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The man behind Matilda – what Roald Dahl was really like

A family photograph of the children’s author Roald Dahl, with his wife Patricia Neal, and children Olivia, Tessa, and Theo. PA

It is 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl – considered by many to be the world’s number one storyteller. His books have received enthusiastic responses from millions of children all around the world. And his tales of the unexpected continue to have a magical pull on readers’ imaginations with the BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all loved by children old and young.

Earlier this year, a new film version of the BFG directed by Steven Spielberg was released to rave reviews – giving another generation the chance to fall in love with the author for the first time – and existing fans the opportunity to fall in love all over again.

And yet, despite the global appreciation of Dahl as a children’s author, Dahl himself is not quite as straightforward as readers of his books might like to think. For some he was a war hero, a philanthropist and a profoundly altruistic man. For others he was a bully, a misogynist, and even an anti-Semite. His life story as well as his writings evoke compliments, controversy, and contradictory responses from both critics and readers.

Tales of childhood

In his book Boy, which covers the tales of his childhood, Dahl declares his strong intention to rid his autobiographical narrative of all “boring” descriptions while redecorating it with more exciting and dramatic episodes.

When explaining this, the experienced and ageing Dahl wrote: “An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography.”

Dahl attended Repton School in Derbyshire from 1929 to 1934. By JThomas, CC BY-SA 2.0,, CC BY-SA

Both Boy and his other autobiographical type book Going Solo became two of his most successful self-publicising projects, which recorded his own fascinating childhood memories and action packed wartime experiences.

The stories of his warm family, his rustic summer holidays in Norway, and his chocolate testing, reveal how happy a child Dahl was – though he grew up without a father, who died when he was only four.

Dark chapter

But from Patricia Neal, the American actress who was married to Dahl for 30 years, quite a different picture of the man is portrayed. In her autobiography As I Am, written four years after her divorce from Dahl in 1987, she exposed her true feelings towards her ex-husband.

She describes her admiration for Dahl’s determined nature, and his resourceful intellect, but it is clear through her writing that she thought Dahl was a truly rude, arrogant, and disloyal husband who regularly belittled her during their marriage. This sentiment seemed to be shared by her family, and she describes how her “mother thought he was the rudest thing alive”.

Dahl’s controlling and self-contained nature is reconfirmed by his second daughter, Tessa Dahl – mother of model Sophie Dahl – in her debut novel, Working for Love, which was released in 1989. Tessa’s “semi-autobiographical” book describes her childhood bitterness after all the family tragedies and her desperate longing for love. In a 2012 interview she declared that “daddy gave joy to millions of children. But I was dying inside” – accusing him of selfishness and egocentric behaviour.

Patricia Neal, seen wearing an eye patch after a series of strokes, accompanied by Dahl, and their three children. PA

Dahl is also labelled as a boaster, a liar, and a bully, by the British literary historian and biographer Jeremy Treglown, who wrote an unauthorised account of Dahl’s life with support from his first wife Patricia Neal in 1994.

Treglown rummaged in Dahl’s personal life and revealed several shocking details including his extensive sexual affairs with many women while working as a spy in the US, and his fraudulent company set up to avoid paying tax. He also reaffirmed Dahl’s negative personality quirks such as his grumpiness and quick temper, his egotism, and his disloyalty.

However, Treglown also provided a clear, factual account of Dahl’s heroic side – praising him for his sheer determination and desire for knowledge. Treglown noted: “Many people loved him and had reason to be grateful to him; many – some of them the same people – frankly detested him.”

Dahl’s heroic side was also reconstructed 16 years later by biographer Donald Sturrock, whose insightful and detailed biography expounds more vivid images of Dahl.

While Treglown broke the story that Dahl’s celebrated autobiography Boy was filled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations, Sturrock viewed the work as compelling and amazing – praising Dahl’s dreams of glory, his victory over his adversaries, and his fantasies about being a great hero and an inventor.

Fantastic Mr Dahl?

The garden shed where the late author Roald Dahl would write his popular children’s books. PA

Despite his death in 1990 Dahl’s own life story continues to play out through his fiction. In many of his stories the reader experiences Dahl’s metamorphosis into his own characters – with similarities seen between Dahl and several of his heroic creations in his children’s books.

He can be compared with the Fantastic Mr Fox – resilient, resourceful and never defeated, and his personality is also similar to one of his most famous characters, Willy Wonka – exhibiting “garrulous, exotic, rambunctious” traits – while a vulnerable and hidden part of him remains a big bad child.

But despite Dahl’s fascination for all things wicked, and his penchant for horrible characters, he truly believed that goodness would prevail in the end. And even though some of his antics in his own life may have been questionable, in the world of his stories, he could always make sure that happened.

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