June 24, 2021
When English Heritage — a charity that manages over 400 historic British properties — updated its entry on late bestselling children’s book author Enid Blyton a few days ago, it may not have expected to break the Indian internet. After all, the organization — which also manages London’s blue plaque system, which marks notable locations in the city — had no plans to remove the blue plaque outside the bestselling author’s former home in Chessington, in southwest London. All it had done was add information online that Blyton’s work “had been criticized for its racism, xenophobia, and lack of literary merit.”
For Blyton’s work, which spans over 600 children’s stories written between 1922 and 1964, this was not an unfamiliar charge. Her publishers had made this criticism before, even during her lifetime. In 1960, Macmillan refused to publish her book The Mystery That Never Was. Her 1944 book The Three Golliwogs featured three Black doll characters named “Golly,” “Wolly,” and “N*****.” The Little Black Doll (1966) features a character called Sambo, who can only be accepted once his “ugly black face” is washed clean and pink by the rain. In Five Go To Smuggler’s Top (1945), a “very very dark” boy named Sooty (clearly derived from soot) refers to his golden-haired half-sister as “the Beauty to his Beast.” British organizations had also acknowledged Blyton’s racism — the Royal Mint decided not to commemorate her on the 50p coin in 2016. But English Heritage’s choice to update its Blyton entry upset many Indian journalists and celebrities, who said that Blyton had been a formative childhood influence. They took the criticism personally, and raged against cancel culture, which had seemingly come for one of the best-selling writers in the world. Many of Blyton’s defenders were accomplished writers themselves, and fluent in literary criticism — why, then, were they behaving as if Blyton had been banned, and her books set on fire in the town square?
The firestorm was reminiscent of the discourse around Dr. Seuss’s estate pulling six Dr. Seuss books from circulation because they contained racist stereotypes. That decision drew much ire, particularly from American conservatives, who cited the decision as an example of political correctness gone too far. But this sort of cultural panic is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. In India, many liberals were up in arms over Blyton. They argued that Blyton, born in 1897, was a product of her time, and that it was inappropriate to apply the standards of today to the past. Author Anand Neelakantan claimed that “if you called Blyton racist, there was no end to it...Rudyard Kipling was far more racist.” Some said that today’s Blyton readers would be able to read past the racist aspects of her books. They were unable to re-examine Blyton’s work with a critical eye, because it was an attack on one of their childhood heroes, and by extension, the nostalgia of childhood itself.