In 1920, the year Roald Dahl was four, his mother was 35 and pregnant. That year, Oslo-born Sophie Magdalene lost a daughter, followed soon after by her husband, and found herself looking after two stepchildren and three of her own. They were living near Cardiff, as this was where Dahl’s Norwegian father, Harald, had set up a ship-broking firm. As none of his mother’s letters has survived, we don’t hear how she felt about this or, indeed, very much else. She is the huge absent presence of this book.
In his memoir, More About Boy, Dahl wrote: “She had a crystal-clear intellect and a deep interest in almost everything under the sun… Her memory was prodigious and nothing that ever happened to her in her life was forgotten. Embarrassing moments, funny moments, desperate moments were all recounted in every detail and we would listen to her enthralled.”
From photos, we can see that Dahl resembled her much more than he did his father and his loving, literary tribute to her is the grandmother character in The Witches. Again, in More About Boy, he wrote of her hair. Every morning, she would let it down so that she could brush it “assiduously”. It “reached three-quarters of the way down her back, and it was always carefully plaited and coiled in a bun on the top of her head”. In short, she was perfect in mind and body – but for one thing: she sent her only son away to boarding school. Not that Dahl seems ever to have borne her any resentment for this. We know both from his own writings and the biographies by Jeremy Treglown and Sturrock himself that life in the 1920s and 1930s at St Peter’s school in Weston-super-Mare and then Repton in Derbyshire was spartan and at times brutal and lonely.
There is no trace of a complaint in these letters, edited by Donald Sturrock; no account of the beatings, no rehearsal in the writing of a Miss Trunchbull, starting out life as one of Dahl’s masters before transforming into that male-female monster in Matilda. The letters span from 1925, when Dahl was nine, already at St Peter’s across the Bristol Channel from home, until the moment of Dahl’s wife Patricia Neal’s stroke in 1965, a letter sent from Romany Drive, Pacific Palisades, California. Sophie Magdalene was 80.
The letters are a reminder, if any were needed, that Dahl can’t be pigeonholed in any neat social or literary category. By sending him to Repton, his mother gave him the perfect introduction to the upper echelons of British society and young Dahl tells of rugby, football, boxing, cricket, cross-country running, cadet-training corps mock battles along with eccentric masters performing Shakespeare and showing films. Even so, I don’t suppose that many boys at his school wrote to their mothers with gags about newly painted loo seats that could end up sticking to you forever, where a person would be “doomed to stay where he is and do nothing but shit for the rest of his life”. By the time he was 16, we see him amusing his mother with the account of a practical joke based on some foul-smelling, depilatory powder – “frightfully funny and we fairly rocked with laughter”.
Before his 18th birthday, Dahl was out of Repton, looking for adventure in Nova Scotia and then with a forerunner of Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company. This eventually took him to Dar es Salaam, where he would find himself playing out one of the roles assigned to public schoolboys of the time, in his own words later “a ridiculous young pukka-sahib”. Dahl’s eye falls on the animal life around him and laments: “Everything goes mildew here during the rains… I found my camera case and the bellows of the camera covered in green stuff this morning… Golf balls go yellow but that’s nothing – mine do too, like everything else that’s not used.”
Perhaps in peacetime Dahl might have found his way into some sort of higher education, but with the war came heroism, disaster and loss, followed by the absurd luxury and celebrity of life in America as envoy-cum-spy-cum-scriptwriter. Under censorship, Dahl the RAF pilot wrote to his mother of his near-death accident in Libya, his role in the Battle of Athens and the little-known war against Vichy France in Syria. “I shot down another Ju 88 and a French Potez last week,” he writes, though he was unable to tell her that at the time, June 1941, he was stationed in Palestine.
Because of the after-effects of his crash, Dahl came home to England, where he was offered a job in the British embassy in Washington DC, charged with convincing the US to join the war. In a matter of weeks, he was writing: “I’ve got another long conference with the vice-president of the United States… On Saturday I’m seeing the president, old Roosevelt, so we move in very high circles – so bloody high that sometimes it is difficult to see the ground.”
As if this wasn’t heady enough, Dahl was also hobnobbing with Hollywood celebs. His book The Gremlins, based on RAF folklore, had been snapped up by Walt Disney, who wined and dined Dahl and put him up in luxury apartments: “That evening I had a bath and a shave and drove out to have dinner with Ginger Rogers. She’s got a marvellous house right up on top of the hills overlooking the sea. Bars, swimming pool, tennis courts, private cinema, etc, it was all there including Ginger, who was by far the best part of the house. A very nice girl.”
The RAF seems to have got fed up with all this and brought him home, where Dahl wrote a dystopian novel before heading off to the US again. By 1953, Hitchcock was adapting his macabre short stories for TV. He got himself engaged, un-engaged and married to someone else (Neal) without telling his mother very much. Sturrock leaves us with Dahl’s meticulous, unemotional description of Neal’s stroke, reminding us that this storyteller, who in his own lifetime made more children laugh through reading than anyone else at the time, was someone who handled death and near death many times over.
Sturrock’s commentary on the letters is meticulous, thoughtful and kind. Anyone looking for revelations, kiss and tell or psychoanalytic exposure will be disappointed. It’s a fascinating view of an extraordinary, mid-20th century, upper-middle-class British boy and man talking to his extraordinary Norwegian mother.
Love from Boy is published by John Murray (£20). Click here to buy it for £16