A Biography of Enid Blyton—The Story of Her Life
Compiled By Anita Bensoussane
- Early Family Life
- Enid and Her Father, Thomas Carey Blyton
- Enid and Her Mother, Theresa Mary Blyton (Nee Harrison)
- First School
- Childhood Games
- Books That Enid Read as a Girl
- Senior School
- Her Parents' Separation
- Early Writing
- First Recorded Publication of an Enid Blyton Work
- The Death of Her Father
- Success as a Writer
- Marriage to Hugh Alexander Pollock
- Early Work and First Novel
- Life at Elfin Cottage
- Old Thatch
- Birth of Gillian and Imogen
- Green Hedges
- Divorce of Hugh and Enid
- Marriage to Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters
- Major Series and Other Writing
- Enid Blyton's Magazine
- Final Years
- Her Legacy
Enid Mary Blyton was born on 11th August 1897 at 354 Lordship Lane, a two-bedroom flat above a shop in East Dulwich, South London. Shortly after her birth her parents moved to Beckenham in Kent and it was there, in a number of different houses over the years, that Enid Blyton spent her childhood. She had two younger brothers—Hanly, born in 1899, and Carey, born in 1902.
Enid's father, Thomas, was a cutlery salesman as a young man. He then joined his uncle's firm selling Yorkshire cloth and, later still, set up his own business as a clothing wholesaler. He and his daughter had a close, loving relationship—both had dark hair and alert brown eyes, and shared an appetite for knowledge and a zest for life. Together they enjoyed nature rambles, gardening, the theatre, art, music and literature. When Enid had whooping cough as a baby, and was not expected to live till morning, her father refused to accept the doctor's opinion and sat up all night with her, cradling her and willing her to survive.
Enid learnt a lot from her father, especially about nature. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1952), she wrote:
"...my father loved the countryside, loved flowers and birds and wild animals, and knew more about them than anyone I had ever met. And what was more he was willing to take me with him on his expeditions, and share his love and his knowledge with me!
That was marvellous to me. It's the very best way of learning about nature if you can go for walks with someone who really knows."
Thomas also taught his young daughter lessons that would stand her in good stead in daily life. When she wanted to plant seeds in her own patch of garden he made a bargain with her, saying:
"If you want anything badly, you have to work for it. I will give you enough money to buy your own seeds, if you earn it. I want my bicycle cleaned—cleaned well, too. And I want the weeds cleared from that bed over there. If the work is done properly, it is worth sixpence to me, and that will buy you six penny packets of seeds."
Enid appreciated the seeds, and the flowers which sprang up from them, all the more for having been made to work for them. Part of the pleasure and value lay in the fact that she had earned them for herself.
Although she adored her father, Enid's relationship with her mother, Theresa, was more turbulent. Theresa was a tall, raven-haired woman whose life revolved around housework. She was not creative and artistic like Thomas, and did not share his interests. She expected her daughter to help with household chores but gave her sons a lot more freedom, which Enid, who was not very domesticated, resented. Stern and house-proud, Theresa did not approve of Enid devoting so much time to nature-walks, reading and other hobbies when there was work to be done in the house. Neither did she understand why her husband encouraged their daughter in such activities.
Enid began her schooldays at a small school run by two sisters in a house called Tresco, almost opposite the Blyton home. As an adult, Enid Blyton said about the school:
"I remember everything about it—the room, the garden, the pictures on the wall, the little chairs, the dog there, and the lovely smells that used to creep out from the kitchen into our classroom when we sat doing dictation. I remember how we used to take biscuits for our mid-morning lunch and 'swap' them with one another—and how we used to dislike one small boy who was clever at swapping a small biscuit for a big one."
Enid's days at Tresco were happy. She was a bright girl, blessed with a good memory, and she shone at art and nature study, though she struggled with mathematics.
Games that Enid played as a child included Red Indians, Burglars and Policemen, building dens and playing with tops, hoops and marbles. Indoors she played card games, Snakes and Ladders, Draughts and Chess. Her father thought that all young children should learn to play Chess because "... if they have any brains it will train them to think clearly, quickly and to plan things a long way ahead. And if they haven't any brains it will make the best of those they have!"
Enid loved reading. Among the books she read were Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies and Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women. She said of the characters in Little Women:
"Those were real children... 'When I grow up I will write books about real children,' I thought. 'That's the kind of book I like best. That's the kind of book I would know how to write.'"Enid Blyton enjoyed myths and legends too, and poetry and annuals, and magazines like Strand Magazine and Punch. She was fascinated by Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia:
"It gave me my thirst for knowledge of all kinds, and taught me as much as ever I learnt at school."Grimm's fairy-tales she considered "cruel and frightening" and, although she liked Hans Christian Andersen's stories, some of them were "too sad." Among her favourite books were Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books and R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, but the one she loved best of all, and read at least a dozen times, was The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. What appealed to her "wasn't so much the story as the strange 'feel' of the tale, the 'atmosphere' as we call it. It hung over me for a very long time, and gave me pleasant shivers."
In 1907 Enid Blyton became a pupil at St. Christopher's School for Girls in Beckenham. She was not a boarder, like so many of the characters in her books, but a day-girl. Intelligent, popular and full of fun, she threw herself wholeheartedly into school life. During her time at St. Christopher's she organised concerts, played practical jokes, became tennis champion and captain of the lacrosse team, and was awarded prizes in various subjects, especially English composition. In her final two years she was appointed Head Girl.
Outside school she and two of her friends, Mary Attenborough and Mirabel Davis, created a magazine called Dab, for which Enid wrote short stories. The title of the magazine was formed from the initials of the contributors' surnames.
Enid's first holiday abroad in 1913 was to stay with one of her French teachers, Mlle. Louise Bertraine, at her home in Annecy, France.
Thomas and Theresa had little in common and grew more and more unhappy and frustrated in their marriage as the years passed. They had frequent violent rows, causing their children great distress. At night-time, Enid, Hanly and Carey would sit at the top of the stairs with their arms around one another for comfort, listening to their parents' heated arguments. One night, when Enid was not quite thirteen, the children heard their father state angrily that he was leaving and would not be coming back. To Enid's shock she learnt that there was another woman in his life, Florence Agnes Delattre, a secretary, and that from now on he would be living with her.
Since marital breakdown was regarded as a scandal in suburban Beckenham in 1910, Theresa forced Enid and her brothers to pretend, if asked, that their father was merely "away on a visit." This pretence, which the family kept up for years, appears to have left Enid with a lifelong tendency to cover up anything unpleasant and put on a façade. In 1951 she wove this traumatic experience into a novel, The Six Bad Boys.
Her father's leaving was hard for Enid to accept and she seems to have viewed it as a rejection of her personally. Years later, when she was married, she had difficulty conceiving a baby and was found to have an under-developed uterus, equivalent to that of a girl aged twelve or thirteen. It has been suggested that the trauma of her father's departure may have had a long-term effect on her physical as well as her emotional development.
Deprived of Thomas's support and inspiration, Enid was now more than ever at the mercy of her mother, with whom she did not see eye to eye. To assuage her unhappiness she took to locking herself in her bedroom and writing compulsively, setting a pattern which was to be repeated in adulthood. She had a vivid imagination and had known for some time that she wanted to be a writer, and now she spent every spare minute honing her talent. Her mother despaired of her, dismissing her work as mere "scribbling." Enid sent off numerous stories and poems to magazines in the hope that they would be published but, except for one poem which was printed by Arthur Mee in his magazine when she was fourteen, she had no luck at this stage, receiving hundreds of rejection slips. Her mother considered her efforts a "waste of time and money" but Enid was encouraged by her schoolfriend Mary's aunt, Mabel Attenborough, who had become a good friend and confidante.
Towards the end of 1916 Enid Blyton was due to begin studying at the Guildhall School of Music. She had a gift for music and her family had always assumed that she would become a professional musician like her father's sister, May Crossland. Throughout her childhood Enid had spent many hours practising the piano but, as she grew older, she begrudged devoting hours to the piano when she would rather be writing. She was aware that her true talent lay in telling stories, but found it impossible to convince her family of that.
It was after a spell teaching Sunday School in the summer of 1916, while staying with friends of Mabel Attenborough at Seckford Hall near Woodbridge in Suffolk, that Enid suddenly knew what to do. She made up her mind to turn down her place at the Guildhall School of Music and train as a teacher instead. That would give her close contact with the children for whom she knew she wanted to write, and she would be able to study them and get to know their interests.
Enid lost no time in putting her plan into action and, in September 1916, she embarked upon a Froebel-based teacher-training course at Ipswich High School. Things had deteriorated badly between her and Theresa and it was around this time that Enid broke ties completely with her mother, spending holidays from college with the Attenboroughs rather than returning home to her mother and brothers. She kept in touch with her father, visiting him at his office in London, but she could not bring herself to accept Florence, with whom Thomas had had three more children, and she and her father were not as close as they had once been.
In 1917 one of Enid's poems, "Have You...?" was accepted for publication by Nash's Magazine. Since a couple of earlier published poems (including the one printed in the Arthur Mee magazine) have never been traced, "Have You...?" is the first recorded publication of an Enid Blyton work.
Enid Blyton proved to be an inventive, energetic teacher and, after completing her training in December 1918, she taught for a year at a boys' preparatory school, Bickley Park School in Kent. Next she became governess to the four Thompson brothers, relatives of Mabel Attenborough, at a house called Southernhay in Surbiton, Surrey. She remained there for four years and, during that time, a number of children from neighbouring families also came to join her "experimental school," as she called it. The accounts of lessons at "Miss Brown's School" in Enid Blyton's Book of the Year (1941) surely owe something to her years as a teacher at her own little school in Surbiton, which she later said was "one of the happiest times of my life."
It may have been a happy period on the whole but it was in 1920, while teaching at Southernhay, that Enid received the news that her father had died suddenly, of a heart attack, while out fishing on the Thames. At least, that is what she was told but the truth was that he had suffered a stroke and died in an armchair at home in Sunbury, where he lived with Florence and his new family. It appears that the true whereabouts of his death was not made public as it would have caused embarrassment owing to Theresa having been so secretive about the breakdown of her marriage.
Enid had continued to visit her father at his London office, despite being estranged from the rest of her family, and the news must have come as a dreadful shock. However, she did not attend his funeral or even mention his death to the Thompsons. It may be that, having cut herself off from the rest of her family, she did not feel up to dealing with such a difficult and emotional occasion and answering awkward questions from either her family or her employers. Or perhaps her way of coping was to shut away her feelings, as she had been taught to do as a child.
Enid persevered with her writing and, in the early 1920s, began to achieve success. Stories and articles were accepted for publication by various periodicals, including Teacher's World, and she also wrote verses for greetings cards. 1922 saw the publication of her first book, Child Whispers, a slim volume of poetry, and in 1923 a couple more books were published as well as over a hundred and twenty shorter pieces—stories, verses, reviews and plays.
On 28th August 1924 Enid Blyton married Hugh Alexander Pollock, who was editor of the book department for the publishing firm George Newnes. The two of them had met when Enid was commissioned by Newnes to write a children's book about London Zoo—The Zoo Book (1924.) Hugh had been born and brought up in Ayr and had joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers at the beginning of the First World War, being awarded the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) in 1919. His first marriage had ended when his wife had an affair, and he had to obtain a divorce in order to marry Enid.
The wedding, at Bromley Register Office, was a quiet occasion, with no member of either Enid's or Hugh's family attending the ceremony. The couple honeymooned in Jersey and Enid was later to base Kirrin in the Famous Five books on an island, castle and village they visited there. After the wedding Enid and Hugh lived first of all in an apartment in Chelsea, moving to their first house, newly-built Elfin Cottage in Beckenham, in 1926.
Enid Blyton worked on a number of educational books in the 1920s-30s, among other things, and in 1926 she began writing and editing a fortnightly magazine, Sunny Stories for Little Folks. It became a weekly publication in 1937 and changed its name to Enid Blyton's Sunny Stories, finally becoming Sunny Stories. What could be said to be Enid Blyton's first full-length novel, The Enid Blyton Book of Bunnies, was published in 1925 (it was later re-titled The Adventures of Binkle and Flip.) However, that book is episodic in nature, reading more like a collection of individual stories about two mischievous rabbits, and The Enid Blyton Book of Brownies, published in 1926, is perhaps more deserving of the title "first novel."
In 1927 Hugh persuaded Enid to start using a typewriter. Before that she had written her manuscripts in longhand. Hugh was instrumental in helping his wife establish herself as a writer by publishing her stories at Newnes and, almost certainly, by teaching her about contracts and the business side of her work.
Hugh and Enid led a quiet and contented life in the early years of their marriage, their leisure time consisting of gardening, occasional outings to the theatre and cinema, and seaside holidays. Hugh indulged his wife's playful, childlike side and they would build snowmen together, play "catch" and French cricket in the garden, and have games of "conkers."
In 1929 they moved to Old Thatch, a sixteenth-century thatched cottage with a lovely garden near the River Thames in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. Enid described it as being "like a house in a fairy tale." It had once been an inn and Dick Turpin was said to have slept there and stabled his horse, Black Bess, in one of the stables. There was also a tale of treasure hidden on the premises, which has never been found.
At Old Thatch Hugh and Enid began to have more of a social life, enjoying dinner parties, tennis and bridge. In October 1930 they went on a cruise to Madeira and the Canary Islands aboard the Stella Polaris, the details of which remained vividly in Enid's mind, providing her with material for books written years later such as The Pole Star Family and The Ship of Adventure, both published in 1950.
As children, Enid and her brothers had not been allowed to keep pets. Their mother was not fond of animals and their father was worried that cats and dogs might spoil his garden. Enid had once found a stray kitten which she called Chippy and kept secretly for a fortnight, but when her mother found out about it the kitten was sent away. Enid made up for that by having plenty of pets when she was grown-up—dogs, cats, goldfish, hedgehogs, tortoises, fantail pigeons, hens, ducks and many others. One of her most famous pets was Bobs, a fox-terrier. Enid Blyton wrote letters for her Teacher's World column about family life as seen through the eyes of Bobs—in fact, she kept on writing these "Letters from Bobs" long after the dog had died!
Enid and Hugh had trouble starting a family but eventually, on 15th July 1931, their elder daughter Gillian was born. After a miscarriage in 1934 they went on to have another daughter, Imogen, who was born on 27th October 1935.
1938 saw the publication of Enid Blyton's first full-length adventure book, The Secret Island. She had already written another fairly long adventure story, The Wonderful Adventure, in 1927, but that was really a novella rather than a full-length novel. Enid was by now giving more time than ever to her writing, relying increasingly on domestic staff for housework, gardening and childcare, and she did not have a lot of time to spend with her children. She played with the girls for an hour after tea and sometimes took Imogen out with her to meet Gillian from school. Enid and Hugh no longer had as much time together either. Both were very busy with their work and Hugh, who had been working with Churchill on his writings about the First World War, was falling into depression at the realisation that the world was on the brink of another war. He turned to alcohol for consolation, drinking secretly in a cubby-hole beneath the stairs, while Enid sought solace in her writing and in the close companionship of her friend, Dorothy. Dorothy Richards, a maternity nurse, had come to help out for a few weeks after Imogen was born, and she and Enid had quickly become firm friends. Dorothy, who often came to stay at Old Thatch, was a serene figure who gave Enid a feeling of security at a time when her relationship with Hugh was beginning to disintegrate, and Enid felt that she could rely on her and confide in her.
It was to Dorothy, not Hugh, that Enid turned for help and advice when hunting for a new and larger home, settling on a detached eight-bedroom house, about thirty or so years old, in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The house was mock-Tudor in style, with beams and lead-paned windows, and was set in two-and-a-half acres of garden "with a great many little lawns surrounded by green yew hedges." Enid organised the move in August 1938, while Hugh was ill in hospital with pneumonia, and her Sunny Stories readers chose a name for the house—Green Hedges.
Enid continued writing during the war years. Hugh rejoined his old regiment—the Royal Scots Fusiliers—and was soon posted to Dorking in Surrey to train Home Guard officers. His absence put even more strain on the already fragile marriage and, while on holiday with Dorothy in Devon in the spring of 1941, Enid Blyton met the man who was to become her second husband, surgeon Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters. Hugh had also become romantically involved with novelist Ida Crowe, and he and Enid were divorced in 1942. Kenneth divorced his wife too, with whom he had had no children.
Kenneth and Enid were married at the City of Westminster Register Office on 20th October 1943, six days before Hugh's wedding to Ida. Gillian and Imogen had not seen their father since June 1942, when he had left for America to advise on Civil Defence, and sadly they were never to see him again. Although she had promised that Hugh would be free to see his daughters after the divorce, Enid went back on her word and refused to allow him any access at all. She cut her first husband out of her life just as she had done with her mother, perhaps pretending to herself that neither had ever existed. In doing this she was continuing the pattern of behaviour—pretence and denial—that she had learnt in childhood, and making a fiction of her own life. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1952), contains photographs of her "happy little family"—herself, her second husband Kenneth, Gillian and Imogen. There is no mention of Hugh and, although it is not explicitly stated, readers are given the impression that Kenneth is the girls' father.
Kenneth, a surgeon, worked at St. Stephen's Hospital in Chelsea, London. He was an active man who enjoyed gardening, tennis and golf. While he was serving in the Navy in the First World War, his ship had been torpedoed at the Battle of Jutland, permanently damaging his hearing. As a result, Kenneth found social situations awkward. His deafness made communication difficult, causing him to come across as rude or insensitive at times.
Immensely proud of one another's achievements, Enid and Kenneth were very happy although they were bitterly disappointed when, after discovering she was pregnant in the spring of 1945, Enid miscarried five months later, following a fall from a ladder. The baby would have been Kenneth's first child and it would also have been the son for which both of them longed.
Kenneth and Enid travelled abroad together only once, in 1948, when they joined friends for a three week semi-business holiday in New York, sailing out on the Queen Elizabeth and back on the Queen Mary. Again, Enid Blyton was to use this experience in a book—The Queen Elizabeth Family, published in 1951. Otherwise, most of their holidays were spent in Dorset where they purchased a golf course and a farm in the 1950s. The farm in Five on Finniston Farm (1960) was inspired by Enid and Kenneth's own farm, Manor Farm in Stourton Caundle, while Five Have a Mystery to Solve (1962) is set firmly in a part of Dorset which Enid Blyton loved, with Whispering Island being based on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour.
Enid Blyton ceased writing her regular column for Teacher's World in 1945, after almost twenty-three years, giving her the opportunity to widen the range of her writing activities. Daughters Gillian and Imogen were both at boarding-school and she had begun most of her major series by then including the Secret series, the Famous Five books, the Find-Outers mysteries, the Adventure series, the St. Clare's books, the Cherry Tree/Willow Farm series and the Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair books. These were later to be joined by the Secret Seven books, the Barney (or "R") mysteries, the Malory Towers series and the Six Cousins books. Noddy made his first appearance in 1949 and by the mid-fifties there was a huge amount of Noddy-themed merchandise in the shops.
Altogether, Enid Blyton is believed to have written around 700 books (including collections of short stories) as well as magazines, articles and poems. She wrote an incredible variety of books for children aged about two to fourteen—adventure and mystery stories, school stories, circus and farm books, fantasy tales, fairy-tales, family stories, nursery stories, nature books, religious books, animal stories, poetry, plays and songs, as well as re-telling myths, legends and other traditional tales. She earned a fortune from her writing and in 1950 she set up her own limited company, Darrell Waters Ltd., to manage the financial side of things.
In 1952 Enid relinquished Sunny Stories after twenty-six years, launching her fortnightly Enid Blyton's Magazine in March 1953. She wrote all the contents herself except for the advertisements, using the magazine to mould her readership through her stories, editorials and news-pages, encouraging her child readers to be kind, helpful and responsible and impressing upon them that, if they used their initiative, they could do their bit and make a difference to society, whatever their age. Through the pages of her magazine she promoted four clubs which children could join—the Busy Bees (which helped animals), the Famous Five Club (which raised money for a children's home), the Sunbeam Society (which helped blind children) and the Magazine Club (which raised money for children who had spastic cerebral palsy.) Thousands of readers joined and Enid Blyton spoke proudly of the "army of children" who were helping her carry out the work she wanted to do.
Enid Blyton's Magazine folded in September 1959 as Enid wished to spend more time with Kenneth, who had retired from his work as a surgeon in 1957. By that time the four clubs had approximately 500,000 members between them and had raised about £35,000 in six years—an enormous amount of money in those days.
It was in the late 1950s that Enid Blyton's health began to deteriorate. She experienced bouts of breathlessness and had a suspected heart attack. By the early 1960s it was apparent that she was suffering from dementia. Her mind was no longer sharp and she became confused, afflicted by worrying memory lapses and seized by a desire to return to her childhood home in Beckenham with both her parents. Her last two books (excluding reprints of earlier material) were re-tellings of Bible stories, The Man Who Stopped to Help and The Boy Who Came Back, both published in August 1965.
Kenneth was ill too, with severe arthritis. The medicine he took for his arthritis damaged his kidneys and he died on 15th September 1967, leaving Enid a lonely and vulnerable woman. Gillian and Imogen were in their thirties by then, living away from home. They visited regularly and did what they could for their mother but she declined physically and mentally over the next few months, cared for by her staff at Green Hedges. In the late summer of 1968 Enid was admitted to a Hampstead nursing home and, three months later, she died peacefully in her sleep on 28th November 1968, at the age of 71. She was cremated at Golders Green in North London and a memorial service was held for her at St. James's Church, Piccadilly, on 3rd January 1969.
Several decades after her death, Enid Blyton is not forgotten. The best of her lives on in her books, many of which are still in print, and she continues to entertain, educate and inspire children around the globe through the words she wrote. She encourages her readers to look afresh at the world around them—to observe, explore, investigate, discover and learn. Long may that continue! To quote a few apt lines from Enid Blyton's "The Poet," published in The Poetry Review in 1919:
And soul of a child,
Enid the Writer
In writing this biography I relied heavily on the following books:
- Enid Blyton, The Story of My Life, 1952
- Barbara Stoney, Enid Blyton—the Biography, 1974
Additional information was taken from:
- Gillian Baverstock, Gillian Baverstock Remembers Enid Blyton, 2000
- George Greenfield, Enid Blyton, 1998
- Imogen Smallwood, A Childhood at Green Hedges, 1989
- Brian Stewart and Tony Summerfield, The Enid Blyton Dossier, 1999
I also used articles from The Enid Blyton Society Journal numbers 6 (Imogen Smallwood), 7 (Barbara Stoney) and 17 (Barbara Stoney.)