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GEORGE OF THE FARAWAY TREE

- Enid Blyton, just 117 yesterday, continues to enchant children and provoke adults

In the BBC 4 biopic, Enid (2009), there is a scene in which Enid Blyton, played by Helena Bonham Carter, consults a gynaecologist about the problems she is having in conceiving. The doctor tells her that she has an underdeveloped uterus, “like that of a 12 or 13-year-old girl”. Bonham Carter’s Enid takes in the information almost unfazed, as if she had expected such a fact about her body all along, although a shadow of shock, rapidly turning into anger, passes over her mobile face.

Blyton self-confessedly based the character of the tomboyish Georgina, who feels offended if anybody calls her by that name instead of George, upon herself. Significantly, George starts life at the age of 12 in the first book of the Famous Five series. She is intelligent, wilful, volatile, fiercely possessive about her dog, Timmy, and often found giving vent to furious bouts of anger — mostly directed at her father. Five on a Secret Trail, begins with crackling tension in the air, as George gets all nervy about a cut in Timmy’s ear and yells for help, at which the irritable father briefly opens the door of his study and slams it shut again, all the time glaring at the daughter. George glowers back, “looking exactly like her hot-tempered father”. Blyton adored her father, and was shattered when he left the family in her 12th year, and remarried. She was never close to her mother. George’s mother, the loving and kind Mrs Kirrin, has a quality of wish fulfilment about her. But even she does not try to stop George when she leaves home in a huff because everybody is laughing at the ruff Timmy has been made to wear. George voices apprehension that her parents would come to drag her back to the house from the riverside camp where she is sulking — her tone suggests that she is actually hopeful in this regard — but they never arrive.

Enid Blyton — the intellectual mother of several children of the 1940s to the 1980s who have been fattened on her stories, and the biological mother of two daughters — has been criticized on several counts in the last few decades. After having been accused of bad writing, political insensitivity, and of creating characters called, for instance, Dick and Fanny, she was nailed all the more firmly when her surviving daughter, Imogen Smallwood, published her memoir, A Childhood at Green Hedges in 1989. Debunking the myth of Blyton as a real-life Mrs Kirrin, always packing picnic hampers filled with ham sandwiches and scones and jam tarts for the children, Imogen wrote: “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.”

Blyon’s writing is full of abandoned children, who are either staying in boarding schools, going off on holidays on their own, or living with grandmothers and aunts. Her toy characters, like Noddy and his friend, Big-Ears, are, of course, orphans. But they never seem to mind the absence, and, in fact, make the most of it by having adventures in which staid parents can play no part. Beginning to write in the 1930s, Blyton inherited the Edwardian cult of childhood (epitomized by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan), where children were expected to live up to their role by being supremely innocent, wide-eyed with wonder, seeing fairies under every mushroom, wearing pinafores and speaking in fluty voices. As A.A. Milne exhorted his readers to watch (with moist eyes) Christopher Robin at his prayers, nobody would have believed that somewhere nearby Herr Freud was also talking of little boys plotting to murder their fathers, even if metaphorically. The real children, in contrast to the Edwardian dream children, often led blighted lives. A.S. Byatt’s Children’s Book (2009), loosely fictionalizing the life of that other celebrated writer of child ren’s tales, E. Nesbit, paints the darkness clouding innocence in sumptuous Pre-Raphaelite shades.

Blyton, for all her alleged mediocrity, seems to have got an inkling of children’s real passions, perhaps because her own 12-year-old self, with all its hurts, fierce anger, jealousy, resentment and the accompanying desire to run away, remained alive throughout her adult life. The mother who is “skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind” sounds suspiciously like a child, who has learnt to survive the hard way. If this ability made her a bad mother, it also made her a good writer. No wonder, Blyton continues to enchant. If Blyton had known about the terrible accusations, chances are she would have been unperturbed — she is on record saying, “I do not value the criticism of anyone over the age of twelve.”