Helena Bonham-Carter is to play Enid Blyton in a new BBC4 series this autumn. I'm sure it will be fascinating (for some) to find out what a bad mother she was to her two girls, and other salacious details about her life, and to relate those things to the literary merit or otherwise of her books.
I don't like this trend. Increasingly, it seems to me, in the light of recent revelations, that there have to be more and clearer distinctions between the writer judged as person/character in their own life drama (and it seems often not a very nice person/character if you have been reading lately about William Golding et al), and the writer judged as/by their work. It is easy for latter day critics and biographers to ferret about in the recent past, through letters and newspaper clippings and other media and make a retrospective moral judgement along the lines of 's/he was immoral/cruel/alcoholic/druggy/an abusive parent (take your pick and add more), so therefore the work that is left behind is somehow compromised, because it is now seen through that particularly harsh lens of hindsight.'
In general, books which carry on being printed and read through many generations stand or fall on whether they are good and readable, and whether they have something durable to say, some perpetual and long-lasting universal insight to give into the human condition--not on whether their author was or was not a monster in their personal life--though scandal, of course, always has and always will sell copies in the short term. On its publication, sales of Byron's Don Juan, forinstance, were helped immeasurably by the whispers about the poet's unconventional love life as well as by the fact that it contained insults about the Foreign Secretary of the day and mocked the revered Lake poets. It lasted for a good long while on the reputation of its raffish author (of course, it helped that he died youngish and far from home), but is now probably studied only in 19th century English literature courses. Jane Austen, on the other hand, writing Pride and Prejudice at roughly the same period, and not a bit scandalous in her habits, has lasted, giving pleasure to each generation which recognises in her stories something true and enduring which sets off chimes and echoes within their own lives and experiences, ( including my own daughter (15) in the current one).
But back to Enid Blyton, where I started. No one could call her books great literature. She never pretended they were. As a child I read her avidly--liking The Secret Seven least and Malory Towers best, with The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair and The Famous Five et al. following close behind. My parents, to give them credit, didn't care what I read, as long as I read. But many of my friends were forbidden to read Blyton, on the grounds that it was somehow unsuitable pap which would rot their brains. And this was long before any of the 'truth' about her as a person was known. I remember, very clearly, feeling slightly ashamed of longing to get my hands on the next adventure from the library. In restrospect I had been subtly and unwittingly tarred by a sort of middle-class all pervasive literary judgementalism which even now I still hate for its snobbery and disapproving pretentiousness. Something of the same judgmentalism has grown up around JK Rowling and Harry Potter too--fuelled by the rather dog-in-the-manger view that something so popular with children should have more literary merit, perhaps?
The fact is that both Rowling and Blyton write a good story, a riproaring yarn, a page turner, and millions of children recognise that and care not a bit for their carping elders and betters. Again, both Rowling and Blyton turn children into readers, and for that they should be forgiven much (in a literary way--as I said above, the personal shouldn't come into it at all).
It was therefore good to see Melanie McDonagh in the Daily Telegraph coming out and recognising Blyton's part in getting children to read, calling her 'a genius among children's writers'. Melanie was, however, very careful to make the distinction that she was not 'a writer of genius: you don't mention her in the same breath as Tolkien or Kenneth Grahame.' I think that's a fair assessment. Tolkien and Grahame will probably still be around in a hundred years. Will Blyton? I don't know. But taking a small straw poll of friends with children of the right age this weekend, I think she will be around for a while whether her reputation is irreparably tarnished by the BBC documentary or not. The children round here are still as happy to escape into the tattered pages of their parents' illicit copies as mine were when I handed them over 10 years ago. And it doesn't seem to matter a bit that the world of George, Anne, Dick, Julian and Timmy the dog has long disappeared into some rosy '50's hinterland of history. Perhaps that's the attraction. No latter day pervs and stalkers to worry about, like there are in the papers and on TV. And it's certainly better and healthier comfort food for the 10 year-old brain than a quick and violent game of Auto Theft IV.