Robert Dessaix on Enid Blyton, at The Dowse

dessaixEnid Blyton holds a special place in most people’s heart. Whether it’s Noddy and Big Ears, her Enchanted Fairy Tales, The Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, Secret Seven, Famous Five or Mallory Towers most of us have read at least a handful of her books; if not as children then to our children.

A sad few of us were caught in the banned years; when her language was deemed too limited; her gender role modelling found to be dangerously outdated and some of her characters may have had unsavoury overtones. Dick and Aunt Fanny became Rick and Aunt Franny; and George didn’t want to be a boy anymore, she just didn’t like to be defined by the male patriarchal system, ok?

dessaixSo when I heard that one of the authors at this year’s NZ Writers Week was going to be speaking about Enid Blyton, I was very excited. I never in a million years thought it would be Robert Dessaix, one of my favourite Australian writers and perhaps the least Blyton-esque writer you can think of. What was Dessaix’s relationship with Blyton like? Did he read her books? A knobbly kneed, skinny little boy in shorts, alone in the hot Sydney sun? This was not to be missed.

Enid Blyton was to me an old friend, one who grew up with me from ages tiny to 10, I learned to read with her and she rewarded me with a network of friends I could always rely on.

The concept of kith and kin has long been of great fascination to Robert Dessaix. Adopted as a baby, he’s spent much of his life pondering what it is to belong, to fit, to be part of a tribe or group. It’s not surprising that on close inspection the vast majority of Blytons works centre on the same theme. Of family being at the heart of everything with friendship close on it’s heels. Just two of the many quotable quotes from Dessaix:

“Winning over enemies; that’s the true meaning of adventure in The Faraway Tree.”

“You couldn’t go on an adventure unless you came home;
You couldn’t be an adventurer unless you had a home to come home to.”

With this sense of family, comes this sense of a tribe, or a gang. Solitary children, or loners are never portrayed positively in Blyton’s books. In fact in her real life, Blyton reportedly put her ‘friends’ (her term for her fans) over and above her daughters time and time again, locking her daughters inside whilst throwing lavish tea parties outside for her friends to enjoy. Dessaix, quoting from Imogen Blyton’s biography Childhood at Green Hedges. “My mother was arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct”. Ouch.

But as picture perfect as she appeared to be, Enid Blyton had a few peculiarities that Dessaix astutely spotted and ruthlessly mined for mirth, while making some salient points. As popular as the name may have been, there are an extremely high number of characters called Dick in her books.Why was she so obsessed? Dessaix wonders with an arched brow.

enid blytonThen there’s George who wants to be the best boy she can be. Not surprising really, when you see how the boys treat poor old Anne, but interesting when you’re told that George is based on Enid Blyton herself who used to call herself Richard (Dick!) as a young woman and her best friend Ida was called Captain, and Richard would often play cabin boy to Captain… What exactly does that mean? Who knows. But Dessaix’s razor sharp delivery and coy smile certainly made the audience aware of some of the less than mainstream possibilities. Then there’s the countless naughty fairies and the childrens’ seeming orgiastic obsession with food. Is it an oral fixation?

And that’s one of the most wonderful things about this evening. He only spoke for an hour, but practically every sentence was a new fact I wanted to write down and remember but it also made me laugh, or pause and really think about what he’d just said. Every sentence. There were no breaks. No respite. A savvy mix of personal anecdote, scholarly knowledge and a genuine love for the books – Robert Dessaix is a true lover of Enid Blyton’s books. You can tell that her books helped shape him as a person foremost, less so as a writer.

After he finished speaking, I bought another copy of A Mother’s Disgrace, as well as a copy of his favourite Blyton book:  Five on Kirrin Island, Again for him to sign, which he graciously did, writing “To Sarah who came to hear me talk about Enid Blyton.” Anytime Mr Dessaix – you really are wizard!

Attended and reviewed by Sarah McMullan

A Mother’s Disgrace (1994)
by Robert Dessaix
ISBN: 978 0 20717 934 1
 
As I Was Saying: A Collection of Musings (2012)
by Robert Dessaix
ISBN: 978 1 74275 307 2

Childhood at Green Hedges (1989)
by Imogen Smallwood
ISBN: 978 0 41612 632 7

Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947)
by Enid Blyton
ISBN: 978 0 34079 620 7

 

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