Good times, bad times: Blyton, Kipling under racism lens

Reuters file
Reuters file

A renewed — and critical — look is being cast at literary works in the light of the Black Lives matter movement and other current social norms

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 8 Jul 2021, 11:03 PM

Economist John Maynard Keynes once famously said that “When facts change, I change my mind.” In the case of iconic writers such as Enid Blyton (1897-1968) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), it is the times that have changed, prompting a renewed look at their work in light of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Some of Blyton’s books have long attracted criticism of social snobbery, racism and sexism, while Kipling has drawn flak for his political views that many consider to be racist and imperialist. Revisiting the work and views of writers and other historical figures is part of a wider review triggered by the BLM movement, which targeted statues of colonial administrators and others across Britain and elsewhere in 2020.

English Heritage, the organisation responsible for the London Blue Plaques Scheme, is the latest to review and revise aspects of its work. Last year, it began a programme of updating the online entry for each blue plaque recipient, aiming to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects some may find troubling. A blue plaque to Blyton was installed in 1997 at her home in Chessington where the children’s author lived between 1920 and 1924.

The organisation revised its online Blyton entry, including a reference to the fact that her work has been criticised for its racism. It also noted that, in 2016, the Royal Mint decided against commemorating Blyton on a 50 pence coin because of concerns about some of her alleged views.

The revised entry on Blyton reads: “Both during her lifetime and after, Blyton’s work has been criticised for various aspects of its content. Its formulaic plots and deliberate use of simple language irked some educators. Others took exception to what they perceived as social snobbery, racism and sexism embedded in Blyton’s storylines. In 1960, the publisher Macmillan refused to publish her story The Mystery That Never Was for what it called its ‘faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia’. The book, however, was later published by William Collins. In recent years, references to ‘golliwogs’ in Blyton’s stories have been replaced by goblins. To those who objected to elements of her work, Blyton replied that the opinion of any critic over 12 years old did not interest her...”

Written in a different era, many books and views of several authors potentially violate current norms. Charles Dickens, for example, expressed strong views against ‘Hindoo’ gentry in the context of the 1857 uprising in colonial India in a letter the same year.

Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, also had a plaque outside his house in Charing Cross, where he settled after returning from India in 1889. English Heritage revised his entry with a more detailed account of the criticism.

It reads: “Today, Kipling’s political views, expressed through his then popular writings, have been widely criticised for their racist and imperialist sentiments. Kipling believed in British superiority over the people of colonised nations and he became known as the ‘Poet of the Empire’. Works such as The White Man’s Burden (1899), with its offensive description of ‘new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child’, sought to portray imperialism as a mission of civilisation. During the First World War, the British government used Kipling’s popularity for propaganda, asking him to write pamphlets and stories that glorified war and the British military. Kipling readily took this on… After the war, and with the British Empire on the decline, Kipling’s writings and values were seen as out of tune with the times. While he continued writing into the early 1930s, his output and success decreased. George Orwell found Kipling’s attitude to instances of colonial brutality ‘morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting’, but admitted the importance of his work to him in his younger life.”

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