Reading Diary: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Mrs. Phelps looked along the [library] shelves, taking her time. She didn't quite know what to bring out. How, she asked herself, does one choose a famous grown-up book for a four-year-old girl?
Her first thought was to pick a young teenager's romance of the kind that is written for fifteen-year-old schoolgirls, but for some reason she found herself instinctively walking past that particular shelf.
"Try this," she said 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 is one of those delightful books about other books--or rather, books about reading. The brilliant title character loves books and she is our heroine; her disgusting parents don't see the need for books, and they are our first villains. And it is when her father actually rips up a library book that Matilda takes the utterly unconventional step of punishing him. (I've never made my peace with that, if you must know.)
And what to make of the fact that the book comes with a reading list: those books picked out for Matilda by Mrs. Phelps, the kind, wise and discreet town librarian? I've always been a bit thrown by the reading list.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Good Companion by J.B. Priestly
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Animal Farm by George Orwell
I guess Great Expectations isn't listed because it has its own special mention? But there are more important questions than that . . .
Are these Dahl's personal favourite "grown up" books? Are they random titles he picked off the shelves while at his own local library? Are they a mix of both? Would reading any of them enhance our experience of Matilda? If so, does he expect us to read them at the age when we usually read Matilda? (It's not a fatuous question. Remember that Matilda herself read all of these when she was just four years old!)
I'd say it was completely random--or at least so mixed that it might as well be random--if it weren't for the fact that one book on the list plays a significant part in the plot. If you've ever been in the same room with an insufferable know-it-all who drops big book titles into the conversation when he feels certain that nobody else there has ever read them--and if you happened to be the one other person who had read the book--then you'll know why it's so emotionally rewarding to be Matilda at the moment it happens to her. But you don't get a full share of the fun unless you've also read the book yourself. And that just hurts.
Oh, yes, Dahl gives us enough context so that anyone can see the real joke (which is that the know-it-all Miss Trunchbull hasn't even understood the book she was so proud to have read) . . . but if you're a serious reader, then you already know it's not the same thing. (And that it hurts.)
And now I swear that Nicholas Nickleby (complete and unabridged) will be the very next Charles Dickens novel I read! (Just don't ask me when that will be . . .)
Thankfully, I'm not so horribly read that the fullness of all the allusions fly over my head. In fact, I know quite a bit about two other writers Matilda mentions, which is probably why the part in which they come up is my favourite reading-related passage in the whole book . . .
"Tell me one book that you liked."
"I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Matilda said. "I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books."
"You are right there," Miss Honey said.
"There aren't many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien, either," Matilda said.
"Do you think that all children's books ought to have funny bits in them?" Miss Honey asked.
"I do," Matilda said. Children are not so serious as grown ups and they love to laugh."
In my last post about Dahl, Two-meme Tuesday, I wondered whether he had deliberately written his books in subversion of the sweetly sentimental (some would say sickly sentimental) stories written for children in the Victorian era. Then I reread Matilda and saw I might have overshot his purpose by several decades. Dahl wasn't throwing up a challenge to the books of J.M. Barrie and George MacDonald, but to the newer "children's classics" of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
It was a move which, if you don't mind me saying so, took brass balls. Before Dahl had published his first children's book, Lewis' and Tolkien's novels had places of pride in English literature's "children's canon"--and the authors themselves were dead and hallowed, besides. Imagine a future children's author daring to criticise J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan in the same way. You'd have to be both really brave and really dang good to take on such huge sacred cows like that. And this is why although I still don't like Matilda, I grudgingly admire and respect Roald Dahl.
Image Sources: a) Matilda by Roald Dahl, b) Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, c) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis