Enid the Writer
Compiled By Anita Bensoussane
- How Did Enid Blyton Become a Writer?
- How Did Enid Blyton Write Her Books?
- Surely Enid Blyton Must Have Done Some Planning Before Writing a Book?
- From Where Did Enid Blyton Get Her Ideas For Her Stories?
- Why Did Enid Blyton Write So Many Books?
- Which of Enid Blyton's Characters Were Real?
In her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1952), Enid Blyton says that, from an early age, she "liked making up stories better than I liked doing anything else." As a child she would go to bed at night and stories would flood into her mind "all mixed-up, rather like dreams are, but yet each story had its own definite thread—its beginning and middle and ending." Enid Blyton did not realise at the time that that was unusual, remarking in a letter to psychologist Peter McKellar on 15th February 1953: "I thought all children had the same 'night stories' and was amazed when one day I found they hadn't." She described her "night stories" as "all kinds of imaginings in story form," saying: "Because of this imagining I wanted to write—to put down what I had seen and felt and heard in my imagination."
The young Enid was keen to develop her writing and story-telling skills. She told stories to her brothers, made up her own rhymes based on the rhythm and rhyme-scheme of popular nursery-rhymes, kept a diary, wrote letters to real and imaginary recipients, entered literary competitions and paid great attention in English lessons at school. She also read widely. As well as fiction and poetry, she read biographies of famous authors and borrowed books from the library on the Art of Writing.
The advice Enid Blyton gives in The Story of My Life to children who want to write is: "Fill your mind with all kinds of interesting things—the more you have in it, the more will come out of it. Nothing ever comes out of your mind that hasn't already been put into it in some form or other. It may come out changed, re-arranged, polished, shining, almost unrecognizable—but nevertheless it was you who put it there first of all. Your thoughts, your actions, your reading, your sense of humour, everything gets packed into your mind, and if you have an imagination, what a wonderful assortment it will have to choose from!"
Enid began submitting her work to publishers when she was in her teens, but at that stage she received countless rejection slips. However, that only made her all the more determined to persevere with her writing: "It is partly the struggle that helps you so much, that gives you determination, character, self-reliance—all things that help in any profession or trade, and most certainly in writing." As we know, Enid Blyton went on to achieve phenomenal success, beginning with the publication of magazine articles and poetry when she was in her twenties.
Enid Blyton typed out her stories while sitting in her study or in the garden, her typewriter perched on her knees. She did not learn to touch-type but used her two forefingers, still managing to type with speed and accuracy.
Enid explains in The Story of My Life that she did not plan a work of fiction before starting to write it. Often, she had no clear idea where the plot was heading. Instead, she simply allowed the story to unfold in her mind as she typed, relying on her fertile imagination rather than on conscious invention. She compared the process to viewing "a private cinema screen inside my head... and what I see, I write down." In a letter to Peter McKellar on 26th February 1953 she added: "But it's a 3-dimensional screen, complete with sound, smell and taste—and feeling!"
When Enid Blyton was beginning a new book, the characters would appear in her head first: "They stand there in my mind's eye and I can see them as clearly as I see you when I look at you. I can see if they are tall or short, dark or fair, fat or thin. And more than that, in some queer way I can see into their characters too. I know if they are kind or unkind, hot-tempered, generous, amusing or deceitful!" Then she would see the setting—a wood, perhaps—and would start to explore the place, feeling excited and curious. Once the characters and setting were established she would begin to type and the story would flow fluently from her fingertips, at an astonishing speed:
"It is as if I were watching a story being unfolded on a bright screen. Characters come and go, talk and laugh, things happen to them... the whole story sparkles on my private 'screen' inside my head, and I simply put down what I see and hear.
The story comes out complete and whole from beginning to end. I do not have to stop and think for one moment. If I tried to think out or invent the whole book, as some writers do, I could not do it. For one thing it would bore me, and for another it would lack the 'verve' and the extraordinary touches and surprising ideas that flood out from my imagination. People in my books make jokes I could never have thought of myself. I am merely a sightseer, a reporter, an interpreter, whatever you like to call me."
Her letter to Peter McKellar on 15th February 1953 makes a similar point about the process of writing:
"I don't know what anyone is going to say or do. I don't know what is going to happen. I am in the happy position of being able to write a story and read it for the first time, at one and the same moment... Sometimes a character makes a joke, a really funny one, that makes me laugh as I type it on my paper—and I think, 'Well, I couldn't have thought of that myself in a hundred years!' And then I think, 'Well, who did think of it then?'"
It is worth exploring in a little more detail Enid Blyton's apparent ability to simply open the sluice-gates of her imagination and let a story flood out, without any planning beforehand. Critics have naturally questioned her claim to be able to do that, and the subject deserves closer examination.
In Chapter 14 of The Story of My Life (1952) Enid Blyton takes us through the process of writing a book, giving The Enchanted Wood (1939) as an example. This is an odd choice, since several key elements of The Enchanted Wood (which, incidentally, was written thirteen years before The Story of My Life) had been used previously in earlier works. These elements may have suddenly sprung into her mind as she worked on The Enchanted Wood, but they were certainly not new creations. Enid ignores that, presenting some of these things as having popped into her head completely out of the blue as she wrote the book, and declaring that she was as surprised by them as anyone.
She tells us that she began with the characters of Jo, Bessie and Fanny. Then she followed a winding path through a wood in her imagination, and suddenly saw "the strange Faraway Tree, a tree that touches the sky, and is the home of little folk. I had never heard of it, or seen it till that moment—but there it is, complete in every detail." In reality, Enid Blyton had already been acquainted with the Faraway Tree for about three years before writing The Enchanted Wood, as she had first written about the tree in The Yellow Fairy Book (1936.)
Enid Blyton goes on to describe climbing the tree in her imagination and seeing a door at the top: "... before I can knock, it is opened, and there stands a round, red-faced, twinkling-eyed little fellow, beaming at me. I know who it is, though I have never in my life seen him before. It is Moonface, of course." Once again, further investigation reveals that Enid Blyton had created Moonface previously. He too had appeared in The Yellow Fairy Book, complete with little round room and slippery-slip.
Enid then writes: "I can hear a strange noise—a jingling-jangling, clinking-clanking noise. What is it? Ah, yes, you know, because you have read the book. But at that moment the story hasn't even been written yet, so I don't know. I have to look and see what makes the noise." It is the Saucepan Man, hung with clanking pots and pans, but then Enid Blyton ought to have known that since she had dreamt up the character of the Saucepan Man thirteen years earlier, when writing The Enid Blyton Book of Brownies (1926.)
She describes following Moonface and the Saucepan Man up the topmost branch of the Faraway Tree to discover that "A little yellow ladder stretches surprisingly from the last branch, up through a purple hole in the cloud that lies on the top of the tree." "Surprisingly" may not be quite the right word, as the ladder and cloud also featured in The Yellow Fairy Book.
So, it appears that in The Story of My Life Enid Blyton is giving us a somewhat fictionalised account of the writing of The Enchanted Wood, making things neater and simpler than they really were. Some valuable insights into her creativity may still be gleaned from her account, but it does not portray the whole truth of what was obviously a rather more complex process.
That brings me on to a consideration of the notes compiled by Enid Blyton for the Malory Towers school series. These were first made public in an article by Tony Summerfield for Green Hedges Magazine number 17, Christmas 1995. Notes exist for all six books but Tony looked in detail at the ones for Last Term at Malory Towers, published in 1951. When beginning a new title in the series Enid Blyton would start by jotting down a list of characters from the previous book, before summarising the intended contents of the new story in a couple of pages. The notes for Last Term at Malory Towers contain some plotlines which were not included in the final version of the book, such as the death of Gwendoline's father and Gwendoline's friendship with Amanda. Other proposed storylines concerning Belinda, twins Ruth and Connie and a few more characters may have been rejected by Enid Blyton because of their similarity to incidents in her St. Clare's series. A spiteful Spanish girl called Juanita, mentioned in the notes, does not appear at all in the book as we know it. Tony Summerfield comments: "... one is left wondering if Enid actually referred to these [i.e. to the notes] when she wrote the book" and it does indeed seem that she may have dashed off the notes in a matter of minutes and then failed to consult them while writing.
Although I have provided some evidence of planning, which contradicts Enid's statement that she did not plan her books before starting to write, I believe that, in general, her description of how her stories came pouring out spontaneously still has a good deal of truth in it. We know from her publishers and agents that she worked extremely fast and could complete a whole book in an incredibly short time. At the height of her powers she produced around 10,000 publishable words per day, writing a whole Famous Five or Adventure book in just five days. We also have some of her typewritten manuscripts, which show that remarkably few alterations were made between first draft and publication. These facts alone indicate phenomenal speed and fluency, allowing little time for planning or research. The greatest evidence, however, lies within the books themselves.
Enid Blyton's vocabulary is repetitive, with the same words and phrases, like "gloomily," "queer" and "at top speed" cropping up again and again. She rarely reaches for a more precise word such as "grotesque," "disturbing" or "bizarre" instead of "queer," for example. The most likely explanation for that is that she did not, as a rule, stop to think about the exact choice of words but was indeed swept along by the force of her imagination, her rapidly typing fingers barely able to keep pace with her thoughts.
On the positive side it is perhaps because she spent so little time planning that Enid Blyton's writing displays an appealing freshness and spontaneity, making her books so immensely readable. Enid has a knack of painting apt, imaginative word-pictures without resorting to lengthy descriptions or complicated phrasing which would slow down the narrative. She uses natural-sounding dialogue and lively similes and her work abounds with alliteration and onomatopoeia, enlivening the prose and giving it a lilting quality. Her simplicity of style could actually be regarded as a strength. If she sometimes fails to stretch her readers' vocabulary, she definitely does not fail in stretching their imaginations and making them ponder moral issues. Tough topics like juvenile crime and marital breakdown are tackled in books like The Six Bad Boys and the clarity and fluidity of Enid's writing means that these deeper aspects of her works are all the more accessible.
Enid Blyton maintained that the gates of her imagination were always ready to swing open at the slightest touch. All the things she had experienced in her life provided her with material for her stories. These life experiences:
"... sank down into my 'under-mind' and simmered there, waiting for the time to come when they would be needed again for a book—changed, transmuted, made perfect, finely-wrought—quite different from when they were packed away.
And yet the essence of them was exactly the same. Something had been at work, adapting, altering, deleting here and there, polishing brightly—but still the heart, the essence of the original thing was there, and I could almost always recognize it."
In a letter to Peter McKellar on 26th February 1953 she elaborated on this, saying that things she had seen on holidays, such as islands, castles and caves, would pop up frequently in her stories as she wrote:
"These things come up time and again in my stories, changed, sometimes almost unrecognisable—and then I see a detail that makes me say—yes—that's one of the Cheddar Caves, surely! Characters also remind me of people I have met—I think my imagination contains all the things I have ever seen or heard, things my conscious mind has long forgotten—and they have all been jumbled about till a light penetrates into the mass, and a happening here or an object there is taken out, transmuted, or formed into something that takes a natural and rightful place in the story—or I may recognise it—or I may not—I don't think that I use anything I have not seen or experienced—I don't think I could. I don't think one can take out of one's mind more than one puts in... Our books are facets of ourselves."
Enid Blyton took a great interest in children of all ages, saying: "I want to know you from the very beginning, and go with you all through your childhood till you are old enough to read adult books. I don't want you to be friends with me at one age only, I want to keep in touch with you all through your childhood days." Therefore she wrote for a wide age-range, from the Noddy stories, which are written for very young children, to the more sophisticated mystery and adventure stories. Having so many interests, Enid Blyton loved the challenge of writing about different subjects too. She is best-known for her mystery and adventure books, and for Noddy, but she also wrote school stories, nature books, religious books, animal stories, tales of farms and circuses, family novels, fantasy stories, fairy-tales and nursery tales, poetry, songs, plays and articles, as well as re-telling traditional myths, legends, fables and folk-tales.
The magazines which Enid Blyton wrote and edited—first Sunny Stories and then Enid Blyton's Magazine—kept her in touch with her readers. She wrote in her editorials about her home and family, her garden, her pets and places she had visited. Children felt that they knew her as a friend and would write to her, receiving chatty hand-written letters in reply. Some corresponded with her for years, even into adulthood. This close contact with her readers meant that Enid knew what kinds of stories would appeal to them. Some of the short stories in her magazines were inspired by letters she had received from readers, telling her about interesting or amusing things that had happened to them.
Enid Blyton wrote not only to entertain children but to educate and guide them, and her books invariably contain sound morals. In a letter to librarian Mr. S. C. Dedman in September 1949 she confided: "I'm not out only to tell stories, much as I love this—I am out to inculcate decent thinking, loyalty, honesty, kindliness, and all the things that children should be taught."
As Enid Blyton says to her readers in The Story of My Life: "Even if you have never met me, you know me very well because you have read so many books of mine... I am sure that you know exactly what I stand for, and the things I believe in, without any doubt at all."
Bill Smugs of the Adventure series was inspired by a man Enid Blyton and her husband Kenneth met one year while on holiday in Swanage, Dorset. The man said he would like to have adventures, adding: "I'd like to have been in the Secret Service, or something like that. Couldn't you possibly put me into a book and make me a Secret Service man? I really could have adventures then... Put me in as I am, with no hair on top, and anything else you like. And call me—let me see—yes—call me Bill Smugs, will you? That is what I used to call myself as a boy."
Enid Blyton comments in The Story of My Life: "Well, when I wrote the first Adventure book, The Island of Adventure, lo and behold, up popped Bill Smugs into the story. I was rather astonished. There he was, bald head and all—and in the Secret Service too!"
George in the Famous Five books was based on a real girl: "The real George was short-haired, freckled, sturdy, and snub-nosed. She was bold and daring, hot-tempered and loyal. She was sulky, as George is, too, but she isn't now. We grow out of those failings—or we should! Do you like George? I do."
It is said that Enid Blyton confessed to literary agent Rosica Colin that George was based on herself.
Police Inspector Stephen Jennings was the inspiration for Inspector Jenks in the Find-Outers Mystery books. When Jennings was promoted to Chief Inspector and then Superintendent, Enid gave Jenks promotion too! She wrote that Stephen Jennings was "as broad and burly, and kindly and shrewd and trustable as Inspector Jenks is in the Mysteries."
Fatty, or Frederick, in the Find-Outers Mystery books was based on "a plump, ingenious, very amusing boy" whom Enid Blyton once knew.
Claudine of the St. Clare's series was inspired by a Belgian girl from Enid's schooldays. "She was extremely naughty, very daring, not at all truthful, and hated games. She was, as our form-mistress said, 'as artful as a bagful of monkeys,' and yet everyone liked her. She would go to great extremes to 'pay back' a slight, or to return a kindness."
Plump, amusing, hot-tempered Mam'zelle in the St. Clare's books was modelled on one of the French mistresses who taught Enid Blyton at school: "She did many of the things she does in the books. She flew into rages, she stamped and wailed aloud at our stupidity. She was terrified of bats, mice, beetles, bees and spiders." Enid and her friends played tricks on Mam'zelle and she always fell for them, much to the girls' delight. She was theatrical in her displays of anger but she had a marvellous sense of humour and the girls loved her.
Naughty Amelia Jane was a rag doll belonging to Enid's elder daughter, Gillian. "How we all loved Amelia Jane, with her corkscrew hair, her big loose limbs, and her wicked face." When Gillian's friends came to tea, Enid Blyton would sit Amelia Jane on her knee and make her kick biscuits high into the air or smack the dog on the nose, to the amusement of the children.
Kiki the parrot in the Adventure books was based on a parrot named Kiki owned by Enid's old aunt. Enid says: "She was a wonderful parrot, intelligent, talkative and mischievous."
Black cocker spaniel Loony in the Barney Mysteries (also known as the "R" Mysteries) was inspired by Enid Blyton's dog, Laddie: "I had to put Laddie into a book. He is so beautiful, so mad, and sometimes so extraordinarily silly."
Bimbo and Topsy
The stars of the book Bimbo and Topsy, Bimbo the Siamese cat and Topsy the fox-terrier, were real pets belonging to Enid Blyton.
In gathering information on Enid Blyton and her writing I made use of the following books and articles:
- Enid Blyton, The Story of My Life, 1952
- Enid Blyton, "A Letter from Enid Blyton," The Big Enid Blyton Book, 1961
- Barbara Stoney, Enid Blyton—The Biography, 1974 (especially Appendix 8, "Correspondence with Peter McKellar")
- Tony Summerfield, "Back to School," Green Hedges Magazine No. 17, Christmas 1995