Dickens and Dahl
Thursday March 8 was designated as this year’s World Book Day, on which it is traditional for school pupils to dress up as their favourite book characters for the day. The idea is to think about books and possibly do some research into the actual character although the reality is often that children sport a costume based on a film adaptation.
One of our local primary schools decided to be more specific in their advice and suggested that the students should chose a costume from their favourite Roald Dahl story, which still gave them plenty of opportunity to raid their dressing-up boxes. As the school day started there were plenty of Matildas, Miss Trunchbulls, Willy Wonkas, Oompa Loompas and Fantastic Mr Foxes. Danny and George were there, as were a few Twits and Witches. Also there were the normal children: Charlie, Sophie and James, for many of Dahl’s protagonists are so splendidly ordinary that the reader can believe that the amazing adventures could actually happen to them.
As I watched this parade of imagination fill the pavements it set me thinking about the many connections between Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens and the influence each had on their readership. Dahl was once asked in an interview why so many of his central characters had lost one or both parents, and in his answer he compared himself to Dickens, saying that he had ‘used a trick to get the reader’s sympathy’ In his list of favourite authors, and those which influenced him in his writings Dahl always named Charles Dickens first, so it is no surprise that great great grandad pops up again and again in the Dahl canon.
When the BFG wanted to learn English it was a copy of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ that he borrowed from a bedside table, ‘by Dahl’s Chickens’ he proudly tells Sophie. What an interesting use of spelling and the apostrophe too. Dahl doesn’t directly spoonerise the name as Darles Chickens but instead uses his own name to make the sound of the name – the apostrophe almost gives him ownership.
Like the BFG when a 4 year old Matilda asks the kindly librarian Mrs Phelps for advice as to which grown up book she should try the answer is:
‘Try this’, she aid at last. ‘It’s very famous and very good. If it’s too long for you, just let me know and I’ll find something shorter and a bit easier.’
‘Great Expectations,’ Matilda read, ‘by Charles Dickens. I’d love to try it.’
Matilda devours the story of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham in just a week and returns to the library:
‘I loved it,’ she said to Mrs Phelps. ‘Has Mr Dickens written any others?’
‘A great number,’ said the astounded Mrs Phelps. ‘Shall I chose you another?’
And so Matilda embarks on Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist before surfing a wave of literature that includes works by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, JB Priestly, Graham Greene and George Orwell.
Later in the book Matilda enrols at the local primary school and again the influence of Dickens is evident, although not in such a positive persona. The nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull is teaching the class of the delightful Miss Honey and is barking at pupils and teacher alike:
‘Oh, do shut up, Miss Honey! You’re as wet as any of them. If you can’t cope in here then you can go and find a job in some cotton-wool private school for rich brats. When you have been teaching for as long as I have you’ll realise that its no good at all being kind to children. Read Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Honey, by Mr Dickens. Read about Mr Wackford Squeers, the admirable headmaster of Dotheboys Hall. He knew how to handle the little brutes, didn’t he! He knew how to use the birch, didn’t he! He kept their backsides so warm you could fry eggs and bacon on them!’
Miss Trunchbull is the perfect embodiment of her hero; the two schools both boast suitably foreboding names: Dickens uses Dotheboys (Do the Boys) Hall, whereas Dahl places The Truchbull at Cruncham Primary. Both headteachers regularly bully and abuse their charges to an extent that they are in mortal danger (starvation and beating in Nickleby, hurling high by into the air by pigtails and force feeding chocolate cake in Matilda.)
In Nicholas Nickleby our hero is employed as a young teacher and encounters the pathetic character of Smike whom he befriends as Miss Honey befriends Matilda. At the conclusion of both novels the teachers effectively adopt the children as their own.
A more obscure work of Charles Dickens is ‘The Tale of Captain Murderer’ which is one The Nurses Tales published in All the Year Round, and which is based on Charles’ own infant memories of a drunken nurse would try to terrify him to sleep. Captain Murder is a splendidly gruesome story of piratical cannibalism culminating in our villain being poisoned from within by one of his victims – the effect on him is bizarre, terrifying and, to students of Roald Dahl, surprisingly familiar:
‘…and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer, and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o’clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion.’
Step forward and take a bow Violet Beauregarde!
I am sure there are many more Dickensian references in Dahl’s work and if anyone knows of them I would be fascinated to hear them.
King Alfred School
My own World Book Day took me to the King Alfred School in North London to perform The Signalman to the Key Stage 3 group who have been studying the gothic novel in their English lessons.
I had visited the school last year and then I had driven through heavy snow falls to get there. This year it was rain and strong squally winds that accompanied me; maybe one year I will motor down in warm sunshine and a soft breeze.
I arrived at the school with 45 minutes to spare before I was due to perform and was given a parking space right outside the hall meaning that I could get all of my ‘set’ unloaded with a minimum of fuss.
The school is a well-to-do and artistic sort of a place with many of the students being children to well-known singers and actors. It is surprising therefore that King Alfred’s does not boast a state of the art performance space, but the show was to be on the stage in the ‘main hall’ which at the time of my arrival was doubling as the lunch hall. As I lugged the clerk’s desk, chair and table onto the stage so the school staff packed away tables and swept up bits of potato, cabbage and sponge pudding which are the staple of the British school luncheon.
Having changed into costume I found myself alone in the hall and thought that I would do a little rehearsing before the audience arrived. When I performed The Signalman in Henley I had got a little tangled up with a few of the lines towards the end, so I wanted to run them through. As I rehearsed so the wind outside battered the building, rattling the old windows and generally adding a very authentic feel to the words.
At 2.50 the first students arrived in a trickle, which turned into a stream and then a flood so that by 3.00 the hall was full. English teacher Alex made a short introduction and I was welcomed to the stage with a loud round of applause.
By way of introduction I talked about the Staplehurst Rail disaster, as is my wont, describing in detail the dying souls that Dickens came across in the wreckage: the man with ‘the moon-shaped gash across his head’ and the beautiful young woman in the unmarked dress who sat against a tree. I pointed out how the press relished the story of the crash because it involved a celebrity- a celebrity, what’s more, who just happened to be travelling with the ‘wrong’ woman.
And then I started.
I got the first line wrong! All of that rehearsal concentrating on the tricky middle section and I buggered up the easiest and most memorable line of the script. Hey, ho. Actually it was fine and I got back on track quickly. In fact the performance became more and more intense as I went on and by the time I got to the part that had given me difficulties at The Kenton Theatre I was in full flow and really enjoying myself. It was an energetic, physical and ultimately good performance.
When I finished I returned to the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash and told the students (who had been remarkably attentive throughout the hour) about the coincidence of Dickens’ death on the 5th anniversary of the accident – 9th June 1870.
And then it was question time: quite a few hands went up and there some very good enquiries, mainly about the train crash: was the lady in the untouched dress who died in Dickens’ arms the model for the lady who died instantaneously in the story? (Almost certainly) Does the rail line outside Staplehurst go through a steep cutting and is there a signalbox there? (No, the line it Staplehurst is over very flat countryside and in fact the bridge where the crash happened carries the line over marshland, rather than any sort of ravine. However near Dickens’ home at Gad’s Hill Place there was a deep rocky cutting with a dark tunnel and this was his inspiration for the claustrophobic setting for the story). What did everyone at your school think of you? (Goodness, how do I answer that?! Actually my school was not strong academically and nobody really cared less whether I had a famous forbear or not, apart from the moment when we started to study Oliver Twist and my English teacher helpfully pointed my ancestry out to the class. At that point I think sheer hatred rained upon my head.).
Of course there was interest in ‘the other woman’ and I honestly told the group that Charles was travelling home from France in the company of Ellen Ternan and her mother. Dickens has separated from his wife Catherine seven years before and had been involved with Ellen for a long time, but to protect his wholesome image the affair was kept secret, even though London was rife with rumour. Image the joy of today’s press if a major incident occurred and it involved an uber, mega, superstar and he just happened to be in the company of someone with whom he had long been suspected of having an affair – the same was true in 1865.
At 4 o’clock so our session drew to a close and I received another, even louder, round of applause as I left the stage. As the students left a few came up and asked other questions and one young man informed me that all of the depressing events I had talked about occurred on his birthday – June 9th. I apologised but he airily replied ‘Oh that’s all right, it’s hardly your fault!’ With a firm shake of the hand and a cheery ‘goodbye’ he left with the rest of his classmates.
The English department helped me pack away the set into my car and I drove back onto the streets of North London still in costume. Now it was my turn to celebrate World Book Day and I started to play a recording of a book that encouraged me to read when I was young and which shaped my childhood: A Bear Called Paddington.
I drove home with a big smile on my face!