As part of an audit of its blue plaque commemorative memorial scheme, the charity has added a section titled ‘Racism in Blyton’s work’ that notes some of the controversies surrounding the portrayal of non-white and non-British character in some of the author’s books both during and after her lifetime.
For instance, it notes that a publisher had rejected a manuscript for her book ‘The Mystery That Never Was’ in 1960, since it apparently displayed a “faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia.”
The section also added that a 1966 article in The Guardian had highlighted the “racism” of her long out-of-print book ‘The Little Black Doll’, noting that the titular character, Sambo, “is only accepted by his owner once his ‘ugly black face’ is washed ‘clean’ by rain.”
However, it mentions that “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.”
The author, best known for her widely-read Noddy, Famous Five and Secret Seven series of books, has been a staple in children’s reading sections since the 1920s. Blyton has a blue plaque commemorating her former home in Chessington, where it is believed she honed her storytelling skills.
When announcing the review of their plaque scheme last year – undertaken in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, English Heritage had pledged to include information on historical figures “whose actions are contested or seen today as negative.”
The charity’s curatorial director, Anna Eavis, said there was a “need to ensure that the actions and the legacies of those commemorated are told in full” and “without embellishment or excuses” in order to “encourage debate and reflection on the sometimes painful issues they raise.”
Blyton, who died in 1968, wrote over 700 books and approximately 4,500 short stories. In recent years, her books – reported to have sold around 600 million copies and been translated into 90 languages – have undergone editing. For example, the ‘Golliwogs’ in her Noddy books have been changed to ‘Goblins’.
Over the past decade, Blyton has twice been rejected, in 2016 and 2019, by the Royal Mint as a candidate for commemoration on a 50 pence coin on the grounds that she was “a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer.”
However, several social media users called out the rise of “cancel culture” in “institutions [that] fail to understand you can’t judge history or historical figures by today’s standards. You cannot cancel history.”
One person noted that Blyton “should be considered a classical children’s author,” and others said her writing simply reflected the attitudes of the times.
A number of users held up the example of the financial troubles of the National Trust charity, which faced similar criticism last year for a campaign to acknowledge sites alleged to have links to colonialism and slavery, to caution English Heritage against ‘wokeness’.
However, a number of users claimed this was “criticism” and not an instance of cancel culture, with one person saying no one is telling opponents of the move that they’re “coming to burn your childhood.”