“Damn it all, they are mostly pure fantasy” – Remembering the life of Roald Dahl

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Over 30 years since his death, the words of Roald Dahl continue to echo through time as an important handwritten letter by Roald Dahl – considered one of the world’s best storytellers – has been discovered by an auction house in Staffordshire. The letter, dated 2nd August, 1989, gives a rare insight into the author’s opinion of his own work and determination to get children reading.

The owner and recipient of the letter, Christine Wotton of Chagford, wrote to Dahl when she was a student, but wasn’t expecting a reply. She found the author’s address in the back of an old library book and was surprised to elicit such a passionate response from him.

In the letter, Dahl says: “Never shelter children from the world….the ‘content’ of any children’s book is of no importance other than that it enthrals the child – and thus it teaches or seduces him or her to ‘like’ books and to become a fit reader – which is vital if that child is going to amount to anything in later life. The book-reading child will always outstrip the non-book-reading child in later life.

‘There are very few messages in these books of mine. They are there simply to turn the child into a reader of books. Damn it all, they are mostly pure fantasy. Have you read the latest one, ‘Matilda’? It seems to have broken every sales record in the history of hardback publishing.”

Describing the history of the letter, Miss Wotton said: “I wrote to Roald Dahl speculatively as a young student, aged 20, when I was writing a dissertation on his work for my BA Hons degree in Literature and Linguistics at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the late 1980s. I was staging a mini rebellion by focusing on controversial elements, ie: violence, of Dahl’s books for children, as fellow students opted for a serious approach to the likes of Kafka, Shakespeare and Homer.

‘I stumbled across Dahl’s address listed in the back of an old library book; security was clearly rather more relaxed in those days. On a whim I asked him questions which intrigued me regarding his style and attitude towards children’s literature, never really dreaming of a response.

‘So I was amazed to receive a chatty double-sided, handwritten A4 reply, plus another dissertation which he lent me, presumably written in his famous garden shed, discussing the importance of reading for children and referring to his newly published book Matilda, now a movie and West End musical.

‘As he indicated himself, it was unusual for him to reply to letters like mine, so I really struck lucky! With the happy-go-lucky optimism of youth I don’t think I fully appreciated my good fortune.”

Jim Spencer, head of books and works on paper at Hansons Auctioneers, said: “This is important. It’s unusual to see such conversational correspondence from a big name like this. Most autograph letters that come up for sale are typed, brief, almost generic responses bearing Dahl’s signature at the end.

‘This is quite different, it gives us an insight into his creativity and craft, his passion for making reading fun, encouraging children to pick up books and take a love of literature with them throughout the rest of their lives.

‘It’s difficult to predict what a unique piece like this will do at auction. I’m guiding the letter at £500 to £800, but it could easily spark a fierce bidding battle and run away for much, much more.”

Miss Wotton contacted the auction house after deciding the time had come to sell. She said: “I’ve enjoyed and treasured the letter for over 30 years and the time has come to share it, for others to read and enjoy his wise words which are dashed off in his wonderfully inimitable, flamboyant style.”

So who was Roald Dahl?

Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1916, in the district of Llandaff. His parents were Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Dahl (née Hesselberg), both of whom were Norwegian immigrants. Harald had originally immigrated from Norway in the 1880s and lived in Cardiff with his French first wife with whom he had two children (a daughter, Ellen, and a son, Louis) before her death in 1907. Sofie immigrated later and married Harald in 1911. They had five children, Roald and his four sisters Astri, Alfhild, Else, and Asta, all of whom they raised Lutheran.

In 1920, Astri died suddenly of appendicitis, and Harald died of pneumonia only weeks later; Sofie was pregnant with Asta at the time. Instead of returning to her family in Norway, she stayed in the UK, wanting to follow her husband’s wishes to give their children an English education. As a boy, Roald Dahl was sent to an English public boarding school, St Peter’s.

He was intensely unhappy during his time there, but never let his mother know how he felt about it. In 1929, he moved to Repton School in Derbyshire, which he found equally unpleasant due to the culture of intense hazing and the cruelty with which older students dominated and bullied the younger ones; his hatred for corporal punishment stemmed from his school experiences. One of the cruel headmasters he loathed, Geoffrey Fisher, later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the association somewhat soured Dahl on religion.

Surprisingly, he was not noted as a particularly talented writer during his schoolboy days; in fact, many of his evaluations reflected precisely the opposite. He did enjoy literature, as well as sports and photography. Another of his iconic creations was sparked by his schooling experiences: the Cadbury chocolate company occasionally sent samples of new products to be tested by Repton students, and Dahl’s imagination of new chocolate creations would later turn into his famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

He graduated in 1934 and took a job with the Shell Petroleum Company; he was sent as an oil supplier to Kenya and Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania).

In 1939, Dahl was first commissioned by the army to lead a platoon of indigenous troops as World War II broke out. Soon after, however, he switched to the Royal Air Force, despite having very little experience as a pilot, and underwent months of training before he was deemed fit for combat in the fall of 1940. His first mission, however, went badly awry. After being given instructions that later proved to be inaccurate, he wound up crashing in the Egyptian desert and suffering serious injuries that took him out of combat for several months.

He did manage to return to combat in 1941. During this time, he had five aerial victories, which qualified him as a flying ace, but by September 1941, severe headaches and blackouts led to him being invalided home.

Dahl attempted to qualify as an RAF training officer, but instead wound up accepting the post of assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, DC. Although unimpressed and uninterested with his diplomatic posting, he became acquainted with CS Forester, a British novelist who was tasked with producing Allied propaganda for American audiences.

Jim Spencer with the letter

Forester asked Dahl to write down some of his war experiences to be turned into a story, but when he received Dahl’s manuscript, he instead published it as Dahl had written it. He wound up working with other authors, including David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming, to help promote British war interests, and worked in espionage as well, at one point passing information from Washington to Winston Churchill himself.

The knack for children’s stories that would make Dahl famous first appeared during the war. In 1943, he published The Gremlins, turning an inside joke in the RAF (‘gremlins’ were to blame for any aircraft problems) into a popular story that counted Eleanor Roosevelt and Walt Disney among its fans. When the war ended, Dahl had held the rank of wing commander and squadron leader. Several years after the end of the war, in 1953, he married Patricia Neal, an American actress. They had five children: four daughters and one son.

Dahl’s writing career began in 1942 with his wartime story. Originally, he wrote it with the title A Piece of Cake, and it was bought by The Saturday Evening Post for the substantial sum of $1,000. In order to be more dramatic for war propaganda purposes, however, it was renamed Shot Down Over Libya, even though Dahl had not, in fact, been shot down, let alone over Libya. His other major contribution to the war effort was The Gremlins, his first work for children. Originally it was optioned by Walt Disney for an animated film, but a variety of production obstacles (problems with ensuring the rights to the idea of ‘gremlins’ were open, issues with creative control and RAF involvement) led to the project’s eventual abandonment.As the war came to an end, he kicked off a career writing short stories, mostly for adults and mostly published originally in a variety of American magazines.

In the waning years of the war, many of his short stories remained focused on the war, the war effort, and propaganda for the Allies. First published in 1944 in Harper’s Bazaar, Beware of the Dog became one of Dahl’s most successful war stories and eventually was loosely adapted into two different movies.

In 1946, Dahl published his first short story collection. Entitled Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, the collection includes most of his war-era short stories. They’re notably different from the more famous works he’d later write; these stories were clearly rooted in the wartime setting and were more realistic and less quirky.

He also tackled his first (of what would only be two) adult novels in 1948. Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen was a work of dark speculative fiction, combining the premise of his children’s story The Gremlins with a dystopian future imagining worldwide nuclear war. It was largely a failure and has never been reprinted in English. Dahl returned to short stories, publishing two consecutive short story collections: Someone Like You in 1953 and Kiss Kiss in 1960.

The beginning of the decade included some devastating events for Dahl and his family. In 1960, his son Theo’s baby carriage was hit by a car, and Theo nearly died. He suffered from hydrocephalus, so Dahl collaborated with engineer Stanley Wade and neurosurgeon Kenneth Till to invent a valve that could be used to improve treatment. Less than two years later, Dahl’s daughter, Olivia, died at the age of seven from measles encephalitis.

Road Dahl’s Letter to Christine (right)

As a result, Dahl became a staunch proponent of vaccinations and he also began questioning his faith – a well-known anecdote explained that Dahl was dismayed at an archbishop’s remark that Olivia’s beloved dog could not join her in heaven and began questioning whether or not the Church really was so infallible. In 1965, his wife Patricia suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms during her fifth pregnancy, requiring her to relearn basic skills like walking and talking; she did recover and eventually returned to her acting career.

Meanwhile, Dahl was becoming more and more involved in writing novels for children. James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961, became his first iconic children’s book, and the decade saw several more publications that would go on to endure for years.

His 1964 novel though, would be arguably his most famous: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book received two film adaptations, one in 1971 and one in 2005, and a sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in 1972. In 1970, Dahl published The Fantastic Mr Fox, another of his more famous children’s stories.

During this time, Dahl continued to turn out short story collections for adults as well. Between 1960 and 1980, Dahl published eight short story collections, including two styled as ‘best of’ collections. My Uncle Oswald, published in 1979, was a novel using the same character of the lecherous ‘Uncle Oswald’ who featured in a few of his earlier short stories for adults.

He also continuously published new novels for children, which soon surpassed the success of his adult works. In the 1960s, he also briefly worked as a screenwriter, most notably adapting two Ian Fleming novels into films: the James Bond caper You Only Live Twice and the children’s movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

By the early 1980s, Dahl’s marriage to Neal was falling apart. They divorced in 1983, and Dahl remarried that same year to Felicity d’Abreu Crosland, an ex-girlfriend.

Around the same time, he caused some controversy with his remarks centred on Tony Clifton’s picture book God Cried, which depicted the siege of West Beirut by Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War. His comments at the time were widely interpreted as antisemitic, although others in his circle interpreted his anti-Israel comments as non-malicious and more targeted at the conflicts with Israel. Among his most famous later stories are 1982’s The BFG and 1988’s Matilda. The latter book was adapted into a much-beloved film in 1996, as well as an acclaimed stage musical in 2010.

The last book released while Dahl was still alive was Esio Trot, a surprisingly sweet children’s novel about a lonely old man trying to connect with a woman he has fallen in love with from afar.

Near the end of his life, Dahl was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare cancer of the blood, typically affecting older patients, that occurs when blood cells do not ‘mature’ into healthy blood cells. Roald Dahl died on 23rd November, 1990, in Oxford, England.

He was buried at the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, in a fittingly unusual fashion: he was buried with some chocolates and wine, pencils, his favourite pool cues and a power saw. To this day, his grave remains a popular site where children and adults alike pay tribute by leaving flowers and toys.

Dahl’s legacy dwells largely in the enduring power of his children’s books. Several of his most famous works have been adapted into several different media, from film and television to radio to stage. It’s not just his literary contributions that have continued to have an impact though.

After his death, his widow Felicity continued his charitable work through the Roald Dahl Marvellous Children’s Charity, which supports children with various illnesses throughout the UK. In 2008, the UK charity Booktrust and Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen joined forces to create The Roald Dahl Funny Prize, awarded annually to authors of humorous children’s fiction. Dahl’s particular brand of humour and his sophisticated yet approachable voice for children’s fiction have left an indelible mark.

Christine’s letter will be offered for sale by Hansons Auctioneers in their specialist Library Auction at Bishton Hall, Staffordshire, on 15th July. For more information, please contact Jim Spencer, associate director and head of books & works on paper: jspencer@hansonsauctioneers.co.uk