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The beautiful ugliness of Roald Dahl


The first thing I did after reading about the new, bowdlerised editions of Roald Dahl’s books was to buy a second-hand pre-2020 box set on eBay. Why? He is not my favourite children’s author; his narratives are often full of mean-spirited asides, revelling in grossness and vicious humiliation. The stories often lack a reliable moral compass, with revenge frequently the theme.

And yet, I’ve read most of them because they’re still fascinating and grip the reader to care about the flawed protagonists. Willy Wonka is like the Old Testament God in Job: you know, that nice deity who makes a bet with Satan to see how much they can torture the poor old bugger and his family till he cracks and calls God a bastard. Willy Wonka’s capricious cruelty makes you think quite a lot and if you’re lucky, your kid will ask you questions that will lead to other important questions. Because, like his creator, Willy Wonka is not nice.

Lots of creators are not nice people and yet they can create wonder, beauty, compassion, horror, terror. Wagner and Picasso were not good people to know. Shakespeare may well have been complete sweetheart for all we know about the man who left his widow his second-best bed, but he often wrote nightmares. Try Titus Andronicus if you think Tarantino is shocking.

Roald Dahl was not a nice man and neither were his works, but the people whom Andrew Doyle calls ‘The New Puritans’ have now corrected naughty Mr Dahl, just as naughty Mr Shakespeare was corrected centuries before now by Thomas Bowdler, whose name is forever memorialised as what gets done to art by well-meaning vandals.

In one instance among countless that were deemed unfit, Shakespeare had Iago saying ‘I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.’ Bowdler took a deep breath, dashed cold water over his unmentionables and gave us ‘Your daughter and the Moor are now together’.

Quite right too, can’t be having all that rudeness, but let’s take a hard look at whether ‘together’ implies that very same rudeness. ‘Together’, eh? Said with a certain inappropriate emphasis that word is pure filth. Down the slippery slope we go, and don’t you dare read anything into that, either.


'In Victorian times, there was a huge industry in producing children’s books that were all about rewarding good children and punishing bad ones. And it is important to realise that nowadays, with different definitions of "goodness" all the major houses are publishing moralising tracts.'


So what exactly has Puffin done to the Dahl books? If you go to the UK Telegraph website (the subscription is very affordable and you may even be allowed a free article) you will find a carefully researched, searchable account of all the changes that have been made to the books. Some examples from Matilda:

‘Mothers and fathers’ have now become ‘parents’.

‘A lovely pale oval madonna face’ – ‘madonna’ has been excised.

‘The plain plump person with the smug suet-pudding face’ – ‘plump’ has been excised.

‘I don’t give a tinker’s toot’ – ‘tinker’s toot’ has been changed to ‘flip’.

‘His mother’ is now ‘His parents’.

‘His mother thought it was beautiful’ is now ‘He thought it was beautiful’.

There are hundreds of other changes. Some phrases and even whole sentences have been completely removed, such as ‘Their children turned out to be delinquents and drop-outs’ and even the richly allusive ‘Bingo afternoons left her so exhausted both physically and emotionally that she never had enough energy to cook an evening meal’.

Other words and phrases removed from Matilda are ones that refer to what sex a person is – ‘boys and girls’ are now just ‘children’. Or the excised material might contain some of Dahl’s signature venom, those vivid sprays of anger and playful spite that are a major reason why his books are so popular. You sort of understand why these sensitivity censors would shudder at the phrase ‘knock her flat’, but not why they would think ‘give her a right talking to’ is in any way an acceptable substitute.

But the true impoverishment of this kind of imagination comes frighteningly clear when you see this next example from Matilda, which I find more awful than any of the others. The original line is an extremely Dahlian bit of prose, rich with allusion and effortlessly informed, passing on the privilege of his cultural background to every kid who read him. This sentence, so surprising to be found in a kid’s book, was cool, dismissive, devastating and redolent with the best of our culture with its nod to Keats’ ‘Endymion’:

Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever.

A casual, effortlessly valuable aside tossed to your kids, this shining little crumb from a culturally rich man’s gleaming table of goodies. A little treasure that they’ll appreciate more when (or if, sadly in today’s English curriculum) they come across it later. Like tossing them a trinket made by Fabergé, with the added benefit of not being breakable or losable. Unless, of course Puffin’s Puritans get at it.

So, what did our children’s sensitivity guardians do with the little bit of Dahl/Keats? Here you go, kids: ‘Her face was not a thing of beauty’. Boom Tish – two writers cancelled for the price of one.

Defacement of art is something that persists through history as long as human hatred has endured. The Puritan zealot William Dowsing destroyed most of the stained-glass windows in the east of England, stopped only when one of the stipulations in the articles of surrender to Cromwell’s forces decreed that no more places of worship were to be defaced. Under Cromwell, celebrating Christmas was then outlawed, there was to be no more dancing, no more theatre. Purity in the Puritan’s lexicon meant total control of art, imagination and belief by the narrow elders of piety.

In Victorian times, there was a huge industry in producing children’s books that were all about rewarding good children and punishing bad ones. And it is important to realise that nowadays, with different definitions of ‘goodness’ all the major houses are publishing moralising tracts. Stonewall has an awards system for young people’s books that honours the children’s imprints of Penguin, HarperCollins, and many others. Each of the books, if you look them up on the Stonewall Awards site, feature young people, sometimes very young people, navigating the world of LGB and all the letters following.

Being able to recognise oneself in a fictional work may be no bad thing, but that is surely not fiction’s only definition or its full task. And there is another reason for children’s books: they are meant to delight, fascinate, ignite curiosity and even disturb. If a child gets used only to seeing bland and worthy depictions of themselves and their own kind, then they will need something more to give them a sense of what the world is like, and what the other people in the world experience, people who are different from them.


'Defacement of art is something that persists through history as long as human hatred has endured.' 


Diversity and inclusion policies at all the publishing houses mandate favourable representation of the categories of people who are seen as marginalised or under-represented. Children, they say, should be able to identify with the main characters. But how does this explain how millions of girls identified with the Harry Potter books? Not just Hermione – the hero himself. And although the Potter books were full of moral challenges and the struggle against tyranny, the real delight was in the fathomless complexity of the detail, the nuances of the moral challenges, the untidy people whom J.K. Rowling imagined into life. Lovable old Dumbledore was a seriously flawed character, while the book’s bravest person, Severus Snape, was also a mean and spiteful bully. Harry himself was often closed and obstinate and had trouble controlling his anger. Even Draco Malfoy is a pitiable character in the end. Her people are not cardboard agit-prop, they have depth and life.

Unlike Roald Dahl, Rowling is well known to be a kind person of demonstrated compassion: her charity, Lumos, has saved thousands of abandoned children from institutions. But that is not the reason to read her books. Roald Dahl didn’t do anything like that, but that is not a reason to avoid or mutilate his books. Because moral turpitude, or spiritual evil, is the most human thing.

Non-human animals, even when killing their own kind, are driven only by drives and instincts, not spiritual evil: they do not murder: we do. It takes a human mind and soul to turn those drives and instincts into lust, greed and wrath. Animals do not ostracise and humiliate their own kind for pleasure, they do it to preserve their group hierarchies, those mechanisms which have preserved them throughout evolution to now. It’s the difference between their edenic innocence and our own damned paradise lost.

If we deny this, if we cease from genuine exploration, using our hearts and souls to guide our lizard drives and intelligent tools, then we lose depth and complexity and become more like robots. And therein lies part of the reason why AI poetry is so bad; shallowness and banality are the clue in this labyrinth.

Being an artist is about being an artist, not a saint. Some of our greatest artists were horrible people: Wagner was such a virulent anti-Semite that his works were able to be appropriated by the Nazis and were used to glorify their demented visions of racial ‘purity’. Picasso was a heartless womaniser and uncaring father.  Kingsley Amis and Charles Dickens were horrible to their faithful wives. Eric Gill, a third order lay Dominican, inventor of the Gill Sans font and whose sculptures are everywhere, including Westminster Abbey and the BBC’s main headquarters, lived a life of such extreme sexual depravity that he rivalled the Borgia popes.

Yet no-one is suggesting he be cancelled or that his sculptures be toppled or that Picasso’s nudes have knickers painted over them. And Wagner’s music was rehabilitated, in Israel, by none other than that most wondrously Jewish of great musicians, Daniel Barenboim. If Barenboim could see past the crazed hatred in Wagner’s personal life and celebrate his great art, then perhaps the rest of us could behold art as art and ask right and useful questions instead of Bowdlerising it.


[NB: Penguin has reacted to the backlash (even the Queen Consort weighed in) and is now going to release the unedited texts as 'Classic Roald Dahl' in the adult books while keeping the bowdlerised ones in Puffin.]




Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer. 

Main image: British children's author, short-story writer, playwright and versifier Roald Dahl (1916 - 1995), 11th December 1971. (Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Juliette Hughes, Roald Dahl, Censorship, Puffin



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Existing comments

Classic Roald Dahl - live forever! Such a relief after reading the NB of Juliette’s spirited defence of the integrity of the (original) artistic word. Mean-spirited asides, grossness and vicious humiliation in the books of Roald Dahl have prepared generations of children for a rich and diverse view of just about everything. In my reckoning ‘The Twits’ is a masterpiece. As an aside, one of my revered authors, D H Lawrence, was not by various accounts a nice person; however his sublime poetry, especially of the natural world - birds, beasts and flowers - will be defended by myself (and others, I hope) from the trenches. “Listen, Paraclete./I can no more deny the bat-wings of my fathom-flickering spirit/of darkness/Than the wings of the Morning and Thee, Thou Glorified (D H Lawrence “The Evangelistic Beasts”).

Pam | 27 February 2023  

Well said indeed. Your commentary demonstrates how genuine emotion -even anger -can be combined with cool and rational analysis. Thank you!

Joan Seymour | 27 February 2023  

Brilliant, agree with every word.

Kath Hughes | 28 February 2023  

A gem of relevance, sanity and wit, Juliette.

John RD | 28 February 2023  

Well said. The attack on Ronald Dahl is really cultural purging dressed up in Stalinist Doublespeak as "sensitivity" and "inclusion." It's done in order to exclude what the censors consider Wrongspeak, and to ultimately make dissent from Newspeak impossible.
But these censors would be powerless if people resisted. Remember it was the publisher, Puffin, who commissioned Inclusive Minds (a group of "sensitivity readers") to vet Dahl's work, and the Ronald Dahl Story Company which manages the author's literary estate, approved the changes. One sensitivity reader at Inclusive Minds describes themselves as a "non-binary, asexual, polyamorous relationship anarchist." But apparently numerous publishers now employ these sensitivity readers to vet books. The latest vetting is of James Bond books.
London's Globe Theatre now sells tickets for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a trigger warning: "language of violence, sexual references, misogyny and racism."
London's Wellcome Museum is closing its major exhibition, "Medicine Man", founded to promote public knowledge of the history of medicine, because of its "foundation of white supremacy" and "institutional racism."
In reality, the censors are extremely parochial, and incurious about anything beyond their own obsessions of race, gender and colonialism.

Ross Howard | 01 March 2023  

"But these censors would be powerless if people resisted."
Indeed they would, Ross, but things in the West seem to be rapidly and eerily coming to resemble the world of Ray Bradbury's short story "The Pedestrian" where its inhabitants' will to resist has been all but totally absorbed into the entertainment devices of government-dictated entertainment programming. "Distracted by distraction from distraction."

John RD | 01 March 2023  

How I enjoyed reading this Juliette. As a child I thoroughly enjoyed many books I now remember as "inappropriate" in various ways, so there must have been a little trigger somewhere in my mind - "Remember to disapprove of this when you are grown up!" I read Willy Wonka and James to a number of children who enjoyed them greatly and who themselves would now be growing old, I hope gracefully . . . Now, is anyone ready to do a rewrite of all the saccharine bits in the "worthy" books - Louisa M. Alcott perhaps? L. M. Montgomery?

Janet | 02 March 2023  

To restate the obvious, political correctness is a euphemism for mind control, a dumbing down of freedom of thought, opinion, speech. The work of "Inclusive Minds" in this instance, would seem to be anything but inclusive, and the effect of the "sensitivity readers" (or something, or someone) appears to be intimidation. The publishers are not prepared to defend their author, out of fear. What are they afraid of? His immense popularity with several generations of young readers surely counts for something. The insidiousness of closed minds gaining the ascendancy in matters of republication of what have become classic children's texts is chilling, to say the least. The freely chosen development of critical thinking and critical reading, not to mention the pleasure to be afforded by an occasional dollop of "political incorrectness" in the guise of irreverent but intelligent exercise of wit, should not be sacrificed to the inanities of those who cannot appreciate the value and values of imaginative, articulate, authentic story-telling. Thank you for your incisive and entertaining article, which I'm sure would have delighted Roald Dahl.

Jena Woodhouse | 02 March 2023  

I don't understand what the problem is with the Stonewall Awards? Their intent is to honour books that show LGBT+ life, so of course all their books have that. No one is saying that *every* book that a kid reads must be a Stonewall-listed book!

Julie | 02 March 2023  
Show Responses

I suppose it depends on whether or not you believe there is such a thing as "LGBT+ life". As I (as an L) see it, LGBs recognise biological sex and Ts believe in the primacy of gender identity - incompatible understandings about life. Some of us protest the "forced teaming" represented by the acronym.

And then there is the question of how, when and why adults involve children in all this.

Janet | 05 March 2023  

Regardless of what I believe, children do have transgender people in their lives. Children are involved because they are involved in the world around them. And transgender people also include children.
Many parents (including me) welcome children's books that talk about topics that were more taboo or edgy when we were young. Having grown up in an environment where no kid would dare say they were gay, it is heartening to me to see the acceptance that kids take for granted. We are progressing!

JULIE F CLUTTERBUCK | 05 March 2023  

What a wonderfully calm and lucid piece. A breath of fresh air.

Susan | 03 March 2023  

What a one-sided article and its ensuing correspondence, except for Julie's!

That the author asserts of Dahl 'a casual, effortlessly valuable aside tossed to your kids, this shining little crumb from a culturally rich man’s gleaming table of goodies' doesn't make her thesis unassailable.

Having grown up in a culture in which exclusive, racist and contemptuous remarks were upheld as clever I have always though that Dahl was vulgar, snooty and mean-spirited.

Sadly, much English and other literature from our colonial literary past bears all the hallmarks of this kind of posturing, thought to be clever and even amusing at the time but hardly valued in this day and age for the damage it does to a new generation of readers and, hopefully, writers, whose turn of phrase need not stoop to belittlement.

I instance the work of HE Bates in this regard. He made a practice of constructing his characters as lovable and affectionate while purveying values that were exclusive, racist, grotesquely sexual in a male chauvinistic sort of way and, above all, which regarded the welfare state as a left-wing conspiracy intended to kill all private initiative.

Dahl did precisely this in an upper middle-class sort of way!

Michael Furtado | 09 March 2023  

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