that Blyton’s bad or criminal characters are by no means all working class. It is even possible, as the critic E.W. Hildick suggests, that teachers and librarians detested Blyton precisely because of ‘the discomforting accuracy with which she reflects some of the nastier traits of the children of the middle class’. However, it is doubtful whether this would have been Blyton’s preferred response: the Famous Five may appear to the modern reader to be priggish snobs, but the few working-class characters and ‘foreigners’ who appear in the books are undoubtedly seen through their eyes.

Gender is arguably a more complex issue here. Several of Blyton’s series – such as Malory Towers – take place in an almost exclusively female world; and in some respects, they might be seen to offer images of female competence and empowerment. However, much of the critical discussion here has focused on the character of George from The Famous Five. Interestingly, George is frequently named as children’s favourite Blyton character. It seems she was also Blyton’s own favourite, and may even have been based on herself. George is a tomboy, who refuses to be addressed by her real name of Georgina. She has short hair and dresses like a boy, and is more competent than the leading male characters (Julian and Dick) when it comes to physical tasks like rowing, swimming and climbing.

According to Dixon, George’s tomboyishness is not seen in a positive light: she is merely suffering from a kind of ‘castration complex’. She frequently expresses the wish to be a boy, and is sometimes ridiculed by the other characters on these grounds. For Craig and Cadogan, George is condemned to be a ‘pretend boy’, who will only ever be ‘as good as…’ For these and other critics, Blyton’s characterization of George amounts to a kind of anti-feminist propaganda.

Yet George can clearly be read in a very different way, as a kind of role model: although she increasingly defers to the boys (particularly the older Julian) as the series proceeds, she is competent, physically strong and assertive, and often takes matters into her own hands. She is also the owner of Timmy the dog, the fifth member of the group, who frequently plays a vital role in their adventures. George might well be seen as a representation of female power and agency; although the fact that she can only do so by refusing a female identity and taking on the characteristics of a boy might be seen to reinforce a ‘heteronomative’ view.

Ultimately, it could be argued that Blyton is attempting to have her cake and eat it here – especially when we also consider the character of Anne. As Liesel Coetzee suggests, George’s image of female agency is contrasted with Anne, who is both smaller and younger than her. Anne is generally submissive and weak. She likes pretty dresses and dolls, and often occupies herself with domestic tasks like cleaning and washing up. George is often contemptuous of such feminine characteristics, although the boys clearly see this as a natural female role. As such, David Rudd suggests, there is at least an ongoing debate in these books about the nature of ‘gender appropriate’ behaviour. Meanwhile, Coetzee argues that Anne also demonstrates a degree of power, at least in her freedom to choose what role she will play in the Five’s adventures. Ultimately, Blyton may allow for multiple identifications here: she shows that girls can succeed in a male world, but she also reassures her readers that they do not have to be like George in order to do so.


Assuming effects

As I’ve said, it’s not my aim here to assess the validity of these claims and counter-claims. What I want to identify are the assumptions on both sides. The key issue here is to do with the effects of Blyton’s work on children’s political and ideological beliefs. Dixon in particular makes very strong assertions about effects, with barely any supporting evidence. He accuses Blyton and other children’s authors of ‘indoctrinating’ and inflicting ‘psychological damage’ – and indeed ‘psychological destruction’ – on children. In his account, this influence operates on a ‘symbolic and unconscious level’, and it is particularly powerful when it comes to children. The younger children are, the more ‘impressionable’ they are. The influence of single, passing instances or racism or sexism may be small, but it builds up over time; and, according to Dixon, ‘the more subconscious an influence is, the more dangerous it can be’.

In the case of racism, for example, Dixon argues that this can be damaging for black children as well as white. If black children are unable to see their experiences and cultures reflected in what they read, they will be unable to find anything to identify with. Dixon quotes evidence here from some US and British research pointing to ‘self-rejection’ among black children; although in fact this evidence doesn’t relate to children’s reading of books (or indeed their use of any other media).

There’s an assumption here that the qualities identified by adult critics – sexism, racism, and so on – will be transferred directly into young readers’ minds, albeit often ‘unconsciously’, without them necessarily being aware of what is happening. This argument depends upon a fairly simplistic notion of cause-and-effect, which has little place for the complexity and diversity of children’s responses. It also reflects a view of children in particular as credulous, passive and easily manipulated. It seems to be assumed that children will not read anything other than such books, and that they will never move on to different reading; that they will blindly accept what they read; and that what they read at a very young age will leave an indelible mark on their developing consciousness.

These arguments about media effects have of course been significantly challenged by many researchers since this critical work was written. However, it is worth noting that Blyton herself was very much committed to having an influence on children, albeit one she defined in moral rather than political terms: as she wrote, ‘I am out to inculcate decent thinking, loyalty, honesty, kindliness, and all the other things children should be taught’. She does not seem to have been a passionate evangelical Christian, but she clearly described her values as a result of her ‘Christian teaching’. As Dixon points out, she saw herself as ‘a teacher and guide… as well as an entertainer and bringer of pleasure’. In a foreword written in 1950, she says:

A best-selling writer for children (particularly the younger age) wields an enormous influence. I am a mother, and I intend to use that influence wisely, no matter if I am, at times, labelled ‘moralist’ or even ‘preacher’.

Blyton argues here that moral lessons (‘that right is always right’) will be more powerful if they are ‘intrinsic to the story’; although she occasionally intervenes in her storytelling to address children more directly, and to lay down a firm moral lesson. Even so, she is far from unusual among children’s writers in these respects; and of course the fact that she saw herself in this way doesn’t necessarily mean that she did exercise a powerful hold over children’s minds.

It also important to consider where these ideological criticisms might lead. For critics like Dixon, the attack on Blyton obviously forms part of a broader set of political concerns – and in some ways, she makes a very convenient target. Yet as is often the case, it isn’t clear what the alternative might be. On the one hand, there is a call for greater realism and accuracy; yet on the other, there is a call for more ‘positive images’ (for example, of ethnic minorities), which might well be seen as merely another form of stereotyping or misrepresentation.

Even at the time Dixon was writing, in the mid-1970s, Blyton’s publishers were already revising her books to conform to contemporary attitudes. Reportedly, there were up to 100 changes made in one Famous Five book alone. Some of this was simply a matter of removing or replacing old-fashioned expressions, or words that had acquired new double entendres. In the original books, the Famous Five persistently refer to events as ‘queer’, for example; and while characters like Fanny and Nobby have been renamed, Dick inexplicably remains. However, there was also a kind of ideological purification as well. The golliwogs in Noddy were replaced by goblins and teddies, occasionally endangering the coherence of the story. In the Famous Five, pejorative references to George’s short hair, and statements about what girls should and shouldn’t do, were often removed. As we shall see, family life was also represented as more egalitarian, with boys doing the washing up. This somewhat sanitized approach in turn attracted some criticism, and by 2016 it had largely been abandoned by the new owners of the Enid Blyton estate, the multinational publisher Hachette.

It’s also important to note the overlap between this form of criticism and the more literary approach. In the case of Dixon, as well as several of the other critics I have cited, political or ideological criticisms are reinforced by (and feed into) criticisms on the grounds of artistic quality. Dixon, for example, also complains about Blyton’s impoverished language and her lack of imagination, the contrivance of her plots and the sloppiness of her writing. He condemns her work, in strongly Leavisite terms, as ‘totally undemanding and conventional’. As Rudd points out, ideological criticisms are routinely made of Blyton, yet they are rarely applied to the ‘classics’ of children’s literature (The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan or the works of Tolkien, for example), which in some respects appear equally culpable. Despite their claims about Blyton’s class snobbery, the critics might justifiably be accused of bias of their own in this respect; and one might even argue that the ideological criticism of Blyton is (at least partly) a rationalization of adult distastes that have other origins.

On the other hand, attempts to exonerate Blyton from blame in these respects are not without their problems either. There is certainly a risk of ‘presentism’ in these criticisms – that is, of reading texts from the past exclusively from the perspective of the present. One might argue that, in most of these respects, Blyton’s work merely reflects the time in which it was created: criticisms that came later (indeed, after Blyton’s death in 1968) might be seen as almost anachronistic. One might even suggest that in some cases – such as the portrayal of gender in The Famous Five series – the books do not necessarily condone all the behaviour they represent: there is a difference between showing sexism and actually being sexist. And one might even forgive Blyton, as a children’s writer, for seeking to provide a degree of escapism and reassurance: she felt very strongly that her books should not focus on suffering, violence or unhappiness.

However, these ideological criticisms do raise concerns that cannot be easily overcome. Defenders of Blyton also make assumptions about how children do or do not interpret her work, but often on the basis of slender evidence (Rudd certainly has some, but his interpretation of it is not always well-founded). It seems unlikely that children themselves would read Blyton’s work ‘historically’, making allowances for the time when it was written. One doesn’t have to buy into strong arguments about ideological manipulation in order to accept that there are aspects of her stories that are simply offensive. Merely to show sexism or racism may not necessarily be to condone it; but if it passes without comment, and if it is openly espoused by the leading characters and embedded in the basic narrative of a story, then arguably it is.

Finally, there is little mention by any of Blyton’s critics of what might be seen as an equally significant dimension of social power; that is, age itself. While Blyton is routinely accused of various forms of ideological bias, this is an area in which her politics might possibly be regarded as ‘child-centred’ and even ‘liberationist’. This is an issue to which I will return in a later section.


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