The man who never grew up
The life and legacy of Roald Dahl
The late Roald Dahl, who was born 100 years ago this month, had many qualities that made him an outstanding children’s writer, including an eccentric sort of humour, an acute sense of fairness and a delight in words. But a lifelong sweet tooth may have been his most vital characteristic. Among the talismans that Dahl kept in his writing hut in the English village of Great Missenden was a silver ball of confectionery wrappers, cumulative evidence of his sugary meals. Dahl’s passion for sweets is so vividly realised in his children’s fiction that, like his young hero Charlie Bucket, we can practically smell the chocolate in our nostrils. As present-day Dahl reader Jules Mathieson, age ten, remarks to me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “It’s like he’s painting a picture in your head.” The cornucopia of the chocolate factory is an analogue of the imaginative faculty: every Dahl reader can paint their own version of a world in which thrills (and gobstoppers) are everlasting.
Dahl died in 1990, but the popularity of his impish and sometimes frightening fictions remains steady. Matilda the Musical – adapted from Matilda, Dahl’s last children’s novel, with music and lyrics by Australian composer and comedian Tim Minchin – has proved both a critical and commercial hit since its 2011 West End debut. The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Dahl’s novel of the same name, opened at Australian cinemas in late June and has taken close to $15 million at the local box office.
Nielsen BookScan figures for late July show that in one week alone more than 3000 copies of The BFG were sold in Australian bookstores. Over the past decade, each of Dahl’s leading children’s titles – Matilda (1988), The Witches (1983), The BFG (1982) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) – has made roughly $1 million in local sales. Like Beatrix Potter before him and JK Rowling after, Dahl is both a recognisable brand and an unrepeatable one-off. If a Dahl formula existed, eager publishers would have bottled it.
“I believe that mentally I am a sort of overgrown child,” Dahl wrote in 1986 for the Sunday Times, reflecting on his success. He described himself as “a giggler, a lover of childish jokes and knock-knocks, a chocolate-and-sweet-eater, a person with one half of him that has completely failed to grow up”.
This mentality is something that children recognise and respond to in Dahl’s work: you feel that he’s on your side. “They had at their core the idea of justice,” says Australian author Benjamin Law, reflecting on his childhood relationship with Dahl’s books. Goodness is rewarded – with chocolate, at times – while meanness and selfishness are punished, often in comically grotesque ways.
But his lack of equivocation could also make Dahl, as an adult, an intractable figure. According to his biographer Donald Sturrock, friends and family alike repeatedly described Dahl as a man who saw the world in black and white. He could be generous with his affection, time and money, but bitterly hostile towards those he saw as not acting in his best interests. He was proud of his success as a writer, but prickly about what he perceived as the second-rate status of children’s literature. His career was shaped by a succession of close professional relationships that ended, almost inevitably, in disputes. From Dahl’s perspective, people were either wonderful or terrible, but he rarely scrutinised his own behaviour. In his personal life, his charm and temper held equal sway. “He liked breaking the rules, but he always liked to be right,” observed Theo Dahl, the author’s son, to Sturrock. Until the end of his life Dahl craved attention and approval.
Roald Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 at his parents’ home in Llandaff, a district of Cardiff. His father, Harald, was a prosperous Norwegian shipbroker who set up business in Wales during the 1890s; his mother, Sofie, Harald’s second wife, moved to Cardiff from Kristiania (now Oslo) upon her marriage in 1911. Dahl was the third of five children born to Harald and Sofie, and the only boy. Two older half-siblings, Ellen and Louis, were the children of Harald and his first wife, Marie, who died in 1907; Dahl described them in Boy (1984), his autobiography for young readers, as his “ancient” half-sister and half-brother.
In 1920, when Dahl was three, his eldest full sibling, Astri, died of peritonitis. She was seven years old. “Astri was far and away my father’s favourite,” wrote Dahl in Boy. Weakened by grief, Harald Dahl succumbed to pneumonia shortly after his daughter’s death. “My father refused to fight,” Dahl wrote. “So he died.”
Dahl’s description of the loss of his sister and father is moving for its simplicity. A young reader can perceive the gravity of the situation, perhaps the more so for the sense of acceptance that is a part of it. In Dahl’s writing, things are as they are and there is no point in regret. This absence of psychologising would bring his fiction closer to fairy-tale than was common among 20th-century writers, and even now it stands in contrast to much contemporary children’s literature. Harry Potter, for instance, an orphan like so many of Dahl’s own characters, is quite literally scarred by the death of his parents, and substantial parts of Rowling’s books are also taken up with charting the child’s difficult emotional inheritance. Contrast this with Sophie, the young heroine of The BFG, as she explains her situation to the Big Friendly Giant:
“I don’t have a mother and father,” Sophie said. “They both died when I was a baby.”
“Oh, you poor little scrumplet!” cried the BFG. “Is you not missing them very badly?”
“Not really,” Sophie said, “because I never knew them.”
It was Dahl’s own mother, Sofie, pregnant for the fifth time when her husband died, who provided Dahl with his first model of resilience. It’s a trait he would later lend to all his child protagonists. Charlie Bucket is poor but generous, Matilda Wormwood is neglected but friendly, and the unnamed narrator of The Witches discovers that being turned from a seven-year-old boy into a mouse is not so terrible after all.
In his stoicism, Dahl was of his time, when displays of emotion were not indulged and trauma was barely conceived of. At the age of eight, he was sent away to boarding school in England – a form of schooling that Harald had insisted upon – and learned quickly how to curb his homesickness. He wrote to his mother every week, but the letters were checked over by schoolmasters for any hint of negative feeling. In a way, these were Dahl’s first fictions, and his mother his first readership.
Carefully preserved by Sofie, Dahl’s letters home became the source material for Boy, and a selection of them, edited by Sturrock, was published earlier this year as Love from Boy. (Dahl signed his earliest letters home as “Boy”, perhaps, writes Sturrock, to distinguish himself among many sisters.) The letters show characteristics that would later find their place in Dahl’s stories: wonky spelling, a preoccupation with food and bodily functions, and a spirit of determined, if brittle, optimism. “Dear Mama,” wrote Dahl at the beginning of the school term in 1927, “I have arrived here all right. I have not eaten any of what you gave me accept [sic] one little chocolate, and on Bristol Station Hoggart was sick, and when I looked at it I was sick but now I am quite all right.”
An occasional crudity slipped past the schoolmasters, as in a 1930 letter written from Repton, his boarding school in Derbyshire, when Dahl was 13. Dahl warned his mother not to paint the lavatory seat:
… or some unfortunate person who has not noticed it, will adhere to it, and unless his bottom is cut off, or unless he chooses to go about with the seat sticking behind him always, he will be doomed to stay where he is and do nothing but shit for the rest of his life.
Dahl came to writing relatively late, and to children’s fiction later still. After finishing school in 1934, he joined the Asiatic Petroleum Company, and in 1938 he was posted to Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to help run an oil terminal.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force. On the eve of his first day as an active pilot officer, he crashed his biplane in the Libyan Desert, having attempted a forced landing when he ran short on fuel.
In a telegram sent to his mother from the Anglo-Swiss Hospital in Alexandria, dated 14 October 1940, Dahl wrote, “Caught fire but only concussion broken nose. Absolutely okay soon.” In reality the crash had almost killed him. He was badly burned, blinded for weeks and had to have his nose surgically reconstructed. The effects of a fractured skull and spinal injuries would cause Dahl chronic pain for the rest of his life. But he also believed that his near-death experience was the thing that made him a writer. In a 1954 letter to his close friend Charles Marsh, an American newspaper owner, Dahl confessed, “I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut … I emerged a tiny-philosopher.”
Remarkably, Dahl was returned to active service as a fighter pilot – this time in Greece. But repeated blackouts caused his invalided return to Britain. Then came a mysterious period during which Dahl ended up in Washington, DC, working as an intelligence officer at the British Embassy. In 1942, the Saturday Evening Post accepted Dahl’s short story, ‘A Piece of Cake’, about his plane crash. It was published anonymously under the title ‘Shot Down over Libya’, apparently at the suggestion of a sensationalising editor.
While in Washington, Dahl also began work on a longer piece of fantasy fiction, at first for his own amusement and then for the sake of the Allied propaganda effort. His central characters, gremlins, were mischief-causing creatures responsible for sabotaging flights – much talked of, according to Dahl, among air force pilots. Dahl’s 40-page draft about the gremlins’ eventual co-operation with the RAF bemused his military superiors, but the project caught the eye of Walt Disney. The Gremlins, published in 1943, was intended to promote a Disney film that was never made, and would not be the last book-to-film adaptation over which Dahl struggled to concede any changes. (Gremlins, a 1984 Warner Bros. horror-comedy, bore little resemblance to the original Disney project.)
Gremlins would also feature in Dahl’s next book, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen (1948), his first adult novel. It was poorly received by critics, and has never been reprinted in English. The novel’s failure was a blow to Dahl’s confidence, but it was during this period that he began developing his short-fiction career, placing several stories with American magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s and the New Yorker. Throughout the ’50s, Dahl established the macabre style for which he became noted, and sometimes disliked.
Dahl’s adult stories are still a disturbing read. They share in the weird imagination that makes his children’s fiction so satisfying, but are shorn of the boisterous and counterbalancing humour. And, unlike in his children’s fiction, cruelty tends to triumph: weak characters are humiliated, and cunning ones glory in their conquest.
These power games are tied up in a queasy sort of sexual politics, in which a fear of women – and a generalised contempt towards men who fall for women’s tricks – is manifest. In ‘The Landlady’, first published in the New Yorker and reprinted in Kiss Kiss (1960), a young office worker falls victim to a bed-and-breakfast proprietress who taxidermies her guests. Though the setting, in suburban Bath, is suitably prim, there is a noticeable undercurrent of sexual appetite. “But I’m always ready,” the landlady tells her visitor. “Everything is always ready day and night in this house just on the off-chance that an acceptable young gentleman will come along.”
In ‘Georgy Porgy’, from the same collection, the narrator is a celibate English vicar who tries to avoid the predatory attentions of his female parishioners. “Physical contact with them … would disturb me considerably,” the narrator tells us. Towards the middle of the story comes an origin scene for this distress: when the narrator was a young boy, his mother showed him a rabbit giving birth, but the rabbit began to eat its babies, “and the next thing I know I’m looking straight into my own mother’s face, not six inches above me, and no doubt she is trying to say something or it may be that she is too astonished to say anything, but all I see is the mouth, the huge red mouth opening wider and wider …” As if it were his destiny, the adult vicar is swallowed alive by a literal man-eater.
The fixation on orifices, the galvanising connection between sex and death, the fear of being consumed by a mother-lover – any psychoanalyst would have a field day. It seems miraculous that none of these sexual anxieties leaked into Dahl’s writing for children, though it is fair to say that some of the misogyny did linger.
The women characters in Dahl’s children’s stories are split between benign and evil. In Dahl’s first novel for children, James and the Giant Peach (1961), the young orphan, James Trotter, whose parents were killed by a rhinoceros that had escaped from London Zoo, is ruled over by the diabolical pair of Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. Aunt Spiker is a desiccated spinster, “lean and tall and bony”, with a “screeching voice”. Aunt Sponge, on the other hand, is “enormously fat”; in Dahl’s vivid simile, she “was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage”. The aunts are selfish and vain, but James finds two kindly mother-substitutes, Miss Spider and the Ladybird, among the oversized insects inside the giant peach that he and his insect friends steer all the way to New York.
Often in Dahl’s fiction for children there is a selfless and soft-voiced mother-substitute – perhaps the kind of figure that Dahl himself longed for, as a child, in the masculine environment of a boys’ boarding school. Dahl revered his own mother, and he was also anxious, upon his marriage to the American actor Patricia Neal in 1953, that she might be too career-minded to make a suitable wifely companion. In a 1954 letter to Charles Marsh, Dahl observed that when a husband “has a woman in the house it is in his nature to expect a certain amount of service”. But Neal was focused on her career (she would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1964), and Dahl wrote that “I do not believe that it is possible to be a successful wife and to be absorbed in yourself at the same time unless you are very clever indeed.”
Despite Dahl and Neal’s differences, their marriage would last for 30 years, and they had five children. In 1960 their third child, Theo, was severely injured when a taxi struck his pram in New York, crushing his head against a bus. Several major operations followed to drain fluid from Theo’s brain. Dahl, ever practical, helped design a shunt valve, known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, that helped his son and would be used in paediatric surgery for many years to come.
Invention would feature prominently in Dahl’s second children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie Bucket lives in poverty with his four grandparents (who all share one bed) and parents on the outskirts of a town dominated by a grand and mysterious chocolate factory. The factory’s owner, Willy Wonka, announces a competition that will allow a few lucky children entry into his domain. All that is required is a Golden Ticket, five of which have been randomly hidden inside Wonka chocolate bars. Charlie buys a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight with a coin he finds on the street, and wins for himself a precious Golden Ticket.
For adult readers, the moral message of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be a little too obvious. Charlie is humble and kind, and is duly rewarded, while the other four children – including the compulsive gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde and the television addict Mike Teavee – are vulgar and selfish, and suffer unusual punishments inside Wonka’s factory. Violet chews an experimental gum that turns her into a giant blueberry, while Mike tries to transmit himself through a television screen, and ends up shrunk down to miniature size (a recurring fate in Dahl’s fiction). For children, however, the novel appeals both for its colourful parade of scrumdidilyumptious sweets – Wonka’s factory is a 20th-century variation on the land of Cockaigne – and for the witty, whimsical language used to describe them. The factory boasts a chocolate river, a rock-candy mine, storerooms for creams (whipped cream, coffee cream, hair cream), and for beans (jelly beans, cacao beans, has beans), plus a team of waist-high workers, the Oompa-Loompas, who form a kind of Greek chorus on the action.
Willy Wonka, too, is a memorable character, neither hero nor villain but something in between. He can be generous but also threatening, and, like many adults, he pretends not to hear when a child asks him a difficult question. In 1971 the book was adapted as a movie musical, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Dahl was unhappy with several minor plot changes and thought the songs “trashy”, but the film has endured as something of a cult classic. A more recent version, with Johnny Depp as Wonka, was made by director Tim Burton in 2005. It adheres more to the letter of the book but less to its spirit.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of the first children’s novels to be heavily cross-marketed with merchandise – a Wonka chocolate bar was produced in 1971 to tie in with the movie – and its commercial success confirmed Dahl’s new direction as a children’s writer. He published regularly throughout the ’60s and ’70s, with children’s books including Fantastic Mr Fox (1970) and Danny the Champion of the World (1975), both of which celebrated the English countryside that Dahl loved and lived in. But it was not until The Enormous Crocodile (1978), a picture book for younger readers, that Dahl began working with an illustrator now indivisible from his fictional creations, Quentin Blake.
In Blake, Dahl found an artist who perfectly captured both the humour and the grotesquery of his writing. As David Gaunt, co-owner of Gleebooks bookstore in Sydney, remarks to me, Blake’s line drawings are one reason why Dahl’s books have not dated. Unlike the visual style of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, the present-day appeal of which is self-consciously retro, Blake’s illustrations are essentially timeless. And in their zest they fairly bounce off the page, with a kinetic energy that complements Dahl’s own enthusiastic choice of words (“whiz”, “zip”, “pop”) and the physical transformations to which his characters are so often subject.
This metamorphosis would reach its pitch in Dahl’s penultimate children’s novel, The Witches, in which a young boy and his beloved Norwegian Grandmamma (clearly inspired by Dahl’s own mother) must plot to overthrow the world’s quota of child-killing hags.
“A witch is always a woman,” we are warned at the book’s beginning, though this is contradicted not long after by the assertion of Grandmamma, who is somewhat of a professional witch-hunter, that witches are not real women, but “demons in human shape”. Unlike an ordinary woman, a witch is bald (she wears a wig), has claws instead of fingernails (she wears gloves), disguises her hideous no-toed feet in pointed shoes, and has scalloped nostrils, the better to sniff out disgusting children that she can kill. All this culminates in a terrifying scene where, at a meeting of witches, the boy watches the Grand High Witch of All the World remove her mask to reveal “a fearsome and ghastly sight”, a face like rotting meat “cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there”. Blake’s illustration only enhances the horror.
Rereading The Witches as an adult, the subtext seems glaring: beneath their pretty artifices, women are vile. But here’s the thing – as a child, when I read The Witches over and over again in order to be scared by it, sexism is not what I took from it. The witches were terrifying for being so obviously unreal, so far removed from any human category. And the book’s setting, a slightly down-at-heel seaside hotel (a very English touch) only made their grotesquery more vivid, and more thrilling. Dahl’s fictions collapse the boundary between ordinary and stupendous. He understood the outlandish and often morbid cast of children’s imaginations, when any shadow on the bedroom wall can become a monster.
And the fact remains that two of Dahl’s most enduring child heroes are young girls: Matilda Wormwood in Matilda, and Sophie in The BFG. The former character is a child genius who combines modesty with gentle mischief, managing to get her own back at her self-absorbed parents and her tyrannous school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda is also a great reader, one whose rapture in books allows Dahl to celebrate the power of fiction. She even has a reading list (which, one suspects, reflected Dahl’s own tastes), working her way through English classics including Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice and Animal Farm. It was reading Matilda as a child, not long after it was published, that prompted me to write my own fan letter to Dahl: as a lonely and bookish girl I identified fiercely with his young heroine. I remember addressing the letter care of Dahl’s publisher, Puffin Books, although, to my disappointment, I never received a reply.
The BFG’s Sophie is less an intellectual and more of a go-getter, a trait that Dahl would often celebrate. Though the BFG reaches his arm in through the window of her orphanage and snatches Sophie in the dead of night (the scene scared me silly as a child), she keeps her composure, and the Giant becomes her great friend. “I did not steal you very much,” observes the word-scrambling and endearingly maladroit BFG. “After all, you is only a tiny little girl.”
Alongside Willy Wonka, the BFG is Dahl’s most obvious fictional alter ego. He collects dreams in jars and blows them into children’s bedrooms at night, but he guards against giving any child a trogglehumper (nightmare). These he reserves for the other giants who eat “human beans”. He and Sophie, with the aid of the Queen of England, join forces against these child-munching creatures, and while the remorseful cannibals end up confined to a pit, living on a diet of snozzcumbers (a slimy vegetable), Sophie and the BFG see out their days together in neighbouring abodes.
The BFG was dedicated to Dahl’s daughter Olivia, who died of measles encephalitis in 1962. Like Dahl’s sister Astri, Olivia was seven years old when she died, and her father’s eldest and favourite child. The emotional stoicism that had served Dahl all his life did not help him in this tragedy: he shut down. “Olivia was the one thing he never spoke about – ever,” recalled Dahl’s youngest daughter, Lucy, after her father’s death. It is hard not to see, in the ending of The BFG, the wish of a father to be reunited with his beloved child. “I am not afraid of falling off my perch,” Dahl reportedly told his family as he was dying. “If Olivia can do it, so can I.”
Dahl wrote several of his best books – The BFG, The Witches, Matilda, and his two volumes of autobiography, Boy and Going Solo – during the 1980s, the final decade of his life. He had been re-energised by a second marriage, in 1983, to Felicity “Liccy” Crosland, with whom he had conducted a long-term love affair. His four remaining children had all grown up, and he was an ageing man writing for a vast and eager fan base of young readers. In his maturity, he had learned a certain tenderness. Probably no one who has read The Witches has ever forgotten the book’s ending, in which the young boy, turned into a mouse by the witches, comes to terms with his shortened mouse-person lifespan:
“How old are you, Grandmamma?” I asked.
“I’m eighty-six,” she said.
“Will you live another eight or nine years?”
“I might,” she said. “With a bit of luck.”
“You’ve got to,” I said. “Because by then I’ll be a very old mouse, and you’ll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we’ll both die together.”
And then, undaunted, the two companions go on to plan their next adventure.