Five in the Colonies: Enid Blyton’s Sri Lankan Adventures
June 25, 2012 | by Randy Boyagoda
Most mornings this past winter—the Boyagoda household already running late—I discovered my oldest daughter reading at the kitchen table: one boot on, gloves, hat, knapsack, and other boot nowhere to be found. So immersed was she, so indifferent to my pleas and threats, that finally I had to pull the book from her grasping hands just to make her finish dressing for the cold walk to school. This experience has made me more sympathetic to my mother, who once spanked me in a grocery store because I wouldn’t stop reading a book. It was by Enid Blyton, the British children’s writer who wrote some 400 nursery, fantasy, and adventure series titles that have sold more than six hundred million copies worldwide, mostly in Britain and the former colonies, including Sri Lanka—where as a girl my mother herself first encountered Blyton. I recently bought one of Blyton’s books for my own daughter. But before passing it on, I decided to reread it.
The book seemed innocuous enough. As with all of Blyton’s adventure stories, it was about boys and girls drawn into mysterious doings while on summer holiday. Bickering but loyal, they best adults who are either distracted and dismissive, or criminals capable of outsmarting everybody but the kids. Working this premise for decades and dozens of stories, Blyton enjoyed great success—at the time of her death, a book club devoted to her work had some 200,000 members in Britain alone. But because that success depended upon such patterned writing, she was also accused by librarians, teachers, and academics of relentlessly dulling the imaginations of her young readers, and of unjustly encouraging those who were reading her from abroad to make identifications that race, geography, history, and politics preemptively denied them. This certainly seems to have been the case for the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; in a 2006 interview with The Times, she explained that her development as a writer was stunted by her early reading: “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.” Similar notions affect the eponymous protagonists of Jamaica Kincaid’s novels Lucy and Annie John, who both declare they wish they were named Enid, after their favorite author. For both the young Adichie’s and Kincaid’s characters, mimicry and the desire for renaming aren’t simple expressions of literary admiration; they’re also rejections of the children’s African and Caribbean worlds, which have been diminished by their very immersion in Blyton’s books. The Blyton reading experience likewise impacts a colonial child’s maturation in Rohinton Mistry’s novel Family Matters, in which an intelligent Indian boy grows up reading her books and from this develops a dismissive attitude towards the foods and places and names that figure in his Bombay life. When self-loathing and alienation begin to build, he stops reading her; later, noticing her books on his shelves, he admits, “I can’t bear to even open them. I wonder what it was that so fascinated me. They seem like a waste of time now.”
Intellectually, I sympathize with these postcolonial renderings of Blyton’s invidious effects upon young imaginations, but my own experience isn’t captured by their accounts. The first Blyton book I remember reading, as a child of Sri Lankan immigrants growing up in small-town Canada, was Five on a Treasure Island. In it, four kids and a dog search for a cache of gold while avoiding grown-ups, dungeons, and other dark forces. I read other Famous Fives and Adventure books before coming to a disorienting realization. The kids in these stories were supposed to be white. I had assumed they were brown. These were, after all, stories my mother had read while she was growing up in Sri Lanka. I naturally assumed they were set there, and I populated them accordingly. But thirty years later, in reading the Blyton book I bought for my daughter, I didn’t find any brown kids. The Island of Adventure is a tale about holidaying children who discover a money-laundering operation on a deserted island and get into all sorts of trouble before saving the day. These children and their world are clearly British—their speech is punctuated by exclamatory “I says” and “spot of this, spot of that” quips; the oldest boy is already a devoted birder; and their pet parrot declares “God Save the Queen” rather a lot.
Still, these racially and culturally identifying details feel less significant than where they are, which is not England so much as an isolated, ramshackle old house called Craggy-Topps that overlooks a mysterious outcropping, the Isle of Gloom. As one child remarks before arriving, “It sounds as if things could happen there—real, live, exciting things, thrilling adventures.” This is how Blyton both claims and licenses a child’s imagination: her writing is invitingly simple and smartly predictive of what any green, flourishing imagination from anywhere would seek at the start of a story—a strange-sounding house to set up in for the summer, and an ominous island to explore every day in the company of fearless children.
I think this holds whether you envision these children as looking just like yourself, or as children you only wish you could be. I recently discussed these divergent experiences of early reading with David Rudd, a professor of Children’s Literature at Bolton University in the UK. He’s authored a study of Blyton that empirically tested the criticisms of her books—best summed up by a 2009 Guardian article that called her nothing less than “the most distrusted of writers”—by interviewing people from around the world who read them as children. He told me that “Most adults look on Blyton as someone they loved, but when they go back and try to read her they find her reprehensible in many ways,” which include simplistic, repetitive stories and bland characters. Formal weaknesses aside, I asked him if he also thought she represented British children’s holiday adventures as the impossible-to-have ideal of childhood experience itself, particularly for young readers in the colonies. He allowed that the books are based on “a British middle-class sort of place from the 1950s and 1960s,” but the colonial readers he interviewed “didn’t see England as such” in them. Instead, many tended to “supply their own local vegetation, etc.” When I told him that I once thought Blyton’s books were full of brown kids like me, he wasn’t surprised. “Everyone sort of inhabits the hero’s role.”
But maybe it’s only at a certain age that everyone can sort of inhabit that hero’s role. My oldest daughter, who’s almost six, has just entered what French psychologist Jean Piaget identified as “middle childhood,” that period when a child’s independence, imagination, and ambition are substantially more integrated and productive than in earlier years. I see this most in her new relationship to books. Unlike her younger sisters, she doesn’t want to be told who’s doing what in a story. She wants to figure it out on her own, and she’s able to do so right now without having to deal with the feelings of rejection and rebellion that will color her reading experiences when she’s older. At least, that’s how it was for me; I read Blyton in middle childhood, with an enthusiastic and innocent narcissism, and while I eventually adjusted my sense of her stories to admit white people, they remained very much my own imagined territory. And perhaps I never stopped trusting Blyton because I left her behind with middle childhood. In adolescence, I was still reading English adventure stories, but now they were Kipling’s and Conrad’s; I seized on their tales of dislocation at an age when my own sense of self and story and world were no longer so easily integrated.
Will my daughter claim Blyton’s world like I did, or will she be claimed by it, as happens to the children in these other writers’ accounts? Despite my parental and professional curiosity, I’ve decided not to ask her. Such a conversation might close off the exciting expansions and inevitable mistakes and reconsiderations that will shape her early reading life, whether it’s with Blyton or with the books that my Wisconsin-born wife will give her. And who knows? Maybe someday, she’ll write an essay about all those brown-skinned girls in the Big Woods of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Wisconsin.
Randy Boyagoda’s new novel, Beggar’s Feast, will be published this September. He lives in Toronto, where he teaches at Ryerson University.