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  Roald Dahl (1916–1990), by Dumant, 1971 Roald Dahl (1916–1990), by Dumant, 1971
Dahl, Roald (1916–1990), writer of fiction, was born on 13 September 1916 at Villa Marie, Fairwater Road, Llandaff, Glamorgan, the son of Harald Dahl, shipbroker, and his second wife, Sofie Magdalene, daughter of Olaf Hesselberg, meteorologist and classical scholar. His parents were prosperous Norwegians. His father had given up farming near Oslo, and settled with his wife and two small children (a son and a daughter) in Wales, where he made a fortune as a shipbroker. When his first wife died suddenly, he married Sofie Hesselberg. She took on the existing family, and had four children of her own. Roald, her only son, was her third child, later nicknamed the Apple. One of his older sisters married the microbiologist Sir Ashley Miles.

Early life

When Dahl was only three another beloved, older sister and his father died within two months of one another. This was the first in a series of catastrophes and mortal disasters that dogged his life, and, he claimed, gave his work a black savagery. His mother, a devoted matriarch, ran the family. In the summers she took them to Norway, where her family fostered Dahl's interest in insects and birds, Nordic trolls, and witches. She gave Dahl his passion for reading—in particular Galsworthy, Kipling, and Hugh Walpole—all best-sellers of the day. She was immortalized as the grandmother in The Witches (1983).

Dahl was an undistinguished rebel at Llandaff Cathedral school, St Peter's in Weston-super-Mare, and Repton School. Those few of his contemporaries who remembered him remarked only on his bullying humour and competitive spirit, and his hatred of authority. His proudest achievement was to invent a mousetrap that plunged its victims into a bowl of water, with the Dahlian logo, ‘catch as cats can't’. In his account of his childhood, Boy (1984), he revealed the cruel flogging pleasurably inflicted by Repton's headmaster, G. F. Fisher (later archbishop of Canterbury). Dahl claimed that the hypocrisy of his headmaster's brutal beatings followed by pious sermons in Repton chapel cured him of any inclination towards Christianity. Dahl described his ferocious beatings in clinical detail in his story ‘Lucky Break’.

War service

Resisting the attractions of a university education, at eighteen Dahl joined the Public Schools Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland. He joined Shell in 1934, and was sent to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, he drove to Nairobi, Kenya, to volunteer for the Royal Air Force. Learning to fly over the Kenyan highlands was a master experience, and provided aerial images both magical and nightmarish for his subsequent writing. He served with 80 fighter squadron in the western desert in 1940, and was severely wounded when his Gloster Gladiator biplane ran out of petrol and crash-landed in the Libyan desert. His injuries never left him, and he later converted the pain and frustration of his crash and seven months in hospital into fantasies in the style of Biggles. He declined convalescent leave in Britain, and fought in the hopeless air defences over Athens and then the Peloponnese. Invalided home to London, he was posted to Washington as assistant air attaché (1942–3) and worked in security (1943–5). He was appointed flight lieutenant in 1943—not wing commander, as he claimed in Who's Who. While Dahl was in Washington, C. S. Forester—creator of Captain Hornblower and author of many popular novels—asked him for RAF anecdotes to be used as propaganda. He sent Dahl's romanticized version of his plane crash to the Saturday Evening Post, where it appeared in 1942 under the misleading title ‘Shot down over Libya: an RAF pilot's factual account’. In it Dahl informed his readers that his Hurricane had been brought down in flames by a burst of machine-gun fire while strafing a column of trucks. His stories in the Saturday Evening Post marked the beginning of Dahl's accidental but prodigious career as a writer.

Disney tried to make a film of one of Dahl's stories called ‘The Gremlins’ (1943), which concerned a tribe of goblins who were blamed by the RAF for everything that went wrong with an aircraft. Gremlin stories were rife in the RAF at the time, and several other books about them had already appeared, but Dahl was happy to boast that he had invented them. ‘The Gremlins’ was such a success that the self-dramatizing RAF hero became a frequent guest of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and their weekend retreat, Hyde Park. This entrée was exploited by the British intelligence services, who made him a spy—on the Americans. Or so Dahl later claimed.

Tales of the Unexpected

Dahl's short stories, published in such distinguished notice-boards of the genre as the New Yorker and Harper's Magazine, tiptoed along the tightrope between the macabre and the comic in a manner reminiscent of Hector Hugh Munro (Saki). They were horrific, fantastic, and unbelievable. Lapsed vegetarians do not commonly find themselves being slit up for sausage-meat in a homely abattoir, nor do babies fed on royal jelly turn into bees. In a typical Dahl story a woman clubs her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds it to the detectives who have come to search for the murder weapon, or a rich woman goes on a cruise, leaving her husband to perish in an elevator stuck between two floors in an empty house. When the stories were published as collections, Someone Like You (1953, revised 1961) and Kiss, Kiss (1960), Dahl broke through into the best-seller lists and became a celebrity. His popular fame was augmented by the translation of his ripping yarns to the small screen in Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1965 onwards, and then in Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, which ran on television around the world for many years from 1979 onwards. Preoccupied as they are with greed, revenge, cruelty, and the rest of the dark side of human nature, his stories were both bizarre examples and also trendsetters of the fashionable 1960s genre of black comedy. Not a few critics denounced his work as sadistic, antisocial, and misogynist. But Saki would have recognized his combination of the macabre with fantasy and wit.

On 2 July 1953 Dahl married the film star Patricia Neal (1926–2010), who was on the rebound from her long affair with Gary Cooper. She was the daughter of William Burdett Neal, manager of the Southern Coal and Coke Company, of Packard, Kentucky. They had one son and four daughters. Their son Theo was brain-damaged at the age of four months when he was tipped out of his pram in New York and fell under a cab. His skull was smashed and he was not expected to live. But working with his consultant and a friend who was an aircraft designer of hydraulic pumps, Dahl pioneered the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve. This non-blocking valve drains fluid from the brain, and has since been used to treat thousands of children with brain injuries. Ultimately, after years of desperate illness, Theo did recover. Meanwhile his older sister Olivia contracted a rare form of measles aged seven and died of encephalitis.

Children's fiction

Dahl now turned to writing books for children—claiming, implausibly, that he had run out of plots for adult Gothic horror. James and the Giant Peach (1967) was spotted as an instant new planet in the sky of children's fiction. The story begins with James's parents being eaten by a runaway rhino on a crowded shopping street, an opening that Evelyn Waugh would have cheered. The story tells how the orphan James escapes the guardianship of two monstrous aunts, the wicked Aunt Spiker and the dastardly Aunt Sponge. One day ‘this disgusting beast’, ‘this filthy nuisance’ (the aunts never call James by his real name) spills a bag of magic worms (‘Miserable creature!’) near the roots of a peach tree. A peach swells to enormous proportions and James goes to live inside it. With a set of lovable and resourceful insects as crew, James and the giant peach roll, float, and fly from darkest rural England over the Atlantic to a ticker-tape reception in New York, squashing the aunts as flat as pancakes en route. It is rude, naughty, anti-adult, creepy, and sometimes cruel. The Giant Peach had a successful run as an opera at Covent Garden.

James and the Giant Peach was followed in the same year by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (filmed in 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), the most popular children's book yet. This established the tricks of Dahl's magic trade and attraction. Its hero, Charlie Bucket, is the poorest boy imaginable (one bar of chocolate a year and two helpings of cabbage as a special treat on Sundays). His four grandparents, all over ninety, ‘as shrivelled as prunes and as bony as skeletons’, lie huddled and hungry in their one bed, ‘two at either end dozing away the time with nothing to do’. But Charlie's visit to the mysterious Wonka chocolate factory, a children's utopia of mint grass and chocolate rivers, changes the Bucket family fortunes. Mr Willy Wonka, the imperious chocolate wizard, is looking for a protégé he can trust. He disposes of Charlie's rivals (greedy Augustus Gloop, disobedient Violet Beauregarde, spoilt Veruca Salt, brash Mike Teevee) and chooses skinny, wide-eyed Charlie as the heir to his secret recipes—which include sugar-coated pencils for sucking, luminous lollies for eating in bed, and stickjaw for talkative parents. So the underdog triumphs, as usual with Dahl. His dialogue smacks of Carroll, and his verses of Belloc. A stock topic of Dahl's was to pick on human weaknesses and vices, such as gluttony, bossiness, or untidiness, and invite his young readers to rejoice in the sticky end to which their possessors come. These first children's books also flaunt the cheeky vocabulary, the zany pathos, the funniness, and the undisciplined plotting that were the penprints of Dahl. An eminent American critic called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ‘cheap, tasteless, ugly, sadistic, and for all these reasons, harmful’ (Treglown, 188); and an English headmaster doing research into children's reading charged Dahl with ‘incipient fascism’ (as opposed to the ‘paternalist feudalism’ of Enid Blyton). Even Margaret Meek, the distinguished authority on children's books, commented primly: ‘I do not trust Dahl as implicitly as his young readers do, because I find his view of life seriously flawed by a particular kind of intolerance.’

Dahl claimed that the secret of his success as a writer for children was that he appealed to their baser instincts:
When you are born you are a savage, an uncivilised little grub, and if you are going to go into our society by the age of ten, then you have to have good manners and know all the do's and don'ts—don't eat with your fingers and don't piss on the floor. All that stuff has to be hammered into the savage, who resents it deeply. So subconsciously in the child's mind these giants become the enemy. That goes particularly for parents and teachers. (The Times, 30 Nov 1990)
Not all teachers, parents, and librarians were as keen as their children on Dahl, especially in the United States. He was accused of violent exaggerations of language and grotesque characterizations. To his detractors Dahl was capricious (most adults are portrayed as cruel monsters); racist (the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were black pygmy slaves before Dahl gave them long hair and rosy skin in a prudently revised edition); rude (a whole chapter in The BFG [Big Friendly Giant] is devoted to the joys of farting); and misogynist (James's aunts, Sponge and Spiker, are ‘ghastly hags’; Matilda's headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, treats her pupils with extreme violence and grievous bodily harm). ‘Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. In fact, they look just like your schoolteacher or respectable aunt. But secretly they are bald, their spit is as blue as bilberry, and to them little boys smell of dogs' droppings, FRESH dogs' droppings.’ The Witches (1983) was placed on the restricted list in many American schools, after parents complained that it either frightened their children or encouraged them to take an interest in the occult. Beneath Dahl's robust caricature, simple morality, and rich comic invention, critics detected an undercurrent of vengeful sadism and black misanthropy.

In spite of high-minded disapproval, Dahl's books were hugely popular with children. They were inventive, rich, imaginative, surprising, funny, and full of the bizarre words that please children. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, several of them continually topped the best-seller lists both in the UK and abroad. When the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in China, it had a print run of two million, the biggest print run of any book to date. By the end of the twentieth century the sales of his eighteen children's titles totalled well over 35 million books. They included Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1973), Danny, the Champion of the World (1975), The Enormous Crocodile (1978), The Twits (1980), George's Marvellous Medicine (1981), The BFG (a Big Friendly Giant who kidnaps a girl from an orphanage and deposits her in the queen's bedroom, ‘with the Queen herself asleep in there behind the curtain not more than five yards away’) and Revolting Rhymes (both 1982), The Witches (1983), Matilda (1988), and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke and The Minpins, both published posthumously (1991).

Family, character, and assessment

While pregnant with their fifth child, Patricia Neal suffered a series of massive strokes. Again Dahl refused to accept the grim prognosis. He set about bringing her back into the world with a determination that shocked onlookers by its brutality and ruthlessness. She was helped through her long recovery by Dahl until she was well enough to resume acting. Some said that he humiliated her by treating her like a child, and bullied her back into health with force and even sadism. Dahl not only recreated his wife. He ran his household, adored his children, planned the garden, wrote screenplays (unsuccessfully), and continued to produce stories. Dahl then divorced Neal in 1983 and on 15 December the same year married her best friend and his long-time mistress, Felicity Ann Crosland, former wife of Charles Reginald Hugh Crosland, businessman and farmer, and daughter of Alphonsus Liguori d'Abreu, thoracic surgeon, of Birmingham. They lived with their eight children of previous marriages at Gipsy House, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. There Dahl wrote, always in pencil, in a hut in the garden.

Dahl published two volumes of autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) and Going Solo (1986). He wrote several scripts for films, among them the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). He was as scornful of the men in suits who run Hollywood studios as Scott Fitzgerald and P. G. Wodehouse. He was a publisher's nightmare. The president of Alfred Knopf described his manner as ‘unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility’ (Treglown, 215). He refused a request from his editor to tone down The Witches on the grounds that he was ‘not as frightened of offending women as you are’ (ibid., 225). He denounced Salman Rushdie under sentence of death by the Islamic fatwa as ‘a dangerous opportunist’ (The Times, 28 Feb 1989). And he accused the Jews of cowardice in the Second World War for not doing more to resist the Nazis. He told a reporter in 1983 that ‘there is a streak in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity’ (Treglown, 237), and declared that even a miserable man such as Hitler did not single them out for nothing. Invited to review God Cried, an account of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he launched a headlong attack on all Israelis, and to many it appeared an attack on Jews.

By the end of his life Dahl was bitter at not receiving the knighthood that he felt he deserved, and he became increasingly self-important, ordering a Rolls-Royce from his publisher's to collect manuscripts from his home. He was 6 feet 6 inches tall, a chain-smoker, a lover of fine wine, a collector of contemporary painting, a grower of roses and orchids, a picture restorer, and a gambler on horses. He looked after 100 budgerigars that flew wild around his garden. He was a chocaholic. In the garden hut where he wrote he kept a huge silver ball made by packing together the silver paper from all the chocolate bars he ate. He also kept there as a trophy to show visitors one of his arthritic hip bones which had been replaced.

Dahl's public statements were often intemperate. Some of his stories about himself were as tall as he was, and as fantastical as his fictions. But he had a magical touch for the macabre and the surrealist. The pied piper and lord of misrule of topsy-turvydom was the most popular children's writer of his or any age. Generations of children grew up with Dahl's books, and were able to enjoy reading them to their own children. They were translated into innumerable languages, filmed, and televised. Their saturnine author replied in rhyme to schoolchildren's fan mail:
Oh wondrous children miles away
Your letters brightened up my day.
(Treglown, 294)
He adored children, and they loved the grotesque worlds he created for them. His attachment to his family was the one consistency in a life of contradictions. His first wife remarked cynically that ‘he had an enormous appreciation for anything he generated’. His personal tale of the unexpected was that his story-telling talent sprang from tragedy and bile. Shortly before he died, he said: ‘I don't think you find many chaps or women in their mid-seventies who think like I do, and joke and fart around. They usually grow pompous, and pomposity is the enemy of children's writing’ (The Times, 30 Nov 1990). The key to his success, he frequently said, was to conspire with children against adults. He died of leukaemia on 23 November 1990 at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and was buried on 29 November at Great Missenden parish church. He was survived by his wife Felicity, his former wife Patricia Neal, and four of his children. In 2005 the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre was opened at 81–3 High Street, Great Missenden.

Philip Howard

Sources  

R. Dahl, Boy (1984) · R. Dahl, Going solo (1986) · R. Dahl, A sweet mystery of life (1989) · B. Farrell, Pat and Roald (1970) · J. Treglown, Roald Dahl: a biography (1994) · WWW · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · b. cert. · m. cert. [Felicity Ann Crosland] · d. cert.

Likenesses  

Dumant, photograph, 1971, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · J. Benton-Harris, double portrait, bromide print, 1976 (with Patricia Neal), NPG · S. Hyde, resin print, 1982, NPG · J. Baldwin, cibachrome print, 1989, NPG · S. Karadia, photograph, repro. in The Times (24 Nov 1990) · S. Karadia, photograph, repro. in The Times (30 Nov 1990) · oils, priv. coll. · photograph, repro. in The Times (24 Nov 1990)

Wealth at death  

£2,843,217: probate, 13 Feb 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales