As one staffer put it in 1954, the Corporation had a duty to avoid partaking in "the amazing advertising campaign which has raised this competent and tenacious second-rater to such astronomical heights of success". Blyton hardly needed the Beeb’s support: one estimate of her earnings for that year was £150,000 – in today’s money, more than £4 million.
But, as a fascinating new biography by Andrew Maunder makes clear (Enid Blyton: A Literary Life), the BBC staffer was on to something. Whatever the charms of Secret Seven on the Trail or Mr Pink-Whistle’s Party, Blyton’s genius, Maunder says, was commercial rather than literary. The author didn’t so much fill a gap in the market as create a demand for her work through brilliant marketing. Decades before the concept had a name, she cunningly built a brand.
Born in 1897 in East Dulwich, south London, Blyton began her working life as a teacher and governess, and would hone her poems and stories by testing them on her charges before she sent them off to magazines. In 1923, Teacher’s World gave the 26-year-old Blyton a weekly ‘From My Window’ column, addressed to children, that ran for more than 20 years. As Maunder puts it, she "was particularly good at talking to her readers, saying what she felt, without any sense that it had been carefully crafted".
The ways in which Blyton used the column to reel in her young audience have striking parallels with the approach of today’s social media influencers: in particular, there is the sense of the privileged intimacy that comes with being allowed a glimpse inside a celebrity’s home and receiving regular bulletins about their personal life.
Blyton told her readers all about her houses, her routine, her husband (although omitting the fact that she swapped one for another in the early 1940s) and her two daughters. The exploits of her fox terrier Bobs proved so popular – his fans sent him treats in great quantities – that he lived on in the column long after his actual demise. The result was huge sales for Blyton’s 1933 book Letters from Bobs; she also used the column to promote her other books. She was wise enough, at the start of her career, to marry a publisher – this was Hugh Pollock, who, in 1926, secured her the editorship of his firm’s children’s magazine Sunny Stories, giving her another long-running platform for her work (it was renamed Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories in 1937).
Part of the key to her success was the sheer extent of her output, ranging from picture books to adventure stories, biblical retellings to non-fiction nature books – everything and anything a child might want to read. "She knew exactly what she was doing. She told me once that she deliberately wrote for children of every age, from three or four to 14 and 15," recalled her agent, George Greenfield. "Her idea was to catch them young and keep them enthralled as they grew older."
When she wasn’t writing books she was replying assiduously to her sackfuls of fan mail – "answering letters from children with a pleasure and interest that she rarely showed with me", her daughter Imogen complained in her 1989 memoir of parental neglect.
Unlike previous biographers, who have painted a portrait of a woman suffering from arrested development, driven to churn out endless fantasies about children in compensation for her own miserable childhood, Maunder carefully examines Blyton’s business correspondence, especially the large cache of letters in the archives of Macmillan, one of the many firms that published her.
These reveal her to be a shrewd negotiator, who convinced the firm to take her on in 1941 – "it would be lovely if I could give you some bestsellers" – even though it had not published children’s fiction for many years.
Unlike most authors, she refused to take an advance for her books, but insisted instead on a minimum first printing of at least 25,000 copies, in an attempt to avoid losing out on sales through the habitual caution of publishers. She also asked for approval of dust jacket design and lettering. She trusted her own instincts and often overruled suggestions by her editors, including a request in 1943 that she refer to the war in a book – "[parents] prefer stories that take the children’s minds away from it, and this is quite right".
By the 1950s, Blyton had enough clout to ask that Sunny Stories magazine advertise some of her books published by other firms. When she was refused, she left and set up her own Enid Blyton Magazine. This embraced the new Disney-ish field of merchandise, carrying adverts for Famous Five windcheaters and Noddy puppets, as well as alerting readers to the commercial television series The Adventures of Noddy (1955-6). It also advertised the Famous Five Club, which gave its profits to charity but also fed lucrative Blyton-mania.
In this magazine, Blyton returned to the format of the editorial letter in a more interactive way, asking readers to choose what serials should appear next, and for suggestions as to what form the plays she was writing should take.
The theatrical career she forged in the 1950s is forgotten today, but it was another successful element of her campaign to colonise the imaginations of children: in 1955 she had two plays running simultaneously in the West End: Noddy in Toyland and Famous Five Adventure. She plugged them endlessly in her magazine, and part of the draw was the chance that her readers might glimpse their heroine at the theatre: "I think you will recognise me, won’t you? I am very like the picture at the top of this letter!" One journalist reported her going onstage at the end of one performance "to wave vigorously to her worshippers".
Blyton worship is clearly now lodged so firmly in our DNA that it will never be shifted. She remains one of the titans of children’s literature, selling something like 10 million books a year around the world, having reclaimed her position as the world’s best-selling children’s writer from J K Rowling.
But one has to wonder how much this is due to the merits of her books and how much to that "amazing advertising campaign". As her fellow children’s author Geoffrey Trease put it, "whether or not Enid Blyton knew, as she claimed, exactly what children wanted, she certainly knew how to convince them that it was what she was giving them".
The Daily Telegraph