Her bestselling adventure stories have entertained generations of readers but, like so many working mothers today, Enid Blyton struggled to juggle her career as a children’s writer with looking after her own children, according to previously unpublished letters.
Writing in 1950 to Roland Heath, her editor at Macmillan publishers, the Famous Five author confided: “I would love to write another book for you straight away … but I feel I really must cut down just a little on my books for a while – it’s really my correspondence that gets me down, and the continual public appearances I am always pressed to make.”
She continued: “I don’t feel tired, but I feel a bit strained sometimes especially when the children are home and we have other children in the house too – it’s such a strain to run the whole house, see to the children, keep my work going, and answer thousands of personal letters, which even a dozen secretaries couldn’t answer without being dictated to.”
Previously overlooked correspondence show Blyton struggled to juggle the pressures of motherhood and literature, a far cry from her modern image as a “ruthless writing machine”. The trappings of fame, including requiring to make public appearances in front of fans, also held Blyton back from penning more novels. “If I could give up all these public appearances it wouldn’t be so bad,” she said. “I don’t see how I can lead quite so many lives – especially as I really am not keen on much personal publicity!”
Referring to her second husband, Kenneth Darrell Waters, she added: “Kenneth is getting worried about my work. I haven’t admitted to him that I’m feeling a bit pushed after these holidays, in case he does something drastic, so please don’t tell him!”
These letters to Macmillan, one of her publishers, are in the British Library and researched by Andrew Maunder for his forthcoming book, Enid Blyton: A Literary Life, which is to be published by Palgrave on 8 December.
It draws extensively on Blyton’s business correspondence, including archives held by Macmillan. Written between 1940 and 1960, the letters are mostly about business although, as Blyton got to know the editorial staff, she discussed everything from holidays to work pressures.
Maunder, associate dean in the school of humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, and editor of the series British Literature of World War I, explained that they had been largely overlooked “partly because they’ve not been catalogued yet”.
Blyton, who died in 1968 aged 71, made her name with collections of stories including The Famous Five, Noddy, The Secret Seven, The Faraway Tree and Malory Towers, totalling more than 400 titles.
They encapsulate an age of innocence in which children search for hidden treasure and secret passages, with sandwiches and “lashings” of ginger-beer. Such is her enduring popularity that total sales have topped 600m.
Writing 30 or more books a year as well as looking after her two daughters, Gillian and Imogen, was not unusual for Blyton.
Maunder said: “By 1950, she’s on a kind of treadmill, juggling the demands of family, husband and home. At one point, it sounds like things are coming to a halt because she can’t cope any more. So this goes against the idea that she’s a ruthless writing machine … Juggling all these different commitments starts to take its toll. She literally just worked all the time. She didn’t have a secretary. So she did all her own correspondence, everything.”
He added: “It kicks back at the idea that Blyton was some kind of monster or a bad mother, which came out in a BBC film with Helena Bonham Carter, where she’s presented as some kind of psychopath. These letters re-establish her as an early career woman and concerned mother.”
But she was overwhelmed by her popularity, writing to her editor in 1943: “I was amused to see that the excellent bookshop here had one of its windows devoted to Enid Blyton books. I went in and made myself known to the manager, who was overcome with delight as it appears that the children of Swanage are one and all my fans, and he cannot get a quarter of my books that he wants … I have promised to go to his shop … next week and autograph any books the children bring … I am afraid his shop will be crowded out.”
Earlier this year, English Heritage acknowledged the “racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit” in Blyton’s writing. It points to a 1966 Guardian article that highlights the racism of Blyton’s The Little Black Doll. In the story the doll of the title, Sambo, ostracised for its “ugly black face”, is only accepted when its face is washed “clean” by the rain.