Explained: Was Enid Blyton racist and sexist? Royal Mint thinks so, scholars debatehttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/why-uks-royal-mint-refused-to-commemorate-author-enid-blyton-50-years-after-her-death-5959573/

Explained: Was Enid Blyton racist and sexist? Royal Mint thinks so, scholars debate

The UK Royal Mint believed that featuring author Enid Blyton on the coin would result in a backlash due to the author’s “racist, sexist and homophobic views”.

Why UK’s Royal Mint refused to commemorate author Enid Blyton 50 years after her death
Enid Blyton. (Source: Official website for publishers of Enid Blyton’s books)

The Royal Mint of the United Kingdom has blocked plans for unveiling a 50-pence coin commemorating children’s author Enid Blyton, British media reported. This was because the Mint believed that featuring her on the coin would result in a backlash due to the author’s “racist, sexist and homophobic views”. Blyton, who has written series such as The Famous Five, Noddy, The Secret Seven and Malory Towers, among others, was deemed by the Royal Mint to be “not a well-regarded writer”.

Why had the Royal Mint planned to unveil the coin in the first place?

The 50-pence coin had been scheduled for a November release this year to mark 50 years since the death of Blyton, whose books have been popular with children in the Commonwealth countries.

A spokesperson for the Royal Mint, who did not wish to be named, told The Indian Express that events, anniversaries and themes are commemorated each year. “To create a fair shortlist each proposal is subject to a rigorous planning and design selection process governed by an independent panel known as the Royal Mint Advisory Committee (RMAC). The purpose of the RMAC is to ensure that themes commemorated on UK coins are varied, and represent the most significant events in our history — and not every proposal will progress to a UK coin.”

What led to the decision not to commemorate her?

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The spokesperson said the Royal Mint itself does not make the final decision on who or what to commemorate. The selection process is governed by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee that includes experts in art, heraldry, typography, sculpture, history, numismatics and design.

The Committee was simultaneously evaluating other prominent British authors such as Beatrix Potter and Jane Austen, both of whom were selected for commemoration on UK coins while Blyton was not.

The cover of the first edition of ‘The Secret Seven Adventure’ in the ‘Secret Seven’ series published by Enid Blyton in 1950. (Source: The Enid Blyton Society) 

The Mail on Sunday reported that the Committee’s remarks on Enid Blyton were a result of a request under the Freedom of Information Act to see minutes from the committee meetings. The Mint spokesperson contacted by The Indian Express declined to make additional comments regarding the Committee’s stance.

Why has Blyton faced criticism?

Blyton wrote over 700 books and approximately 4,500 short stories and faced very little criticism during her early years. It was only after 1936 that her work was critically viewed; after WWII, she began facing adverse criticism.

David Rudd, a British academic who has conducted extensive research on Blyton, wrote in a 1997 thesis that a lot of the criticism Blyton has faced has been misplaced because “popular books are meant to be popular because they have the qualities that are liked by children at a certain age”.

Over the years several empirical studies have been conducted to analyse and address criticism against Blyton. “Going through the many commentators on Blyton in the literature, very few have bothered to consult children,” writes Rudd, who declined to be interviewed for this explainer.

The cover of the first edition of ‘First Term at Malory Towers’ in the ‘Malory Towers’ series published by Enid Blyton in 1946. (Source: The Enid Blyton Society)

Blyton’s supporters argue that that the criticism comes from adults who overanalyse her work and don’t see it through the same literary prism that children do. Andrew Maunders, professor at the University of Hertfordshire, who is currently conducting research on Blyton’s work, doesn’t agree.

“Adults and children do read her books differently but that doesn’t mean her books are any better,” Maunders told The Indian Express. “(The criticism) pops up because Enid Blyton was a woman of her time and people were casually and thoughtlessly racist in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s – and later. She is one of them,” said Maunders.

What was racist about Blyton’s writings?

Allegations of racism against Blyton did not surface till the 1960s, writes Rudd in his thesis. One of the characters that commonly feature in Blyton’s works is the ‘golliwog’.

A 1984 op-ed in The Guardian said, “There is not much doubt in my mind that the golliwog…with its goggle eyes, spiky hair, and banana lips is in fact a distorted representation of a black person.” The golliwog’s origins can be traced to an American woman, Florence Upton, who first wrote fictional stories published between 1895 and 1909, featuring the golliwog as a character based on a doll that she had as a child in London.

The cover of the first edition of ‘Hurrah for Little Noddy’ in ‘Noddy’ series published by Enid Blyton in 1950. A caricature of the golliwog can be seen in this edition. (Source: The Enid Blyton Society)

The golliwog, whose origins are seen as racist, was featured in the work of many authors during Upton’s time and also in commercials for various products. Rudd writes in his thesis that Upton modelled the golliwog on the concept of blackface in the United States, where a white person would paint their face black and sport frizzy hair, with painted, overemphasised eyes and mouth to mock and denigrate African Americans.

Blyton’s views of the world were formed by Britain’s place in the world at that time. “The use of the golliwog is racist now and I think it was then. Blyton was a supporter of the British Empire and her representations of non-white people is coloured by that. It’s impossible to get away from it,” said Maunders.

In the later editions of Blyton’s books, the golliwogs were removed and replaced with goblins. The 1980s BBC adaptation of the author’s books also removed references to the golliwog.

What was homophobic and sexist about Blyton’s writings?

While there is general agreement about racist depictions in Blyton’s writings, not everyone agrees with accusations of homophobia and sexism. George, one of Blyton’s most-loved characters, from The Famous Five series shuns traditional gender constructs in various ways in the books — from the way she chooses to dress to how she views her abilities in comparison with the boys in the group.

George dislikes being called her given name Georgina and can do many physical activities better than the boys, like swimming, for instance. The other four in the group seem to acknowledge George’s abilities and defer to her in many cases.

The cover of the first edition of ‘Five Go Off to Camp’ in ‘The Famous Five’ series published by Enid Blyton in 1948. (Source: The Enid Blyton Society)

“I don’t think (Blyton) can be described as sexist. George in The Famous Five and the girls at Malory Towers were very sparky and some of the boys seemed feeble by comparison. I also don’t get homophobic,” literary biographer Laura Thompson told The Mail on Sunday.

In his paper, Rudd writes that Blyton’s characters and their relationships with other characters are often misinterpreted in a haste to dismiss and denounce the author. Rudd points to the Noddy series, where the protagonist’s relationship with others in the imaginary setting of Toyland is given sexual connotations when it isn’t necessarily so or even perceived to be so by children.

Rudd believes that this characterisation or mischaracterisation of Blyton’s characters occurs by adults for whom the work hasn’t even been written. “Blyton writes for children not adults. Noddy isn’t for adults. But adults worry about their children getting hooked on Blyton because there is a perception that she is not intellectually demanding enough,” explained Maunders.

Classic covers for three books in ‘The Famous Five’ series by Enid Blyton. (Source: Official website for publishers of Enid Blyton’s books)

Why did the Royal Mint feel she is not a ‘very well-regarded’ author?

Despite Blyton’s success in selling approximately 600 million books and international recognition, she did not have much standing as an author in English literature. “Blyton seems to have been very popular overseas….For many children she seems to have presented an attractive vision of England — picnics and adventures,” Maunders said.

Despite her popularity in the Commonwealth nations, the author had difficulty gaining a foothold in the United States.

“It was more to do with the difficulty in building a reputation in a new territory. Just like nowadays. Blyton’s books did perhaps look old fashioned but some were quite popular, e.g. The Island of Adventure and the sequels,” said Maunders.

The cover of the first edition of ‘The Island of Adventure’ in ‘Adventure’ series published by Enid Blyton in 1944. (Source: The Enid Blyton Society)

Have other important authors been called out for racism, sexism and homophobia?

In re-readings of their work today, other icons of English literature have been criticised for their biases, prejudices, racism, sexism and homophobia. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens refers to the character of Fagin as “the Jew” and characterises him as someone with unappealing physical traits who engages in criminal activities.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is stereotyped as a Jewish man with a greed for wealth, who is insulted, humiliated and bested by Christians and forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity.

Colour illustrations from 1911 edition of Oliver Twist. Author: Charles Dickens, illustrations from George Cruikshank. Held by British Library.

Last year, The Guardian revealed that the Royal Mint had decided against issuing a coin to commemorate the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth because of the author’s anti-Semitic views.

Tintin’s 90th birthday in January 2019 was hit by controversy that a new colour edition of the books was racist. Accusations of racism, as well as colonialism, have followed Tintin since the late 19th century.

A detail from the pages of ‘Tintin in the Congo.’ Archival albums, Tintin, the official website

Tintin in the Congo and The Shooting Star have by far faced the most criticism for being racist and anti-Semitic.

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Other notable authors whose works have faced scrutiny and criticism for sexism, racism and anti-Semitism include Rudyard Kipling, J R R Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Lewis Carroll and Dr Seuss, to name a few.