Blue plaques left unchanged, but charity website details Blyton’s ‘old-fashioned xenophobia’ and Kipling’s ‘imperialist sentiments’
English Heritage has acknowledged the “racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit” in Enid Blyton’s writing, and the “racist and imperialist sentiments” of Rudyard Kipling, as part of its ongoing efforts to better reflect today’s values in its blue plaques.
While English Heritage’s blue plaques commemorating both authors remain unchanged, the charity’s online information about both now goes into detail about the problematic aspects of their writing and views.
English Heritage notes online how in 1960, Macmillan refused to publish Blyton’s children’s novel The Mystery That Never Was, noting her “faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia”. It would go on to be published by William Collins.
It also points to a 1966 Guardian article that highlights the racism of Blyton’s The Little Black Doll. The story sees the doll of the title, Sambo, ostracised for its “ugly black face”, and only accepted when its face is washed “clean” by the rain.
The Royal Mint previously rejected Blyton for commemoration on a 50p coin in 2016 because, according to minutes from an advisory committee meeting, she was “known to have been a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”.
“Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit,” says English Heritage in its new additional notes about the author, who is commemorated at her former home at 207 Hook Road in Chessington, London. “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.”
English Heritage has also noted the views of Kipling, who is still commemorated with a blue plaque at 43 Villiers St in London where he lived between 1889 and 1891.
English Heritage’s online information for Kipling now highlights how his political views “have been widely criticised for their racist and imperialist sentiments”. It points in particular to works such as The White Man’s Burden “with its offensive description of ‘new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child’” which “sought to portray imperialism as a mission of civilisation”.
It also highlights that “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.”
“While his children’s stories remain popular today, Kipling has been criticised for his imperialist views and romanticising colonialism in his writings,” says the charity.
Information has also been added to the entry of social reformer Annie Besant, which now notes her “unpalatable” statement that “the whole British race would gain in vigour, in health, in longevity, in beauty, if only healthy parents gave birth to children”.
And the online entry for the actor and playwright Noël Coward has been fleshed out, as it previously featured only basic biographical information and the location of his plaque. It now includes the note that “Coward’s own homosexuality, while never acknowledged publicly, was an open secret”.
The revision is part of efforts begun by English Heritage last summer to better reflect “the values or perspectives of people today”, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We need to ensure that the stories of those people already commemorated are told in full, without embellishment or excuses,” curatorial director Anna Eavis said at the time.”
“Our website entries aim to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects that people may find troubling,” said the charity in a statement to the Guardian, stressing that it had no plans to remove any of its commemorations.
“We have no plans whatsoever to remove any of our London blue plaques,” said Eavis. “On our website, we are providing more information for each blue plaque so that people can find out more about the person behind the plaque.”