Women, as written by Roald Dahl
He had a reputation as a ladies’ man, but how did Roald Dahl write about women in his books
Maybe Dahl’s only truly feminist work is Matilda – leaving aside the cruel, mean-spirited Miss Trunchbull. illustration: © Quentin Blake 2016
Leaving Roald Dahl’s own life to one side and focussing on the texts, is it possible to view Dahl as a feminist influence on his young readers? Dahl was a champion of the underdog, a position many women can identify with even when the protagonist is male, such as Charlie trying to escape poverty and find the golden ticket. He’s also a writer whose audience crosses genders. If anything, I tend to find more women among his fans when his books are raised.
The Witches offers up plenty of feminist complexities. The witches themselves are terrifying and vile things, and always women. I remember cowering in the cinema when Angelica Huston’s character roared “you may remove your shoes!” at the room full of witches, gathered in what looked like the most frightening regional hotel conference ever, and then ripped off her face mask to reveal the witch underneath.
The book is often viewed as sexist, but that assessment ignores one of the heroines of the story, the child narrator’s grandmother. When (spoiler alert) at the end of the book he is transformed into a mouse and will only live for another few years, he accepts his fate, which is compounded by his love for his granny as he doesn’t want to live longer than her. So, while the book’s story hates one set of women, it also loves another.
A darkness doesn’t so much run under Dahl’s writing as right through it. I remember being shocked as a kid discovering his short stories intended for older readers. It was as if his children’s books were a front for a much more macabre side.
Many of Dahl’s short stories were written for Playboy (minus feminist points) and also The New Yorker. What would become Danny, the Champion of the World was a short story published in The New Yorker in 1959. When women do appear they tend to be colluding in strange plots, or just straight up murderous. There’s the creepy taxidermist in The Landlady, or Mary in Lamb To The Slaughter, who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds the murder weapon to the investigating detectives. It almost goes without saying that Hitchcock was a fan.
There’s also the chilling revenge fantasy of William and Mary, where the latter triumphs when her husband’s brain and eye are kept artificially alive after his “death” while she blows cigarette smoke, a habit William despised. A collection better forgotten is Switch Bitch, laden with crude and often disturbing sexual fantasy writing.
Reading Boy offered great insight into Dahl’s childhood struggles, in particular the bullying he was subjected to by pupils and teachers in school. It probably isn’t a surprise then that another trait of Dahl’s writing is the depiction of cruelty.
The Swan stayed with me for years, the story of a bullied boy whose attackers butcher a swan and tie its wings to him. Where outsiders triumphed in Dahl’s children’s novels, often reaching reaching fantastical heights of heroism and fame (Sophie, in The BFG ends up finding a friend in the Queen of England), there’s an incredible amount of punishment and gruesomeness in his short stories.
Maybe Dahl’s only truly feminist work is Matilda (leaving aside the cruel, mean-spirited Miss Trunchbull.) Matilda is one that many female readers remember most fondly, a book that causes almost a glassy-eyed reaction when mentioned, as we retreat into the nostalgia of it all, the evenings spent pretending to have a mind as powerful as hers, or hoping next September’s teacher would be as nice as Miss Honey.
Matilda herself is the perfect heroine, nerdy and small, but ultimately brave and strong. Miss Honey is on her own trajectory of empowerment, also learning to free herself from Miss Trunchbull’s bullying oppression.
Matilda taught us that intelligence was power, and the film instilled a lifelong ability to spell “Mississippi” without hesitation. It’s probably his best book, one with a lead character who joins the hall of fame of female heroines in children’s novels, alongside girls such as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet The Spy, Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia, and Hermione in the Harry Potter series who succeeds on her own terms without the panic of Ron or the impulsiveness of Harry.
But feminist lessons in Dahl’s children’s writing aren’t often obvious. The first line of The Twits is “what a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays”, a sentiment contemporary women probably find themselves muttering a lot too.