Greetings, Siberian Tigers of the Tundra!
It’s Women’s History Month and so this newsletter (E!) is very apt because of my subject. That reminds me though: I haven’t heard a word from any of you for the last three editions, is everything okay? Are you bored? Are you tired? Do you just want to read without the pressure of writing back? (I get it, me too.) Anyway, let me know something—anything—so it doesn’t feel like I’m writing into the Great Void. What do I do this newsletter for anyway if not to be constantly validated? (Only slightly joking.)
ANYWAY. Back to what I was saying, which is: it would be really hard to tell the story of my life without also mentioning Enid Blyton. I feel like she’s fallen somewhat out of fashion, whenever I stop off to buy books for my friends’ small children at bookstores I don’t see Enid anywhere.
SEGUE: A RANT ABOUT THE CHILDREN’S SECTION IN BOOKSTORES
Many a time I have been stuck at the last minute without a present and since I physically cannot go to a child’s birthday party without a present and since my presents are almost always books (this often pleases the parent more than the child I think but oh well, someday they’ll be happy with the books I give them) I used to stop off at the closest bookstore to pick out something for them. This is pre-COVID, you understand, when I could still browse in a small shop shoulder to shoulder with other patrons. Anyway, unless it’s a dedicated children’s bookstore (Bahri Kids is nice in Delhi and Lightroom in Bangalore is even better), the selection in most shops is terrible. Forget the more esoteric stuff (although would we call Pippi Longstocking esoteric?) there’s hardly any picture book classics, no Where The Wild Things Are or even The Cat In The Hat. It’s all 101 Stories About Ganesha and 20 Stories From The Ramayana mixed up with random Frozen merch. Not a Richard Scarry book in sight! Once, standing next to a father and a daughter, I heard him tell her to pick out a book of mythology, which is fine, everyone should know the old stories but must it be constant and must it be a chore and must it be the only thing your child is reading? I read wildly in my youth and only got to the myths when I was reading the Amar Chitra Katha comics to myself and I am now somewhat of an expert as you know so see, reading Enid Blyton or Astrid Lingdren in my childhood did not irrevocably corrupt me for everything else. It is a joy to be Books Auntie, sprinkling good things down on these kids and watching them discover Roald Dahl, for example, for the first time, but I have to do all my shopping in advance, from Amazon, which, as you know, is evil and killing authors and publishers with their heavy discounts.
Enid Blyton made up my childhood. So much so that I can’t remember the first book of hers I read, nor the last. Every Blyton entered my life as though it had always been there: I had always roamed through the Enchanted Wood with Jo, Bessie and Fanny (changed I believe for modern children, now they are Joe, Beth and Frannie, as though kids will no longer be able to RELATE to a kid called Bessie or Fanny. Why are we pandering so much? Next they’ll change Jo in Little Women to Josie or something and then you’ll all cry.), I had always had a Wishing Chair in which I could fly to faraway places with Chinky the pixie (okay, I get why they had to change his name to Binky or Winky), I prepared to go to Mallory Towers or St Clare’s, I solved mysteries with Fatty and his friends, slipped the password to the Secret Seven, went for rambling nature walks with Uncle Merry and joined the circus with Mr Galliano. At age 5, I proclaimed, “I love reading Enid Blyton but I think I’m too old for her.” (This was recorded for posterity in a school magazine and all the adults laughed, while I was bemused. What was so funny?) I understood, see, at age 5, that there were books that would challenge you and help you grow, and let you learn things as you grew older, and there were books that were comforting and soothed you and would feel good to read, yes, but would let you stay in exactly the same space of reading development for as long as you liked.
Enid Mary Blyton always denied that she used ghost writers, but she wrote about fifty books a year. Okay, a lot of those were short fables and stories for children, but FIFTY. It seems impossible. By the ‘50s, people were already objecting to her work, it seemed too sexist, too racist, too unchallenged to still be in kid’s libraries. (I have just discovered there’s a BIOPIC starring HELENA BONHAM CARTER, must see if I can get a hold of it!) She was born to a salesman (of women’s clothes) Thomas Carey Blyton and his wife, Theresa Mary. Thomas is the one who instilled a love of nature in young Enid, so evident throughout her books, the robins chirp, the flowers bloom, the rabbits.. rabbit, but he left their family when Enid was thirteen to go live with another woman. She was never close to her mother, and she doesn’t seem to have forgiven her father either, she didn’t attend either of their funerals.
Bad mothers abound in Blyton’s books, but you have to look for them carefully. For example, in the books for younger children, The Faraway Tree series say, the mother is sketchily described. She’s always busy, she always has chores for the kids, which is fine, but she doesn’t seem loving at all. Jo will describe her as “fine” meaning “amazing,” Blyton’s children don’t bitch about their parents, but she doesn’t do anything to be particularly wonderful. Other mothers are harried (George’s mother in Famous Five, the only mother we meet) or socialite-y distant (Fatty’s mother) or spoilt (Gwendoline’s mother in Mallory Towers) or stern and scolding (Aunt Lou in a relatively unknown Blyton book which I happen to own, Come To The Circus.) Unloving mothers make an apperance also in Blyton’s standalone books, with slightly adult themes. In Six Cousins At Mistletoe Farm and its sequel Six Cousins Again, the story is about a whole country mouse-city mouse situation. Three farm children have to put up with their citified cousins coming to stay after their house burns down. These city kids are the worst, by the way. The older boy has long hair and recites poetry (shocking), the girl likes to dress up and wear perfume (even more shocking) and the youngest, the only redeemable one, bursts into tears a lot. Everyone shakes down and gets used to each other, but in the sequel, things are almost as bad if not worse, when the mother of the three city kids comes to run the farm next door. Now this woman married one sort of man, a sophisticated city man, who promised her a nice life, and expected of her only that she keep his house well, look after his children and look beautiful. Then he suddenly does a FLIP, and is all like, “Well, I guess I’ll be a farmer now and why can’t you be more like my brother’s wife Linnie, who is the EPITOME of a farmer’s wife and why must you have parties and why must you have a maid and breakfast in bed and make tiny little sandwiches and in all this, oh, our youngest kid wants a dog so you have to slap a smile on and look after that as well and I am zero use to you and no support except for telling you how much I like my brother’s wife, Linnie.” At the end of the book, the “spoilt” city wife has to agree to be a country woman and stand by her man etc and everyone applauds her decision, but still, it’s a pretty grim punishment.
In The Family At Red Roofs, a family is suddenly thrown into the wilderness when the father disappears at sea, and the mother, weak and soft, takes ill and can’t be told her husband is missing. It’s up to the two oldest children, fifteen and sixteen to make money and look after the house, and in all this there are two other terrible mothers: one, the mother of the two kids the older daughter is nannying and two, the mother of her school friend. One mother slaps and is irresponsible, the other constantly breaks down and fights with her daughter. “Gosh,” thinks Molly, our heroine, “I’m glad my mother isn’t like that” but really, her own mother is completely useless, and no one can lean on her at all.
Fathers are absent in Blyton’s world, either zooming in to give good advice and disappearing (Darrell’s dad, Malory Towers) absent minded and cross (Professor Quentin, Famous Five) or wrecked at sea (Red Roofs, above) or dead (The Adventure Series). So it falls to the mother to be everything: parent and minder and caretaker and captain of small souls and of course, they are inadequate, because Blyton says they are.
She herself had a troubled marriage. She married her editor, Hugh Alexander Pollock, who was already married with two sons (one living and one dead) when she met him and had to get a divorce to marry Enid. Between 1931 and 1935, she fell pregnant three times and had a daughter (Gillian), a miscarriage and then another daughter, Isabel in 1935. By this time, Hugh became a heavy alcoholic and also joined the army again, where he met a woman he had already known years ago, Ida Crowe (who went on to be his next wife and also romance and short story author, Ida Pollock. Hugh liked literary ladies.) Enid, in the meanwhile, had already started to loathe her husband, supposedly when he was wounded during some firing practice she refused to go see him because she was “busy and hated hospitals.” But all of this is coming from Ida’s memoirs, so we don’t know how biased it is. Ida also said Enid had a lesbian affair with one of her kids’ nannies as part of a long series of affairs and rounds of naked tennis? Nude tennis was apparently a thing, but it sounds painful to me, all those boobs and balls bouncing about. Anyway, she properly hated Hugh by the end of it, she threatened to take her books elsewhere if he stayed on at his publishing house so he was fired and couldn’t find a job anywhere else, she promised him access to his kids, which later she revoked and so he fell back into drinking and had to declare bankruptcy eventually.
In all this, Blyton was carrying on an affair of her own, with a man called Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters (fun fact: Darrell Rivers from Mallory Towers was named after this guy). She married Kenneth as soon as she could, and changed her kids’ last names to his as well. It was an uneventful marriage, it looks like, marred only by the tragedy of Enid falling off a ladder and miscarrying their baby together, a son which they both longed for.
In her writing, she stuck to a schedule. A typewriter on her lap, a red shawl nearby (she liked the colour red, it stimulated her mind she said.) 6,000 to 10,000 words a day. The River of Adventure finished in five days. When she heard of a librarian claiming that she (Enid) hired ghost writers, she started legal proceedings against her. She was very proud of her output, and very upset that anyone should doubt her. She wrote, whatever you say about her, she wrote a lot, and came about her fame legitimately. Her kids existed in this postwar idyll, where nothing bad ever happened except maybe your parents got a little sick before they got well again. Except maybe your sister got trapped in a magic land over a tree and you had to go save her. Except that the village policeman might solve the mystery before you do, that your kidnappers will get away with everything before your cousins can run for help, you are never scared for your life, your biggest fear is that the bad guys will win. The darkest novels are The Adventurous Four series where actual Nazis are on the same island as the kids, and they have to get a message to “their guys” before the Nazis win.
You outgrow Enid Blyton all at once, one summer. Suddenly, the storylines seem babyish and trite. Why are these the concerns of fifteen year olds? Why are we still talking about British honour? You realise there are bigger themes in the world, and Enid only covers very few of them. It’s time for you to break away from her soft confinement, from her world where you are the “little foreigner” and you would be looked at suspiciously. Americans are brash, bold girls (they attend boarding school with Darrell in one school and the twins at another), Indians? Indians speak in gobbeldy goop and no one understands them. Any sort of foreigner doesn’t understand right and wrong and is to be scorned and pitied. You didn’t notice the golliwog stories—perhaps they were already scrubbed out of your books—but you noticed that. It’s when you learned to step out of her books, to look around you with cocked head and raised eyebrow, that’s when you knew you were ready for someone else.
POST SCRIPT: I have linked you to my speculative fiction versions of Malory Towers and Famous Five before, but in case you missed it, here are my two VERY DARK sequels to those books, called What Happened After. (I mean it, they are dark, I have lots of angry comments from people telling me I screwed up their childhood memories, so read at your own risk.)
Links I Loved On The Internet:
I’m in this article about email newsletters in India.
I wrote a nice thing about Ann Patchett and the history of the dress she has on!
What do the Telegram groups of BJP leaders look like? (Depressing)
The children of elderly folks on QAnon. (Even more depressing.)
How brokers in Delhi and Mumbai keep Muslims out. (I’m sorry, it appears to be grim week over here.)
This is a very sad story about a dog which made both K and I WEEP copiously, but I would still urge you to read it because it’s so beautiful.)
Slightly more amusing: what it was like serving the right wing elite in the Trump Towers.
On the rules of literary fiction for men and women.
That’s all I’ve got! Speak to you very soon!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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