And so, another controversy has erupted about a beloved author being allegedly “cancelled” by the “woke”. And once again, the screaming headlines and waves of social media fist-shaking have obscured the facts of the case.
To start with, let’s look at some of the headlines relating to the controversy. Sky News declares “Enid Blyton blue plaque bio by English Heritage includes ‘racist and xenophobic’ criticism”. Metro goes with “Enid Blyton’s ‘racist’ views included in English Heritage’s blue plaque scheme”. iNews has “English Heritage updates blue plaque information for Enid Blyton to include links to racism”. LBC’s chosen headline is “Enid Blyton’s work labelled ‘racist and xenophobic’ in blue plaque rewrite”. I could go on, but you get the picture.
An observer reading those headlines would get the impression that English Heritage has re-written a blue plaque commemorating Enid Blyton to call her a racist. However, that’s not what happened.
What actually occurred is that an article about Enid Blyton on the English Heritage website has been expanded to discuss criticisms of her work, including accusations of racism. The expansion in question isn’t even all that new (a trip through Archive.org reveals that it was present at least as far back as August 2020) so why it’s only now getting news attention nearly a year later is unclear.
Now, let’s take a look at the two-paragraph section in the article that’s raised so much ire…
Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit. A 1966 Guardian article noted the racism of The Little Black Doll (1966), in which the doll of the title, Sambo, is only accepted by his owner once his ‘ugly black face’ is washed ‘clean’ by rain. In 1960 the publisher Macmillan refused to publish her story The Mystery That Never Was for what it called its ‘faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia’. The book, however, was later published by William Collins.
In 2016, Blyton was rejected by the Royal Mint for commemoration on a 50p coin because, the advisory committee minutes record, she was ‘a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer’. Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read.
This seems pretty balanced to me. It’s entirely true that Blyton’s work has been criticised over the decades for its racial caricatures. Yes, you can fairly argue that Blyton was no worse than countless other authors of her era who used the same stereotypes, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the objections exist and are an entirely reasonable topic to bring up in a biography of her.
Censored in the sixties: Enid Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs
The talk of Blyton being “cancelled” suggests that the short section on the English Heritage site is somehow tantamount to Blyton’s work being censored. Anyone concerned about this happening has clearly missed the boat, however, as her books were censored long ago. As far back as the sixties, her golliwog characters were renamed so as to avoid offensive monikers; by the twenty-first century the blackfaced dolls were removed altogether (I don’t have exact dates at hand, but this article from 2000 mentions the golliwog purge having occurred twenty years previously).
Here Comes Noddy Again: Gollywog censorship from, I believe, circa 1980
In short, this is a purely manufactured controversy: decades-old censorship and a year-old article have been used to synthesise a complete non-story.