“How Roald Dahl’s Matilda taught me everything I know about friendship”

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Matilda was the last full-length book that Roald Dahl wrote for his younger readers, but for many it was the most formative. On Roald Dahl day 2019, Stylist’s Meena Alexander discusses the lasting impact of Dahl’s most mischievous pairing: the brilliant Matilda and Lavender.

“We may be small, but we’re quite tough.”

These are the matter-of-fact words that Lavender uses to describe herself and her best friend, Matilda Wormwood. They are also the first words I truly felt as a bookish, self-assured seven-year-old constantly searching for a glimpse of myself in every book, film and cartoon.

My first meeting with Matilda and Lavender came in the form of a Roald Dahl book collection, their story wedged between those of the BFG and George of Marvellous Medicine fame. Today, I only need to look at the book to see exactly where Matilda begins and ends, it’s pages far more well-thumbed than the rest.

Like so many children who were secretly rebellious but far too afraid of a telling-off to act on it, I was ripe to devour Dahl’s beloved tale of the little guys triumphing over the brutish grown-ups. 

With her love of reading and strong sense of justice, Matilda felt like a kindred spirit – albeit one who could actually enact her revenge on wretched adults instead of having to settle for muttered protests as she stormed up the stairs.

Mara Wilson as Matilda in the 1996 film adaptation
Roald Dahl day 2019: Mara Wilson as Matilda in the 1996 film adaptation

But despite all the telekinesis, gloriously gruesome punishments and genuine horror (see Trunchbull literally hammer-throwing a child across the playground) it was the very ordinary theme of friendship that stayed with me long after Matilda and Miss Honey’s happy ending.

Perhaps it was because, at that age, my school friends seemed like my whole world, or perhaps it was down to the keen connection I felt with Kiami Davael, the fellow black girl I saw playing Lavender in the 1996 film adaptation. I suspect it was a mixture of the two that made this fictional friendship feel so important to me. 

In the book, Matilda and Lavender meet in Miss Honey’s classroom, where it soon becomes clear that Matilda is an exceptionally bright child. As she wows the room with her mental maths and reading prowess, previously top-of-the-class Lavender complains: “It’s not fair… How can she do it and we can’t?”

Primed by the countless times I’d seen girls pitted against each other, I guessed I knew what would happen next – Lavender and Matilda would become competitors at worst, and frenemies at best.

But Dahl’s writing was anything but predictable. He wrote:

“Right from the first day of term the two of them started wandering round together during the morning break and in the lunch hour – naturally drawn to each other like two peas in a pod. 

“Matilda liked her because she was gutsy and adventurous. She liked Matilda for exactly the same reasons.”

The fact that these two girls saw each other as allies rather than a threat shouldn’t have been revolutionary, but unfortunately in my limited experience, it was. And just like I unconsciously adopted the mannerisms of my closest friends, these brilliant girls and their mutual admiration became the blueprint for the kind of friendships I wanted.

In Matilda, Lavender’s central heroic moment is inspired by her best friend. We’re told she admires Matilda for her bravery in pulling pranks on deserving adults: Dahl writes that “it was her turn now to become a heroine, if only she could come up with a brilliant plot”.

So comes the iconic newt-in-a-jug scene, where the tiny Lavender takes down the dictatorial Miss Trunchbull with the help of a pond-dweller and her best pal’s superpowers. 

Not only did I long to prank my mean teachers in this way (or at least see them gunged on that most vindicating of 90s TV shows, Get Your Own Back), I also loved the idea that small girls, so often underestimated, could join forces to save the day. Matilda and Lavender were partners in crime, small but undoubtedly mighty. And they were each other’s biggest cheerleaders. 

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Today, I’m lucky enough to count many strong, inspiring women as my friends, women whose successes are my own. Dahl’s brilliant writing gave me so much – including the inarguably genius words ‘snozzcumber’ and ‘biffsquiggled’– but looking back, the most important thing may have been this shining example of how powerful girls supporting each other can truly be. 

Every Matilda needs their Lavender – who else will help them topple the Miss Trunchbulls of the world?

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Images: The Roald Dahl Story Company, Getty Images

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist’s sub-editor. She prides herself on her ability to spell big words, her earring collection and her photographic memory for every outfit Rihanna has ever worn.

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