Children of all ages have read and enjoyed books by Roald Dahl. Many of his stories, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, have become classics in their own time.
As recounted in "Boy", Roald Dahl's father, Harald Dahl, immigrated to England from Norway around the turn of the century (1900). Not long after the death of his first wife, he took a trip back to Norway in hopes of finding a wife to help him raise his young son and daughter. He married Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg in 1911 and the couple moved to Dahl's home in Llandaff, Wales. Over the next six years they had five children: Astri, Alfhild, Roald, Else, Asta. Roald was born on September 13, 1916 in Llandaff. Unfortunately Astri, the eldest, died of appendicitis in 1920. Harald Dahl quickly deteriorated after his daughter's death and he died of pneumonia a few months later. Sofie Dahl, pregnant at the time with Asta, was left with three of her own children, two step–children, a sizeable estate, and her husband's dying wish that his children would be educated in English schools, which he thought the best in the world.
A less determined woman would have packed up and moved back home to Norway, but Sofie decided to stay in Wales and carry out Harald's wish. But she wasn't ready to move to England yet. First she moved the family into a smaller, more manageable home in Llandaff and then one–by–one sent each of her children to Elmtree House, a local school, for kindergarten. When Roald was seven Sofie decided it was time for him to go to a proper boy's school, so she sent him to nearby Llandaff Cathedral School. He spent two years there and his only memories of it are described in "Boy" – one involves an older Boy whizzing by on a bicycle, and the other involves The Great Mouse Plot that earned him and his friends a savage caning by the school's headmaster. This violent incident was what prompted Sofie to withdraw Roald from the Llandaff school and finally send him off to an English boarding school: St. Peter's.
St. Peter's Preparatory School in Weston–super–Mare was founded in 1900 and is described at length by Dahl in his book "Boy" (published in 1984). Roald attended St. Peter's from ages nine to thirteen, and he was so homesick at first the he even faked the symptoms of appendicitis (which he remembered from Astri and his older half-sister Ellen) to earn a trip home. He eventually adjusted to school life, but he never learned to like it. In "Boy" he describes savage beatings, sadistic headmasters, prejudiced teachers, and even an abusive dormitory Matron. His nightmarish description though, is somewhat tempered by his concession that his memory of it was "colored by my natural love of fantasy" (Treglown, 20). Schoolmates remembered him as a tall, soft–faced boy, not especially popular but very close to the few boys who became his friends. He was good at sports like cricket and swimming, but academically he was toward the bottom of his class. One of his main hobbies was reading, and some of his favorite novelists were the adventure writers Rudyard Kipling, Captain Marryat, H. Rider Haggarrd, and G.A. Henty. Their books emphasized a kind of heroism and masculinity that would later influence both Dahl's life and his own writing.
By the time Roald was thirteen the family had moved to Kent in England, and he was soon sent off to the famous Repton Public School. His sisters all attended Roedean in Sussex. To Roald, Repton was even worse than St. Peter's. His account of it in "Boy" includes fagging (younger Boys, "fags", were basically personal slaves to the older prefects, called "boazers"), beatings, the torture of new boys, and other miseries common to many, although not all, Boys' boarding schools of the time. One particularly scandalous section alleges that a former headmaster of Repton, Geoffrey Fisher (who had subsequently become Archbishop of Canterbury), was a sadistic flogger. According to Dahl, the vicious beatings that this man would deliver, combined with the fact that twenty years later he crowned Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, made Dahl doubt the existence of God. In Jeremy Treglown's biography, however, he discovered that Dahl got his dates mixed up. The beatings he was referring to happened in 1933, a year after Fisher left Repton. Dahl must have gotten Fisher mixed up with J. T. Christie, his successor.
Not all memories of Repton were bad, though. Dahl fondly recalls in "Boy" that "every now and again, a plain gray cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House, and this, believe it or not, was a present from the great chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury" ("Boy", 147). Inside were twelve new chocolate bar inventions that the boy's were asked to sample and critique. Dahl and his schoolmates took this very seriously, and Roald used to dream of working in a chocolate company's inventing room. He said in "Boy", "It was lovely dreaming those dreams, and I have no doubt at all that, thirty–five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly–invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".
After completing his education at Repton, Dahl decided that he wanted a career that would take him to "wonderful faraway places like Africa or China" (BOY, 166). He won a coveted position with the Shell Company and spent two years training in England. Soon after he was posted to East Africa and started off on the two week sea voyage to get there. This voyage marks the end of "Boy" and the beginning of Going Solo. Once he reached Mombasa (in Kenya), Dahl transferred to another ship for the voyage down to Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). There he lived with two other Shell representatives and the three of them together administered the entire vast East African territory. Going Solo describes many of the exciting adventures Dahl lived through, including the time a green mamba entered his friend's house and the snake–catcher had to be called in. Another time a lion carried off a native woman, and Dahl's subsequent account of her rescue was printed in an African newspaper and became his first published work.
In 1939, it became clear to Dahl that something big was coming. It was World War II. Soon all the Englishmen in the territory were rounded up and transformed into temporary soldiers, responsible for containing the German population. This experience prompted Dahl to formally join the RAF (Royal Air Force) and learn to fly warplanes. Thus in November 1939 he drove cross–country to Nairobi to enlist and was awarded with the rank of Leading Aircraftman (LAC). After eight weeks of basic training and six months of advanced flying instruction, the RAF deemed him ready for battle.
Unfortunately Dahl's very first venture into combat territory resulted in his famous 1940 crash in the Libyan desert. He was flying an unfamiliar airplane (a Gladiator) and was supposed to join 80 Squadron in the Western Desert. Unfortunately the co–ordinates he was given were incorrect, and he suddenly found himself losing both daylight and fuel in the middle of nowhere. He was forced to attempt a crash landing, praying for luck that he didn't get. His undercarriage hit a boulder and the nose of the Gladiator slammed into the sand at over 75 miles an hour. Dahl's head struck the reflector–sight and fractured his skull, pushing his nose in and blinding him for days. He managed to pull himself from the burning wreckage, though, and was later rescued by three brave soldiers from the Suffolk regiment. After convalescing for months in various army hospitals, Dahl was finally deemed fit to resume flying duties again in the spring of 1941.
80 Squadron was now engaged in the tragic RAF campaign in Greece, and after rejoining them Dahl was soon thrust into the desperate routine of trying to stay alive. On his first trip up, he encountered six Ju 88's (enemy planes) and managed to shoot one of them down. The next day he shot down another over Khalkis Bay. His victory was short–lived, though, as the German Messerschmitt fighters swarmed down upon him and he barely made it back to the base alive. Over the next four days he went up twelve more times, fighting against incredible odds and miraculously making it back to base each time. On the 20th of April the Germans discovered the camp and ground–strafed it, but luckily they didn't hit any of the seven remaining aircraft. Dahl and the other man in 80 Squadron fought bravely for many more months, and their battles are described at length in Going Solo. Dahl was not fated to remain with them for long though, and when he began to get blinding headaches (from his earlier accident) he was invalided back home to Britain. His career in the RAF was over.
Thus, in 1941, Roald Dahl went home to England. He wasn't there for long, though. Through his friendship with artist Matthew Smith, he became acquainted with some very important men in the British government. Dahl was a cultivated, forceful young injured pilot who seemed able to talk about anything. It wasn't long before he was shipped off to the United States to help with the British War Effort as "assistant air attaché."
One of Dahl's first duties in America was to get close to as many well–placed people as possible. Newspaper–owner Charles Marsh was one of these, and he and Dahl struck up an immediate friendship. Another duty was to help create a kind of British propaganda to keep America interested in the war and sympathetic to Britain's effort. Famous English author C.S. Forester asked Dahl to tell him his own story, so that he could write it up. Dahl thought it easier to put something on paper himself, and the result was so good that Forester decided not to change a thing. The finished story appeared anonymously in The Saturday Evening Post in August 1942 under the title "Shot Down Over Libya."
The story was introduced as a "factual report on Libyan air fighting" by an unnamed RAF pilot "at present in this country for medical reasons." Of course, the "factual" part might have been a little bit of a stretch. As mentioned previously, Dahl's crash was actually caused by lack of fuel and wrong directions, not from any enemy shooting. Much later, when this discrepancy was pointed out to him, Dahl claimed that the story had been edited and misleadingly captioned by magazine editors looking for a more dramatic tale.
As time passed and Dahl became more popular among Washington's rich and famous, he became known for the wild yarns he would spin about his RAF adventures. He even wrote a story called "Gremlin Lore" about the mythical creatures that supposedly sabotaged RAF planes. Since he was a serving officer, Dahl was required to submit everything he wrote for approval by British Information Services. The officer who read it, Sidney Bernstein, decided to pass it along to his good friend Walt Disney, who was looking for War–related features for his fledgling film company. Disney decided to turn Dahl's story into an animated feature called The Gremlins.
Problems immediately began to surface with the project. What did Gremlins look like? How could Disney copyright a name already known (and invented) by countless RAF pilots? Should the film be satirical or purely fantastic? Beyond these concerns, audience enthusiasm for the film began to wane as the War dragged on. Ultimately the project was scrapped, though Disney did put together a picture book in 1943 entitled Walt Disney: The Gremlins (A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl). This book, published by Random House in the United States and by Collins in Australia and Great Britain, is extremely rare and is considered a prize by any serious Dahl collector. It was his first book.
If the Gremlins never reached the big screen, the experience certainly made Dahl's name as a writer. By the fall of 1944 he had a literary agent, Ann Watkins, and he had published a number of stories in American magazines: "Shot Down Over Libya" in The Saturday Evening Post; The Gremlins both and Cosmopolitan and in book form; "The Sword" in The Atlantic Monthly; "Katina" and "Only This" in the Ladies' Home Journal; and "Beware of the Dog" in Harper's. While Dahl, like any young writer, was trying out styles, he was also making sure each story contained some overt propaganda for the War effort. It's also worth nothing (in light of Dahl's later career) that two of these stories – The Gremlins and "Katina" – either featured or were written for children.
In 1945 Dahl moved back home to Amersham, England to be near his mother, Sofie. He enjoyed the rustic country life, making friends with some of the working–class men in the village. Among them was a butcher named Claude Taylor, who would later be immortalized in the "Claude's Dog" series of stories. Meanwhile, in 1946 Reynal and Hitchcock published Over to You, a collection of Dahl's war stories. It was released in England soon after by Hamish Hamilton. The book received mixed reviews but was ultimately successful enough to prompt Dahl's next effort: a full–blown novel about the possibilities of nuclear war.
The novel Dahl wrote, Sometime Never, was published in the United States in 1948 by Scribner's, and in England a year later by Collins. There's no easy way to put this: the book was a total flop. It was almost an adult version of the Gremlins story, beginning with the Battle of Britain and continuing on to the end of the world. Despite its utter failure, the book is remarkable for being the first book about nuclear war to be published in the United States after Hiroshima.
In the years following Sometime Never, Dahl renewed his friendship with American Charles Marsh, helping the newspaper man amass a valuable collection of British art and antiques. Dahl also helped his mentor set up a charity known as the Marsh's Public Welfare Foundation. In return, Marsh set up a trust in Dahl's name and invested thousands of dollars in a Dahl–family forestry operation in Norway.
These years in England had been profitable ones for Dahl, but he came to miss the sophistication of New York life. As the 1950's began, Dahl finally began to see some money from stories sold to Collier's and The New Yorker. He applied for and was granted a permanent American visa, and soon found himself taking up residence with the Marsh family back in the Big Apple. He slid easily back into the circuit of celebrity parties, and it was at one of these functions in 1951 that he met his future wife, actress Patricia Neal.
The publicity department at Knopf soon had even more to work with: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal were married on July 2, 1953 at Trinity Church in New York.
|In 1953 Dahl married actress Patricia Neal,
whom he had first met at a party in 1951. She was a promising Warner Bros.
star who had recently ended a much–publicized affair with Gary Cooper.
They had five children together and he attributes his success as a writer
of children's books to them. "Had I not had children of my own, I
would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable
of doing so." Neal suffered a series of near–fatal strokes in 1965
and her road to recovery (with Roald's help) was described in Barry
Farrell's book Pat and Roald (later made into the film The Patricia Neal
In 1983, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal divorced after thirty years of marriage. Dahl quickly remarried Felicity Dahl, with whom he had fallen in love and carried on an affair for some time. Thus the last years of his life were relatively happy and productive, and some of his best books were written during this period: The BFG, The Witches, and Matilda. Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990 in Oxford, England. He was buried in Great Missenden.