Roald Dahl: A Biography, by Jeremy Treglown

Eight stars

The joy of undertaking this two month stint of biographies is that I am able to learn a great deal about many people across the vast expanse of history. One other advantage is that I am able to peel back the onion of knowledge as it relates to anyone and discover just how little I knew beforehand. Roald Dahl is one such person, though I went into this book feeling I had a handle on his early life, having read both short pieces the man wrote about himself. Jonathan Treglown chose to delve deeper into the life of a man best known for his scores of children’s stories, many of whom played a significant role in my early years. Treglown is first to acknowledged that there was a significant gap in Dahl’s life story after the publication of both BOY and GOING SOLO in the early 1980s. However, Dahl’s death and some argument with publishers left the majority of the man’s life without a substantial biography all his own. Treglown solves that problem with his wonderful attention to detail and thorough analysis. The curious reader will find themselves surrounded with new information not gleaned from reading any of Dahl’s work for children or the aforementioned mini-autobiographies. I am left with a significantly different image of the man and his life now, a mixed bag of emotions indeed.

In early chapters of the biography, Treglown recounts Dahl’s young years in Wales and how he grew up without a father figure for a significant portion of his life. While Boy laid the groundwork for much of what the reader knows about Dahl (including his adventurous childhood and experiences at boarding school), Treglown explains that Dahl chose to add some selective memory to his hyperbole in recounting those years. Dahl admits that he was fully aware of this and had little desire to rectify the discrepancies after publication, which might add to his fanciful nature and ability to spin tales to entertain readers. A brief stint with the RAF during the Second World War left Dahl with many memories and some early ideas for writing projects. However, injuries kept him out of the cockpit and he was sent to Washington, where he served in the British Embassy. Many have wondered about Dahl’s time in Washington, though Treglown offers little. There was one vignette about how Dahl discovered documentation of the American plan to takeover all civilian airlines after the war, monopolising the industry for their own benefit. Treglown also mentions that Dahl used his time in America to hone his skills with females, bragging of his conquests while dodging those who asserted any amorous intentions. Without a formal education after boarding school, Dahl needed a means of making money, especially after the end of wartime aggression and thought that he might be able to tap into his creative storytelling abilities.

Armed with a number of ideas and few people interested in his war-flavoured work (nuclear weapons, communism, Hitler), Dahl was put in touch with Walt Disney, who tried to create some films related to one of his few popular war stories that had been published. This project turned out to be less effective than either had hoped, the beginning of a string of failures with which Dahl would face over the next number of years. Dahl continued to work with the Knopf Publishing House, who remained curious about his work, though found it hard to find a market for his work. Treglown admits that Dahl was not committed to any publisher and would turn to whomever might have an interest in his work. Dahl enjoyed writing the more macabre story and did not tone down either language or content, as Treglown offers numerous examples of stories related to murder, rape, and extreme gore, all of which left many publishers less than eager to sign the author. In a twist of fate, Dahl was introduced to Hollywood actress Patricia Neal and the two soon gravitated to one another. Many felt that Dahl’s name-dropping was annoying and out of sync with Neal’s personality, but she began mirroring his ways and soured her relationship with many others. The two quickly married and became one of the oddest couples amongst their friends; Dahl would openly berate her and mock her southern roots while Neal passively allowed him to do so. It was only after Neal bore Dahl his first child that things became at least somewhat tolerable. While Dahl remained aloof and sought to publish his work, the family lived off Neal’s roles and accompanying paycheques. After their brood grew even more, Dahl began to exemplify a strong paternal instinct, something that Neal admitted openly to anyone who would listen. 

It was at this time that Dahl began concocting some stories to entertain his children. First, one about a young boy named James and his adventures riding on a giant peach, and eventually another about a young Charlie Bucket who won the chance to tour inside the town’s chocolate factory. Dahl quickly found publishers for these two stories in America, though Britain was slow to publish. Of interest to the reader, the publication of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory faced a great deal of pushback, specifically due to Dahl’s depiction of the Oompa-Loompas. Their ‘pygmy from the depths of Africa’ backstory proved highly problematic in a civil rights era America, though some massaging of the text eventually made it more palatable. Dahl still had little interest in gearing stories for children, though did agree to pen a few when approached by publishers for a series of books they had in mind. Playboy remained his most reliable source of income, publishing a number of his stories and paying decently. However, Dahl faced two significant personal tragedies that impeding his writing abilities and pulled his coping abilities to their limits. His marriage to Neal remained strained and she continued to be the primary provider, which surely irked the author. Their travel to shoot her films kept Dahl and his children on the move, though he tried to lay down some roots in both New York and rural England. And yet, he had still yet to find his niche for which he would eventually become so well known. Dahl did find himself expanding his horizons and ended up tackling screenplay writing, one of his own Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (title changed to remove vernacular mention of ‘Charlies’ and the racial implications) and then some of the James Bond saga, none of which were excitedly received. This earned him some decent financial payout, but nothing that could have let him retire.

The Dahl-Neal relationship continued to fray, as Dahl found companionship with a much younger woman, Felicity Crosland. He wrote to Neal and promised that there was no sexual component to it, though Neal speculates that this might not have totally been the case. Dahl’s children were getting older and could see the cracks in their parents union, some of whom chose to act out and found their antics splashed across the tabloids. Dahl was, by now, beginning to find him momentum and had published Danny the Champion of the World, with moderate success. Treglown uses some of the latter chapters in the book to explore Dahl’s eventual connection to Quentin Blake, illustrator extraordinaire whose work is likely best known to many readers who have read Dahl’s work since the early 1980s. Additionally, the reader will find discussion of early manuscripts and story ideas of his most popular works (The BFG, The Witches, and Matilda) highly amusing, especially since Dahl’s original plots took a backseat when strong editors got their hands on the work. Except for a few instances, Dahl’s work was heavily rewritten, showing that while he was a master, his preeminence did not give him a pass when the red pen emerged. There was also a strong concern that Dahl was an admitted anti-Semite, something he never denied, though he did try to spin it as having issue with the Israelis during their battles in the early 1980s. He did go so far as to publicly draw parallels between Israeli PM Menachem Begin and HItler, which left many ill at ease. However, his agent and publishers continued to push back against booksellers who brought this up by citing that the stories themselves were not racially or culturally abhorrent, even if the author espoused his own set of beliefs. By his waning years, Dahl tired of criticism and interactions with the lowly reading public, which Treglown exemplifies in narrative full of off-colour comments made by the author. However, Dahl was sure to have much of his estate go towards helping the sickest of children and those who would be able to enjoy his work, in hopes that his stories could offer a dose of marvellous literary medicine. In death, Dahl was remembered for his stories and the wonder that they brought as new readers discovered them. However, his life was anything but a walk through the park or along the English seaside.

Treglown has surely taken on a significant and controversial task in trying to paint a complete picture of Roald Dahl. The man whose image is inedibly etched into the minds of millions (children and parents alike) is surely not the one that reality has to offer. By presenting Dahl in such a frank manner, the reader is able to see another side of the man. Offering detail where it is needed and skimming over other areas, Treglown weaves together a powerful piece that does dispel Dahl’s “magical Willy Wonka” nature and offers, perhaps, the crueller side seen by many of the villains that end up slain in his books. Treglown offers another interesting aspect in the narrative that is worth mention; he contrasts many of Dahl’s life experiences with children’s stories he would eventually create. For example, Dahl’s lack of a father figure (many of his stories only deal with a child and one parent or an orphan), boarding school cruelty (many stories have evil characters, both children and adults), and his Scandinavian lineage (there is a significant amount of witch, goblin, and other fairy mention in his stories). The reader is given this insight throughout the narrative and left to find other crumbs for themselves. Paced with decent sized chapters that provide enough for the reader to digest, Treglown has succeeded in offering the ‘other side’ to this author who sought greatness himself, rather than bask solely in the reactions of his fans. A should read by Dahl fans to balance out their previous sentiments.

Kudos, Mr. Treglown for keeping the story flowing and not candy-coating the narrative (pun intended). I have a much better view of the man and his development as an author, as well as some of the lesser known aspects.