Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation
Top

In praise of Matilda, Roald Dahl’s most inspiring heroine

MATILDA_8x10_CMYK_0011.jpg

Roald Dahl Day takes place every September, but this year it’s particularly special. 13 September 2016 marks 100 years since the world’s most-beloved children’s author was born in Llandaff, near Cardiff – and this winter, the movie version of Matilda celebrates its 20th anniversary. Here, writer and Stylist contributor Lucy Mangan pays tribute to her favourite of all Dahl’s heroines. 

Could you love anyone who did not love Matilda? The book and the eponymous heroine, a bookworm whose frustration and anger at her neglectful family and bullying headmistress manifest as telekinetic powers that eventually provide justice for all, are both among Roald Dahl’s best.

Apart from The BFG perhaps, it is Dahl’s warmest book and it is strange to learn that it had quite a troubled gestation. The first draft was almost universally disliked by those to whom he showed it. The bones of the tale we know were barely there. Matilda was “born wicked” and the story was built largely round horse racing and gambling. Matilda uses her special powers to influence one of the races and solve her favourite teacher’s financial problems.

Dahl rewrote the whole thing and eventually arrived at the story we know and still love today, nearly three decades on.

I was 14 in 1988, when Matilda came out – technically, too old for Dahl. But of course I fell on it and devoured it as feverishly as Matilda did her precious contraband (in her profoundly anti-reading family) from the library.

matilda-lucy-mangan

Bookworms have few role models in life. We find them – but of course – mainly in our books, and Matilda was the non-pareil. Independent, brave, resourceful, a girl who only got cooler under pressure, even when it was being applied by one of Dahl’s finest and doublest-dyed villains Miss Trunchbull – who could fail to clutch her to one’s own pallid bosom and keep her as inspiration over the years?

I was technically too old for the film too when it came out in 1996. But I watched it, and I watched it again recently on its twentieth anniversary (Twentieth! Where does the time go? I wish I could meet a middle-aged Matilda and have her light the way for the second half of my life too), and it works the same magic.


Read more: Quentin Blake on the importance of pictures


It succeeds and endures not because it so brilliantly reproduces the book’s wonderful and quintessentially Dahlesque set pieces (Bruce Bogtrotter and the chocolate cake, Miss Trunchbull hammer-throwing children through windows), or because it has in the then-newcomer Mara Wilson the perfect Matilda (a stoic with the light of unquenchable intelligence burning fiercely in her eyes) but because it channels the book’s heart, its essential optimism.

Matilda’s message is that you can forge your own fate – that biology is not destiny and that even if your parents are awful, loud, borderline-violent horrors who do not, cannot, will not ever understand you, you can always find a refuge. Books are one. Friendship is another (all hail Lavender and Hortensia, who steer our heroine through her first tricky days at Crunchem Hall and beyond), and love. Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher who revels in the girl’s intelligence and spirit instead of instinctively looking to crush both like her parents do and who eventually adopts her pupil, symbolises the soulmate all of us hope to find in life.


Read more: Roald Dahl's most beloved characters: where are they now?


Matilda was the last full-length book for young readers Dahl wrote before his death in 1990. He once described the business of writing for children as giving him “a funny feeling that my writing arm is about six thousand miles long and that the hand that holds the pencil is reaching all the way across the world to faraway houses and classrooms where children live and go to school.”

It reaches deeper than that. Like thousands of readers in the past and thousands more to come, I carry Matilda in my heart. 

2016 celebrates Matilda’s 20th anniversary and Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday. You can purchase Matilda on DVD via Amazon here.

Related

roald dahl cocktail recipes.jpg

Roald Dahl cocktails are here and they're far from revolting

winnie-the-pooh.jpg

Winnie the Pooh is Britain's favourite children's book character

roald.jpg

Lucy Mangan explores our enduring love of Roald Dahl

beatrix-potter-kitty-boots-penguin-book.jpg

10 favourite childhood reads as chosen by Stylist staff

images.jpg

The 20 best snippets of relationship wisdom from children’s books

cornwall.jpg

Britain's most enticing literary haunts to visit

Comments

More

Amazon Prime snaps up seven Agatha Christie TV projects

And stars of Gossip Girl and Love Actually have signed on for the first

by Amy Swales
19 Jul 2017

Hey muggles, there are two brand-new Harry Potter books coming out

They’re set to fly onto shelves this Halloween

by Kayleigh Dray
19 Jul 2017

“How Jane Austen radically changed female desire and relationships”

Let’s talk about sex, ladies

by Kayleigh Dray
18 Jul 2017

Bank of England makes awkward Jane Austen blunder on new £10 note

Erm, guys – did you even read Pride & Prejudice?

by Kayleigh Dray
18 Jul 2017

100,000 banned texts have been built into a 'Parthenon of books’

The structure stands in the very same spot where the Nazis burned thousands of censored books

by Jasmine Andersson
14 Jul 2017

This one reading habit could boost your happiness levels

It's all to do with adventure stories

by Anna Brech
12 Jul 2017

Lost manuscript discovered in home of Where The Wild Things Are author

“What a miracle to find this buried treasure in the archives”

by Anna Brech
12 Jul 2017

Why we love bullet journals, according to science

The brightly coloured pages have a multitude of benefits

by Sarah Biddlecombe
11 Jul 2017

JK Rowling explains why her new fairy tale may never be published

The secret manuscript is kept in a rather unusual location

by Moya Crockett
11 Jul 2017

5 amazing new memoirs to read on your summer holiday

Pack one of these stunning reads in your beach bag

by Moya Crockett
06 Jul 2017