Roald Dahl’s brilliant and bright Matilda just got pipped to the post, coming second as most inspirational children’s book character to Harry Potter. Yes, he may be the boy who lived, but Harry’s wet personality is nothing on the five-year-old’s grit, courage and optimism.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.