Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother may be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote

Writer Roald Dahl with wife Patricia Neal and children Tessa and Theo pictured in the garden of their home in Great Missenden Credit: Rex

Love From Boy, published to coincide with Dahl’s centenary year, collects together the author's letters to his mother, written across a period of more than 20 years

In Boy, the memoir Roald Dahl wrote with young readers in mind, the author described the Sunday morning rituals at his boarding school in Weston-super-Mare: “Church-going never became a habit with me. Letter-writing did.” Whenever he was away from home, Dahl wrote to his mother at least once a week, and sometimes more, until her death in 1967. After she died, 600 of his own letters were returned to him; Sofie Magdalene Dahl had kept them all, in their original envelopes, bundled up with green tape. But it was only half a correspondence. Her son hadn’t kept a single one from her.

The bundles, he said, covered 1925-1945. What happened later? Well, he moved closer to her, for one thing, but also – as the editor of this selection, Donald Sturrock, says – his life became more difficult; his letters to her became less light-hearted, more “unvarnished”, and fewer. As a result, this collection, published in Dahl’s centenary year, is a curiously slanted affair. Some of the periods of Dahl’s life that were most fascinating in Sturrock’s 2010 Storyteller, his elegant and sensitive biography, are left virtually uncovered here. His baby son’s serious accident, which led to Dahl’s co-invention of a valve that drains fluid from the brain; the death from measles of his seven-year-old daughter; the coma and near-death of his first wife, Patricia Neal: these are treated in a brief epilogue.

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