How Roald Dahl’s grief paved the way for his brave female protagonists

Posted by for Books

When Roald Dahl lost his beloved daughter Olivia, the tone of his writing noticeably shifted. Here, official biographer Donald Sturrock examines the feminist undercurrent running through Matilda, The BFG, The Magic Finger and beyond.

“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it” – (Roald Dahl, Matilda).

Roald Dahl believed everyone should stand up against injustice. And children, he felt, had a special role to play in this battle. Matilda is perhaps the most famous of his defiant child heroes, who challenge a corrupt, bullying authority in search of a just outcome. But she is by no means alone. The child confronting unfairness is a consistent thread in most of Roald’s stories.

The Magic Finger, for example, is related by an unnamed child narrator who stands up against what she sees as the injustice of hunting ducks. She develops magic powers whenever she perceives unfairness. She gets indignant. Her anger empowers her and her supernatural abilities blossom. In this case, she teaches her neighbours a lesson by miniaturising them and giving them wings. The ducks, for their part, grow to human size and start shooting at the small flying people. The humans quickly learn their lesson. 

The Magic Finger was Roald’s third children’s book, written in 1964, after James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is also his first story with a female central character. One can only speculate as to why. But a key factor may have been the fact that his eldest daughter Olivia died from measles, aged only seven, just after he started writing it. 

Her death was the great blow of Roald’s life, and it took him years to recover from it. Some members of his family thought he never did. And indeed, writing in 1986 (some 24 years after he lost his daughter), Roald recounted the hours before she passed away.

“Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it,” he wrote.

“Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything. ‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her. ‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.

“In an hour, she was unconscious. In 12 hours she was dead.”

British novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter Roald Dahl (1916 - 199) and his wife, American actress Patricia Neal (1926 - 2010), holding their children Theo, Ophelia and Tessa Dahl, at home, UK, 21st May 1965. (Photo by George Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Roald Dahl and his wife Patricia Neal holding their children Theo, Ophelia and Tessa Dahl, at home Taken on 21 May 1965. (Photo by George Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Olivia possessed a strong sense of right and wrong. She also shared with her father a love of animals. Gipsy House, their home in Buckinghamshire, was filled with dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and chickens. And although The Magic Finger is dedicated to Olivia’s two much younger siblings, Ophelia and Lucy, the spirit of the fair-minded, animal-loving Olivia hangs over it, like a benevolent spirit. 

Twenty years later, Roald expanded many of the book’s themes in his 1988 story, Matilda. Matilda herself is a much more complex, reflective character than her predecessor and she possesses a sophisticated sense of what she is doing. She is also funnier, cleverer and braver. She faces up to and outwits the terrifying Miss Trunchbull, putting her own safety willingly at risk to ensure that justice is done. In that respect, she is like Sophie in The BFG whose moral certainties make her fearless, either of meeting the Queen or confronting child-eating giants.

Both Sophie and Matilda recognise that, although they are small and apparently at the bottom end of the power chain, they can fight back. Using their wit and intelligence – alongside a little bit of magic – they can harness their moral sensibilities and defeat injustice, even if their opponents appear much bigger than they are. That’s where the bravery comes in. Only children often don’t see what they are doing as courageous. They act, sometimes without thinking, because they recognise within themselves a need to do the right thing. 

 As a child becomes an adult, that sensibility wanes. They begin to compromise. Roald understood this very well. The bravest person in Matilda is probably an adult, Miss Honey. She has spent years being worn down and browbeaten. She is so downtrodden that she has forgotten how to act. 

“Up to now,” Miss Honey confesses to Matilda, “I have found it impossible to talk to anyone about my problems… any courage I had was knocked out of me when I was young.” 

Miss Honey, though, understands the special power that a child can possess. “I know you are only a tiny little girl,” she tells Matilda, “but there is some kind of magic in you somewhere. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” 

It is Matilda’s clear moral code galvanises Miss Honey into being courageous.

Roald Dahl reads to three of his children, from left, Tessa, Theo, and Ophelia, in the kitchen of his home, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Taken in September 1965. (Photo by Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Roald Dahl reads to three of his children, from left, Tessa, Theo, and Ophelia, in the kitchen of his home, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Taken in September 1965. (Photo by Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

So, are Roald’s girl heroes braver than the boys? One thinks of James entering the Giant Peach and finding it filled with alarmingly outsize bugs. Or Danny, driving the Austin Seven through the terrifying woods at night to rescue his father. Or indeed the boy hero of The Witches, who takes on the most fiendishly powerful character in all Roald’s fiction, The Grand High Witch. They are surely equally brave and equally resourceful. Whether male or female, Roald’s protagonists share a child’s perspective on the world.

That perspective informs every children’s book Roald wrote. It was also the gift in himself as a writer that he valued the most. He often referred to himself with a smile as “a geriatric child”. He believed he understood exactly how a child sees the world and that most adults had forgotten how to see with their child’s eye. Roald also understood clearly how powerful that eye could be. It allowed you to see clearly, to be courageous, to do good things. The qualities we should all be celebrating on Roald Dahl Day. 

Want must-binge culture tips and chic interiors hacks? Sign up for the Stylist Loves Staying In email

Images: Getty

Share this article

Recommended by Donald Sturrock