All Enid Blyton fans have very definite ideas about her stories – exactly how a toffee shock or a google bun would taste (the best!), what sort of dog Timmy was (a collie) and who was more of a bore, Julian or Dick (Julian – obviously).
It is inevitable, then, that disappointment awaits hardcore Blytonians confronted with a “real life” rendering of the slippery-slip from the Magic Faraway Tree, installed in the new Blyton retrospective at Seven Stories, the national children’s literature centre in Newcastle.
The slide, of course, began in Moonface’s circular living room in one of the uppermost tree berths. After a hard day up in the clouds exploring one of the more taxing imaginary lands, – such as the Land of Topsy Turvy, where you had to walk on your hands all day – Moonface’s slippery-slip would transport children at top speed to the forest floor, allowing them to avoid the suds of Dame Washalot, the laundry-obsessed old crone, or the Angry Pixie, who never had a good word to say to anyone.
A titchy plastic slide jutting out of a cardboard tree was never going to cut the mustard. “But it is supposed to be a spiral slide!” one 32-year-old reporter could not help exclaiming at Thursday’s launch. “I know,” said Gillian Rennie, senior curator at Seven Stories, “but you wouldn’t believe the health and safety issues we had just getting this one in.”
Health and safety was never a concern in Blyton’s imagination, a place where children would roam around enchanted woods after dark, sleep in caves and encounter the most dastardly criminals when staying with their cousins during the summer holidays. It is this fantasyland which is explored in Mystery, Magic and Midnight Feasts, which purports to be the first major exhibition to celebrate the life and work of one of Britain’s most successful writers.
At the heart of the retrospective is a large collection of Blyton typescripts and rare artefacts formerly in the private collection of her eldest daughter, Gillian Baverstock, who died in 2007.
These will be of little interest to those small and lucky enough to be reading Blyton for the first time. Instead, young visitors are invited to open a wooden desk in a mock Malory Towers classroom and find a whoopee cushion; climb into the Secret Seven club house or sit in Noddy’s car. Many will finally discover what a lacrosse stick looks like.
But grown-up visitors will be intrigued to see how little editing Blyton’s manuscripts needed. She would cross out the odd word, insert an adjective here and there, but what was published was more or less what she battered out with two frantic fingers on the typewriter, also on display in Newcastle.
During a 50-year career, Blyton rattled off an astonishing 700-plus books, as well as 4,500 stories. The exhibition also reveals that she did her own accounts. A pencil-written ledger from 1926 entitled “work paid for” showed Blyton, then 29, earned £189, nine shillings and 11 pence in January alone. “It’s fascinating to see how organised she was,” said Kate Edwards, chief executive of Seven Stories. “She was such a shrewd businesswoman.”
Also on show in Newcastle are diaries Blyton wrote that reveal a woman with a Stakhanovite work ethic before the Russian miner had become the patron saint of grafters the world over. “Worked all day till 4.30,” she notes tersely on 25 October 1927. “Did 6,000 words today, a record for me.” In 1931 she writes: “Did story for my Page [the welcome page she wrote for each edition of her magazine]. Went for long walk with Nurse. Rested till tea. Knitted till bed.” The next day, Seven Stories adds as a postscript, Blyton gave birth to daughter Gillian.
Writing trumped all else in her life, relegating world events to a footnote. “Worked all day,” she wrote on 2 September 1939. “Germany invaded Poland today so I suppose we shall be at war tonight.”
Blyton’s less-than-PC views are also touched upon, in a wall of newspaper cuttings discussing the acceptability of a woman who portrayed black people as idiotic golliwogs of subnormal intelligence. Rennie said children would be encouraged to debate Blyton’s depictions. “Children can be very critical. They are not just empty vessels,” she said.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about the show is that it is the first of its kind. After all, Blyton, who died in 1968, was the bestselling English author of the 20th century and, says Rennie, there was a 13% rise in her sales between 2011 and 2013. Rennie says it has taken so long as so little remains of Blyton’s archive.
Beatrix Potter fans can still tour the Lakeland cottage where she dreamed up Peter Rabbit and friends. Meanwhile Blyton’s Buckinghamshire bolt-hole, Green Hedges, where she lived from 1938 until her death, and where she plotted the lives of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Folk of the Faraway Tree was demolished in 1973.
Seven Stories is expecting the retrospective to be its most popular since it opened in 2005, surpassing its Gruffalo exhibition which closed at Easter. Just another feather in Blyton’s cap.