The letters of Roald Dahl | We all know Roald Dahl as the creator of iconic, if occasionally brutal, children’s books, but few realise just what a prolific letter writer he was. With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, biographer Donald Sturrock has gathered together correspondence between Dahl and his mother that began at the age of nine and continued until his death.
Over 200,000 letters to choose from.
“This is just one shaft of light into Roald Dahl’s letters,” explains Donald. He estimates that there’s possibly over 200,000 letters written in his life; it’s amazing the number of letters he wrote to children on top of his normal correspondence. So that’s why they started here, it seemed the most straight forward and easy to find as his mother had kept them all.
Donald had to do some tidying up of the letters – his spelling was dodgy and his use of apostrophes terrible. They begin from when he went to a boarding school, where they were written under the eye of his headmaster. School was the first bad thing to happen to him (just look at Matilda if you want to see his perception of school), but he didn’t want to worry his mum – his letters were there to entertain her, and then himself. He was a joker – ones read out from when he was 12 sounds far beyond his years.
They were optimistic, they made things work. There were traces of his childhood issues and attitudes in his later work (again, Matilda is a prime example). Some things he didn’t say anywhere could be traced in his books. His letters often began boring, tick boxing what he should tell his mother, then becoming more entertaining and mad – he never put in the full story if it would worry her.
There’s no finer example than when he joined the RAF. He crashed a plane in the middle of a desert and was seriously injured – three months in hospital, blind for six weeks. He skimmed the grimmer details in his next letter to her. But this is also what led to him becoming a writer: he was recounting it to someone who was to write a story, it was tricky, so he said, “Why don’t I write it up for you?”
He did, sent it over for them to edit, they never edited it, it was published under his name, and that seemed to be his moment of epiphany. He had never showed ambitions to be a writer until that moment.
“He never lost the sense of how a child sees the world.”
The tone of his letters shifted from flashy to being more measured and pensive. He was known to hint at or tell stories that weren’t quite true, and it seemed that the moment he “became” a writer was the moment the creativity was channelled primarily into his weird and wonderful worlds. The craziness of his letters disappear more the older her gets.
But what doesn’t disappear is the importance of his mother: she’s a rock, and when things get tough he came to her time and time again for help and advice. It was all fairly factual rather than emotional – he never told her via letters of real relationships, for example.
Donald knew Roald for a few years after making a film about him; he’s built a relationship with his family. They were the ones who approached him, despite never having written a book, to write the first official biography after his death. He hopes that more of his letters can be released into the world – particularly a collection those in reply to children. For all he has a reputation of being a bit of a grumpy old man, Roald Dahl’s letters to children are some of the most delightful you’ll come across. “He never lost the sense of how a child sees the world.”
As one of the world’s most prolific and important children’s writers, these letters are just the start of learning more about him through a lifetime of writing to people. “Reading his letters, you see the kid that becomes George,” says Donald, “that becomes Charlie, that becomes Matilda.”