Revisiting Matilda in an age of women’s rage

Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake’s angry and unlistened-to young heroine’s time has surely come

Who would play me in a film of my life? Great question and thank you for asking. In adulthood, Nicholas Lyndhurst, with a pain au chocolat taped to his forehead because wigwork is notoriously pricey, and for the childhood years, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, drawn in pencil. As we enter the second act there’ll be a complicated montage sequence where Quentin Blake’s illustration becomes human, Lyndhursting, signifying a forming of identity and self, etc, and thus flesh. It will be a silent film, and also foreign, and very challenging.

Like many, Matilda is on my mind at the moment. Last week, after a public poll asked who she “would be standing up to today”, a statue was erected opposite the library at Great Missenden, of Matilda staunchly facing a Trunchbull-like Donald Trump. It’s rare that a character from a children’s book fixes itself in the public imagination in the way she did, and to mark her impact, to show that she lives on, the 30th anniversary of Dahl’s book was celebrated with new Quentin Blake drawings reimagining her as a grown woman in eight glittering careers. It was reminiscent of the way Barbie relaunches herself quarterly as an astronaut or paleontologist, except with fewer tits, but yes, having once been one of those short-sighted children with whom Matilda resonated, I appreciated it.

My mum bought me my copy in 1988 as a bribe, and this summer brought Matilda back into our home after taking our daughter to see the musical – the songs have pounded with jollity through every car ride since. And the timing could not be better. This, surely, is the age of Matilda. Matilda Wormwood, the little girl who nobody listened to, whose response to oppression was to cultivate her anger, learning to focus it so accurately, so smartly that it became a force strong enough to push over a glass of water from the other side of a room.

As a child I tried my very hardest to harness my telekinetic powers and sometimes, if the breeze was right, I got the curtains to move, but I see now I was doing it all wrong, (though it’s not like me to miss a metaphor). I see now the point of tipping over a glass is not for the thrill of performing magic, but instead for the power that comes with harnessing your anger to soak the cruel headmistress, and so destabilising rotten authority.

“If you’re not outraged,” wrote Heather Heyer in her last Facebook update before being killed by the car that drove into her crowd of anti-fascist protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, “you’re not paying attention.” We are living in a time of rage. In Nanette, the most recent stand-up show to make me cry, comedian Hannah Gadsby insists: “I have a right to feel anger.” A collection of new books (by Clementine Ford, Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly) investigate female fury right now, at a political moment when an increasing number of women have decided (or become too exhausted) to stop breathing through their rage, stop masking it with gentle listening faces and stop turning away. Instead, they’re leaning into the fire – shouting, protesting, writing their anger on huge glittering signs and parading them through the streets. While their brothers were taught to revel in their anger, knowing it would be heard as power, as girls these women (especially black women) learned it would be received as hysteria. They have grown up being taught to repress their fury, or chew it up until it’s soft enough to swallow discreetly.

What changed, apart from the world starting to feel like a sort of end-times skip, where rats bathe in bin juice beside a clock ticking very loudly, was that women realised that, while one voice shouting could be quickly dismissed as hormonal, irritating, a whole crowd of voices joined together across the world like some righteous choir of fury would need to be taken seriously. Staying quiet is not an option today – even the mildest of celebrities, like far-right icon Taylor Swift (who, after years of political silence, finally came out as a Democrat last week) has spoken up. Rage has united women. And once we have shouted, and voted, and cried snottily in anger and the rawness of memory, we focus this rage, as if on a glass of water, and we roar into the wind that has kept us inside, and like Matilda, we push.

The film will be shot in Canada for budget reasons, there will be a “making of” documentary, with surprising celebrity cameos, and my estate will insist that there is always a pudding truck on set. Again, thank you for asking.

And another thing…

If you’re lost on your nightly stroll through Netflix, please click on the series Inside No 9 and watch the episode The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith, to share the most haunting, beautiful and moving half hour I’ve spent in years. It’s about the smallness of life, a ghost story where our memories are the ghosts.

Some thrilling burns from fashion critics seeing Hedi Slimane’s first collection for Celine, a label previously beloved for its grown-up clothes for working women. InStyle: ‘The minis couldn’t have been shorter had they been designed by a gynaecologist.’ Time: ‘Fuck power-hungry white men.’

The beauty of Jonathan Coe’s new novel, Middle England, is the way it tracks the seemingly unconnected moments that brought Britain to its knees – and with devastating delicacy, too. It begins in 2010, with Gordon Brown calling a Labour supporter a ‘bigot’.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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Eva Wiseman

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