Matilda is a classic, best-selling children’s book first published in 1988. This story draws from a history of children’s literature such as classic fairytales and Anne of Green Gables.
Matilda was written by Roald Dahl, but significantly improved by a talented editor and publisher, Steven Roxburgh. For half of his writing career, Dahl wrote for adults. When Dahl found publishing success in the children’s book market he stuck with that, but his editors were constantly having to make them more suitable for kids. The happy place where the stories ended up — creepy and scary but in a childlike kind of way, filled a real hole in children’s literature at the time. Children needed scary stories which spoke to our revenge fantasies, our hatred for certain adults in our lives and our trickster instincts.
Charactersiation In Matilda — Pre-edited and Post-edited Comparison
Matilda regularly makes it onto lists of ‘Strong Female Characters‘. This is vexing because I’ve read almost all of Dahl’s books, as well as the biography by Jeremy Treglown, and Dahl was no feminist. He was sexist, at best. But of course he was. Look at the era and milieu into which he was born. I stop short at calling him ‘misogynist’, but only because ‘misanthropist’ feels like a better descriptor. Does this come through in Matilda, even after heavy editing?
Dahl’s pre-edited Matilda is no role model, at least not in the sense most adults would hope for. As explained by Jeremy Treglown:
As Dahl would sometimes relate, the original version was not at all like [the published book]. He didn’t say that the main changes were prompted by his editor, or that after the work was done, Dahl picked a fight with him, took the book away from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and left them for good.
In the first draft of Matilda, a copy of which is still in the Dahl files at FSG, the heroine, not unlike Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda, was “born wicked”. She spends the first part of the book inflicting various tortures on her harmless and baffled parents. Only later does she turn out to be clever.
A clarification: ‘strong female character’ should not be conflated with ‘morally upright’. Lists of ‘strong female characters’ should include all kinds of strength, whether a girl uses her strength for good or for evil. If a female character is terrible, she might still be strong. There should be just as many female villains as male villains, in feminism’s next stride towards equal narrative representation. In that case, Dahl’s original Matilda made for a wonderful female villain. Some of the original Matilda character remains, as she uses her high intelligence to play tricks on her stupider parents, and mostly for the fun of it, and for plain and simple revenge. Matilda, like her father, is a trickster character, and the most interesting trickster stories involve trickster opponents to outwit the original tricksters.
If ‘revenge’ is a writer’s main desireline for their main character, it’s very hard to write. The benefit is that it’s very emotional. Everyone can relate to it. But it’s hard to write because it’s a ‘low level’ emotion which doesn’t build. Dahl got around this by creating an episodic plot, in which the child/ren exact revenge, completing that ‘episode’, but then something even more terrible happens to them.
Miss Trunchbull is another female villain from this story. Unlike Matilda, The Trunchbull remains villanous. Take a closer look at and it’s clear Dahl does not believe true villainy can co-exist with genuine femininity:
The headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is characterized much as in the final version of the book, although some details, such as her “shadow of a jet-black moustache” and her dressing in men’s clothes of a military type, were eventually dropped. (Dahl was to base her new appearance on that of the principal of a horticultural school near Thame, where he and his sisters bought plants.)
Dahl’s original vision of The Trunchbull is nevertheless used in other more modern stories, such as in ParaNorman. I’m thankful Steven Roxburgh edited out the masculine descriptors. I wish he had also edited out the description of Mrs Wormwood being ‘unfortunately’ fat. Fat phobia in Dahl’s book comes through loud and clear. Readers are encouraged to despise fat characters simply for being fat.
It was the editors who made the Miss Honey character a complete goodie. Dahl’s Miss Honey was more nuanced; she had a gambling habit:
In the second half, nothing in the draft corresponds with the final story as Roxburgh suggested it to Dahl, except that both versions are in the style of Victorian sentimental melodrama and, in both, Matilda is brought face to face with her teacher’s poverty. In the original version, when Matilda’s teacher — called Miss Hayes — learns of her pupil’s secret powers, she makes a confession of her own. A bookie’s daughter, Miss Hayes is a compulsive gambler and has run up debts of 20,000 pounds on the horses. Keen to help, the fascinated Matilda has the idea of using her powerful eyes to fix a race. She practises energetically by knocking over nearby cows and ponies. Meanwhile, Miss Hayes pawns an old ring of her mother’s for 2,000 pounds. The two go off to Newmarket and put the money on a 50:1 outsider. It wins Miss Hayes pockets 100,000 pounds, takes them both home in a taxi, and renounces gambling forever. By now the beginning of the book has been forgotten. Matilda has long ago stopped being naughty, and Miss Trunchbull has disappeared from view altogether.
The Importance Of Contrasting Character Values
The structural problems with this enjoyable nonsense must have been easier to identify than their solutions, but Roxburgh saw various new possibilities, both in Matilda’s cleverness and in the clash between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Hayes over educational methods. He realised, too, that the book would have more shape, and Matilda more identity, if Miss Hayes’s values (nature, poetry, etc.) were contrasted with those of her pupil’s parents. It was clear that in some way the young teacher’s predicament should arise out of the situation already established in the early chapters. Within what was usable, there would need to be some cuts, particularly in the Trunchbull scenes and in the duplication between Matilda’s naughtiness and that of her friends Hortensia and Lavender.
Roxburgh put all these points to Dahl. If they proceeded as before, Dahl would incorporate his suggestions into a new draft, on which the editor would offer further comments, having polished and cut as much as his author would tolerate.
Characters’ Moral Ambiguity Wiped Out In Favour Of Good vs Bad
The first stage went fine. Dahl saw the advantages of emphasizing Matilda’s intelligence and enthusiasm for books. Following Roxburgh’s suggestions, he developed a contrastingly boorish home background for her and reduced the episodes of her bad behaviour, turning them into acts of revenge on her illiterate, sexist, and semi-criminal father. The aptly renamed Miss Honey was built up, meanwhile, into an attractive, sweet-natured, and liberally inclined teacher, a much stronger foil to Miss Trunchbull.
We Might Need To Change Emphasis In The Climax
All of this took up considerably more of the book—almost a hundred pages of typescript, to the first draft’s fifty—allowing Miss Honey’s new revelations about the financial and domestic villainy of Miss Trunchbull to come closer to the climax. Here, Matilda’s powers now play a positive, much briefer, and more dramatic role: the exposure of Miss Trunchbull through magical writing on the blackboard.
Avoid Too Much About The Adults — It’s About The Child Hero
All this was Dahl’s next draft. Inevitably there were still roughnesses. There was too much both of Miss Trunchbull and, now, of Matilda’s parents.
Do Your Research On How Modern Schools Operate
The antique school-story idiom (“New scum,” “We’ve seen her at prayers,” “‘Steady on,’ the boy said. ‘I mean, dash it all, Headmistress'”), however reassuring to middle-class British parents, was incongruous in the setting of a contemporary day school and wouldn’t make much sense to American kids. But Roxburgh could put all this to Dahl in person at Gipsy House when they discussed what was needed in the final draft.
The Rest Is History
Except that, as it turned out, this was the final draft. Perhaps because he was increasingly busy at FSG, perhaps (as Dahl complained) because of complications in his private life, but perhaps also because he had been irked to hear that Dahl had been complaining about him at dinner parties with other publishers, Roxburgh’s letter about the new manuscript was not fulsome. “The story holds together and moves along briskly,” he wrote early in October 1987. “I had hoped to read the manuscript one more time before returning it, but Frankfurt [the Book Fair] looms.” He suggested that he might come to Great Missenden on his return, in two weeks’ time, to review the draft, “or whatever”.
Dahl was tired of being put to so much work. And when financial negotiations began, it became clear that there was a way out. In all the editorial discussions about Matilda, Roxburgh had omitted to make sure that Farrar, Straus and Giroux had a contract with Dahl for the book. They didn’t, and Dahl was now quick to demand, through his agent, a full 15 per cent royalty over and above whatever was paid to Quentin Blake. Roxburgh was left with little choice except to agree, but instead of capitulating graciously, he made the mistake of warning Pollinger that he wouldn’t be able to offer such good terms if Farrar Straus were the originating publishers of any future Dahl book.
In the United Staes, its publisher was Viking, the hardcover wing of Peter Mayer’s Penguin. Their confidence in the story as it stood was amply justified. No book of Dahl’s ever sold so fast. In Britain alone, half a million paperback copies went across the counter within six months. Stephen Roxburgh’s role, of course, was never acknowledged.
Further Storytelling Notes From Matilda
The Wormwoods remind me very much of The Dursleys. I’m not the first to make that observation.
Adults who buy children’s books about libraries and a love of reading tend to do well. Of the story apps we’ve published, the one that does the best is the one in which a child develops a love for reading after spending a lot of time in a library. This is a conservative, non-threatening message and no one who reads books really disagrees with it. Roald Dahl went a step further and incorporated a strong anti-TV message, by associating TV viewing with the most despicable characters in the story. Dahl also slipped this message into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Mike Teevee and his obsessive pop cultural attitude. I wonder if Dahl watched any TV himself. In any case it was a hypocritical position given that his wife was a film actress and Dahl wrote film scripts.
By Northrop Frye’s categorisation, Matilda Wormwood is a romantic character, superior to regular human beings and also to some of the laws of nature.
Steven Roxburgh must have understood — even if Roald Dahl himself did not — that Matilda is functioning as an almost superhero. Superhero stories have certain conventions, and that’s why the other characters needed to be unambiguously good and evil, not yin-yang as Dahl created them. Matilda works because of the stark good-bad distinction. This is the same distinction used in The Witches and The BFG.
Yet she is not a Mary-Sue goody-two-shoes character. We like her. Part of this must be to do with the fact that she enacts our revenge fantasies. Wouldn’t all of us like to play tricks on the adults who treat us with derision? Even as an adult reader, that feeling is there.
Matilda’s small size is brought up time and again. Mice are often anthropomorphised in children’s stories and it works the same way — children identify heavily with small characters. Being small is a shortcoming, but one which can always be overcome by wits.
The superpower of telekinesis also serves to propel Matilda Wormwood into the realm of a romantic/superhero character and away from the Mary-Sue archetype.
On re-reading this as an adult I am actually pretty surprised at how much of the novel is taken up by the back-and-forth oneupmanship which defines one of Dahl’s other MG novels — The Twits. First Matilda gets the better of her parents, then when she starts school she and the other children get the better of The Trunchbull in a similar series of pranks and punks.
Dahl is also a big fan of The Audience Effect to make scenes seem bigger than they would otherwise be. First we have Miss Honey interrogating Matilda, which happens in front of the class. The kindergarten students sit improbably still for this lengthy testing of abilities. A few chapters later we have the forced cake eating scene, which happens on the school stage. Dahl also uses a stage to give The Grand High Witch a platform, and Sophie from The BFG ends up at Buckingham Papers and in the papers.
The scene with the cake is disturbing rather than funny, possibly because I’ve seen Se7en, in which the fat man forced to eat dies. Dahl might easily have written a screenplay such as Se7en were he writing in slightly more modern times. When writing for children, this scene has to end in the boy’s favour. Anything else would be far too horrific. See also: How Scary Is Too Scary?
When it’s Lavender’s turn to play a trick on The Trunchbull, Dahl is very careful to be explicit about her motivation — she admires the others who’ve played tricks and wants her own turn as hero. We love Lavender’s daring, her inventiveness, and we even get a Save The Cat moment as she provides the newt with extra weed to eat. The first chapter in this sequence starts with a chapter that sets up the trick, and ends with the cliffhanger of class about to start.
The Trunchbull is the extreme hyperbolic version of a terrible headmistress — she loathes children. Not only that, she tells them so. But even her raison d’etre is explained: She feels it’s her life’s work to counterbalance the positive feedback children get from their doting parents. She really thinks she’s doing some good in the world.
Comedy comes from watching little Eric spell ‘what’ wrong three times, each time getting it more wrong than before. Comedy also comes from The Trunchbull refusing to admit she was ever small or ever a baby. This character humour is relatable because children find it hard to imagine the adults in their lives as children themselves. When I first started school my father told me m teacher didn’t have a home, that she slept in the cupboard, and I half believed him. Eric gets his ears stretched — slapstick comedy. The final gag in the chapter is a reveal that Miss Trunchbull has worked our Matilda’s father is a crook and has sold her a lemon. The reader was in audience superior position on that one, so feels satisfying. This also ups the stakes for Matilda, because not only does Miss Trunchbull hate children, she especially hates Matilda’s father. This is the cliffhanger of “The Weekly Test”.
In “The First Miracle” the reader is still in audience superior position — we know there’s a newt and guess that Miss Trunchbull is about to swallow it. Now the pleasure comes from waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As you might have guessed, the newt incident spans three chapters, making use of the Rules of Threes in storytelling. Importantly, the newt is saved. And Miss Trunchbull doesn’t swallow the newt — Dahl makes use of the telekinesis he has already set up. Matilda simply knocks the glass of water over so that the scary-looking creature tips out. Miss Trunchbull ends defeated, sending the children out into the yard, which she thinks is a punishment but is absolutely no punishment at all. The children are clear winners.
As Matilda walks down the path towards Miss Honey’s cottage and they recite the poem, I realise Miss Honey and Matilda are a Miss Stacey and Anne Shirley pair of kindred spirits. Anne of Green Gables has been hugely influential, and has influenced Matilda.
Dahl uses allusions to fairytales when describing Miss Honey’s home — as in a classic fairytale such as Hansel and Gretel, the path starts off looking cosy and inviting but the atmosphere changes as they enter ‘the forest‘. Miss Honey herself is a fairytale figure — a rags to riches, put-upon figure. Basically a Cinderella trope who has gone from upper middle class to outwardly middle class but living in poverty.
Miss Honey’s story is a chapter of hypodiegetic narration — “Miss Honey’s Story” makes it no surprise that we’re going to hear all about Miss Honey’s backstory. The big reveal at the end (though I’m sure a few young readers will have guessed) is that Miss Trunchbull is the name of the abusive aunt who killed her father and rewrote his will in her own favour, keeping Miss Honey as an indentured worker. Right out of a fairytale. We also see indentured slavery in tales such as Rumpelstiltskin.
Modern writers have trouble getting parents out of the picture. In real life, caregivers always know where their children are these days, unless there’s some dark abuse and neglect. So writers need children who are orphans or foster children or who disobediently abscond on some important mission. Even in the 1980s the freedom of childhood was starting to disappear. Dahl doesn’t have this issue with Matilda because her parents don’t care where she is. Yet he lampshades her absence anyhow. She’s been at Miss Honey’s house all afternoon but Matilda tells Miss Honey that they won’t care.
The final trick on Miss Trunchbull uses that feeling you get when you’re a kid and you learn your teacher’s first name. You feel you have something on them.
Why does Dahl take Matilda’s power of telekinesis away from her at the end? Probably because it has done its work for the story and leaving it there might suggest more in the series to come. Or, there’s a risk Matilda might continue to use it but for bad reasons. When your life is perfect you don’t need superpowers. Also, readers conservatively value hard work. She’s already been blessed with genius, now she’ll have to use her brains to make her way in life, just like the rest of us plebs. Taking away her powers puts her on the same level as the reader (in a way).
Dahl makes use of a ticking clock technique in the final chapter as Miss Honey and Matilda rush to ask if Matilda can live with Miss Honey rather than escape the police in Spain.
The final sentence of the book must be quite disturbing for a child reader — the image of your family zooming away forever. But the wonderful flip side is that Matilda will be much better off.