The letters Roald Dahl wrote to his mother
“LOVE FROM BOY: ROALD DAHL’S LETTERS TO HIS MOTHER” Edited by Donald Sturrock Blue Rider Press $26, 304 pages, illustrated
Roald Dahl’s penchant for the macabre in his adult short stories make them some of the most haunting and chilling of 20th-century English literature. It even made its mark, albeit a lesser one, in what he wrote for children, the best known of these being “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” So it is unsurprising to find it not altogether absent, particularly in the earlier parts of this collection of the letters he wrote faithfully to his mother from his days at boarding school, beginning aged nine in 1925 and continuing until shortly before her death more than four decades later.
But generally speaking, his tone is matter of fact, forthright, and direct throughout and to me, it changed remarkably little over all those years, except for an understandably increased level of frankness about more adult subjects. Something else that did not alter is a level of reflexive, natural intimacy, which I sense made this maternal relationship the most important in his life, despite two marriages and children. This is understandable, since she raised him and his siblings as a single parent, his father having died when Roald was three.
Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, who edited and annotated this collection with great excellence and natural assurance, comments perceptively that Sofie Magdalene Dahl (both parents were Norwegian immigrants to Britain) “was a loyal, tireless, phlegmatic, and unshockable correspondent.” This judgment is the more remarkable because, although she saved all her son’s letters neatly tied up, he appears to have kept none of hers. But as Mr. Sturrock rightly says, “his side of the correspondence reveals much about her” and that “her powerful, pragmatic, unshockable personality emerges strongly, if only by inference, in her son’s correspondence.” Although the biographer often finds “a sense that Roald is talking to himself,” I sensed his mother’s almost palpable presence in everything he writes: there is no way he could have written these words to anyone else in his life.
Mr. Sturrock finds “the absence of any of her letters in Roald’s archive… perplexing. For a man who kept to so much correspondence, it is doubly surprising that not one letter survived.” I find this less so than he does, simply because while Sofie Magdalena led a very sedentary existence, to say that her son’s adult life was peripatetic is an understatement and he simply had no time to hold on to letters.
Indeed, the variety of locales where he wrote these letters is a large part of what makes this collection so fascinating. Whether he was in East Africa in the late 1930s, working for an oil company, or after the outbreak of World War II in the Royal Air Force in North Africa and the Middle East — or crossing oceans before during and after these periods — his descriptions of what he is experiencing are extraordinarily vivid and absorbing. He is simply incapable of writing a dull letter.
It is his time as an intelligence officer attached to the British Embassy in Washington during the final two years of the war which produce the most interesting letters — and not just for Washingtonians. Not only do his budding literary efforts get him swept off periodically to Hollywood, staying at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, thanks to Walt Disney, and hobnobbing with movie stars, but back in D.C., despite his junior rank (the RAF equivalent of captain), he mixes in the most exalted circles. He meets Martha Gellhorn, the wife of his literary idol, and reports to his mother with characteristic pungency that “Martha Hemingway is a good type. She uses as much bad language in her talk as her husband does in his books.” Perhaps his Norwegian parentage and first name helped him get to know the exiled Crown Prince and Princess of Norway and their young son the present monarch (“I think he will make a good King one day),” but how did he get to play tennis with his ambassadorial boss, the austere, aristocratic Earl of Halifax?
But nothing can really top his descriptions of life en famille with Mr. and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was in the company of Crown Princess Martha, a great favorite of the president, that he was invited to stay at Hyde Park, but his frequent invitations to intimate dinners at the White House must be testimony to his extraordinary charisma and commanding appearance (six and a half feet tall). All the more remarkable because Mrs. Roosevelt was no fan of Martha. Indeed, his picture of the First Family’s life is a good deal jollier and the food served at the table less penitential than most other accounts would lead you to believe. It is Eleanor who pours the cocktail and the marital atmosphere is cordial. Given the many painful operations and other vicissitudes he endured, described here in vivid detail, it is seems strange to describe Roald Dahl as living a charmed life. Yet he manages to make it feel that way for us much of the time.