Tales of the unexpected: The dark side of bedtime stories

A new biography of Roald Dahl throws light on the private life of one of our best-loved writers. But why are so many children's authors such damaged human beings?

John Walsh
Monday 06 September 2010 00:00 BST

"A terrible wrathful man, with a slow fuse burning in one end of his belly and a stick of dynamite in the other." That was how Roald Dahl described his long-term American publisher Alfred Knopf in the New York Times in 1983 – but it could easily have applied to himself.

The much-loved, best-selling children's author, one of the UK's most popular post-war writers, was a man of considerable fury and contempt for people who crossed him, or whom he considered beneath him. The creator of Willy Wonka, the Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox was often less than fantastic as a human being. He was an anti-Semite, a chronically unfaithful husband and a raging bully to business associates, teachers and friends. The creator of the Big Friendly Giant could easily, it seems, transform himself into a Big Unfriendly Bastard.

A new biography of Dahl, Storyteller by Donald Sturrock, who made a documentary about the author in 1986 ("Oh Christ," Dahl characteristically moaned to his wife on meeting Sturrock, "they've sent a fucking child"), bends over backwards to portray him as a vivid, larger-than-life figure who sometimes let his emotions get the better of him. But the most up-to-date portrait of the Welsh-Norwegian author that emerges is startlingly unpleasant.

He survived a traumatic childhood (his sister Astri, four years his senior, died when he was three, his father shortly afterwards) to do well at school sport, and become a flying ace in the Second World War. He remained a delinquent schoolboy into adulthood. His attitude to the rich, older women he serially seduced was antediluvian: he explained to the readers of Ladies' Home Journal that what made relationships work was 70 per cent sexual attraction and 30 per cent respect, so that brief, physical affairs were ideal. The notches on his bedpost included Martha Gellhorn, while she was still married to Hemingway (she considered Dahl "very attractive and slightly mad"), Annabella Power, wife of Tyrone (she thought him "kind of impossible"), and Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics queen ("It didn't last long," he coolly told friends, "but it cured my spots").

He had several affairs while married to Patricia Neal, the actress who died recently. After Neal had a stroke, he conducted, virtually under her nose, an affair with Felicity ("Liccy") Crosland, whom he later married.

It is, however, his overweening rudeness to people that's most striking. "He felt himself to be the self-righteous, dominant paterfamilias," writes Sturrock, "who criticised others but was himself beyond reproach." Dahl was wary of English literary intellectuals, by whom he felt intimidated, because of his lack of university education. Kingsley Amis devoted a bilious chapter to Dahl in his Memoirs, recalling how, at a party, Dahl recommended that Amis should knock out some children's books to make money, and remarked, encouragingly, "The little bastards'd swallow it."

The saga of his complaints to his Random House publishers, about everything from his four-book contract ("I have felt that fucking contract clutching at my throat like a bloodsucking vampire ever since it was written") to the size of his name on the cover of The Twits is a long, petulant tantrum. When he threatened to leave the publishing house for good, the firm's managing director Bob Gottlieb could not conceal his delight. "Let me reverse the threat," he wrote to Dahl. "Unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to publish you. Nor will I – or any of us – answer any future letter that we consider to be as rude as those we've been receiving."

One can dismiss as ludicrous the accusations of racial prejudice that greeted the publication of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1965 the United States; the fact that the factory workers were Oompah-Loompahs, African pygmies "from the very deepest and darkest part of the jungle, where no white man had ever been before," outraged the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. But it's hard to dismiss Dahl's infamous 1983 review of Tony Clifton's God Cried, a work of reportage about the atrocities committed against civilians in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Dahl's review didn't muck about. The invasion, he said bluntly, marked the moment when "we all started hating the Israelis". He repeatedly compared Israel to Nazi Germany and asked, "Must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?" A predictable furore erupted about Dahl's apparent anti-Semitism. His response made things worse. Interviewed by The New Statesman, he said he detected "a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke a certain animosity... even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason."

It was, to be fair, a public display of the kind of rhetoric he'd employed for years at the dinner table to provoke a response. Behind his bluntness was a banked-up rage and frustration that he enjoyed releasing. "Explosions," he wrote, "are exciting."

What's remarkable, in considering Dahl as a furious private individual who unerringly found the tickling-spot of young readers, is how closely he resembles writers from the golden age of children's fiction. So many led lives of frustration, bad luck, poor choices and wayward behaviour, one can almost see it as a pathological condition: Children's Writer Rage. Among its symptoms is an intense guilt for the early death (or disappearance) of a parent; among its ramifications is a perverse or cavalier attitude towards children themselves.

The standout example is JM Barrie, whose furtive manipulations of the real-life Lost Boys has been the subject of several recent works. In his book Captivated: JM Barrie, the Du Mauriers and The Dark Side of Neverland, Piers Dudgeon offers a damning indictment of the relationship between the author of Peter Pan and the five sons of Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, whom he met in Kensington Gardens in 1898. It's well known that Barrie lost his older brother David in a skating accident just before his 14th birthday. Dudgeon boldly suggests that Barrie was partly responsible for his brother's death and invented the "boy who never grew up" to assuage his guilt. He also uses the fact that Sylvia Llewellyn Davies was the sister of George Du Maurier (author of Trilby, about a young woman mesmerised by the spooky figure of Svengali) to suggest that Barrie himself became a Svengali to the young boys, whose father died of cancer in 1907, followed by their mother three years later.

Friends of the "Lost Boys" later recalled the Scottish playwright as a sympathetic, if lonely old man who loved playing innocent games – the interpretation adopted by Johnny Depp when he played Barrie Neverland.

Against this, one must range some alarming passages in books and letters. In The Little White Bird, the novel in which Peter Pan first appears, young George Llewellyn Davies (Barrie's first obsession) appears under the name of Barrie's brother, David. The character David's mother is clearly based on Sylvia. And the narrator, a childless writer, explicitly plots to steal the child away: "It was a scheme conceived in a flash," he chortles, "and ever since relentlessly pursued – to burrow under Mary's influence with the boy, expose her to him in all her vagaries, take him utterly from her"– while she remains "culpably obtuse to my sinister design."

It's shocking, after this, to discover that Barrie rewrote Sylvia's will after her death, to put the boys under his guardianship. Barrie, in transcribing her handwriting for the family, changed one of the names to make it look as though Sylvia meant to make him and his wife Mary joint guardians.

Such behaviour was, at best, sneaky and, at worst, illegal. Peter Llewellyn Davies, when grown up, wrote in 1946 about how he and his brothers were "spirited away, as children, from my mothers and father's friends... the whole business, as I look back on it, was almost unbelievably queer and pathetic and ludicrous and macabre." Peter later killed himself under a Tube train at Sloane Square station, after incinerating the huge collection of letters between his brother Michael and Barrie. "They were too much," was all he'd say.

Barrie's depredations were more about manipulation and control than rage and cruelty (though, when playing Captain Hook with the children, he thought nothing of making a four-year-old walk the plank into a lake); but the sinister quality of his relations with children, which derived from the trauma of his brother's death, is just as alarming.

AA Milne suffered from a similar frustration to Barrie, in watching his serious works for adults ignored by critics and readers in favour of the little children's stories he'd knocked off without effort. Milne started his career writing light verse and barbed satires of the Edwardian "smart set" especially "The Rabbits", a series of dialogues between Bright Young Things that had Punch readers in stitches. But he became a chronic nearly-man. He dreamed of being a successful playwright, but his feeble dramas (like Mr Pim Passes By, which flirts with the possibility of being bigamously married) and middlebrow novels lacked salience. He lives on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, with whom he might have bonded except that, according to his biographer, Ann Thwaite, he was prudish and disliked joining in with the salacious conversation that was standard in literary circles.

His socialite wife Daphne de Sélincourt was unfaithful to him. His son, poor Christopher Robin, condemned to a lifetime of being teased about whether he still went "hoppity hop", cut off all contact with his mother for her last 15 years, and said later, "My father's heart remained buttoned-up all through his life." Milne himself found the company of children tiresome. No wonder he found a parallel community in the Hundred-Acre Wood, beyond all social convention and real-life intercourse – although his portrayal of animal friends owed a lot to The Wind in the Willows, a book he adored. Dismayed by being called a "children's author", endlessly stuck beneath the long shadow of Pooh Bear, he turned to politics.

He wrote a "manifesto" recommending peace in 1939, then, as British troops headed for France, wrote to defend the pursuit of war. As though looking for a scapegoat, he vilified PG Wodehouse after the latter's infamous (though innocent) broadcasts from Berlin as the behest of the Nazis. He ended his days a pathetic figure, lonely, disillusioned, paralysed by a stroke, estranged from Christopher Robin, fed up by having achieved the wrong kind of immortality.

His hero Kenneth Grahame's life wasn't all beer and skittles either. He was pursued from first to last by family tragedy. His mother died when he was a small child, his father became a hopeless drunk and he and his sister were obliged to move in with their grandmother in Cookham on the bank of the Thames. At 20, he secured a job in the Bank of England, and rose to become its Secretary. You'd think this a safe enough position, but in 1903, when he was 44, there was a firearms incident in the bank, and he was shot at three times. Amazingly, he survived. Five years later he was fired, but figuratively this time, on health grounds, although everyone knew it was because he had been overheard calling Walter Cunliffe – one of the bank's directors – "no gentleman".

He was married to one Elspeth Thompson, but unhappily. They had one son, Alastair, who was born blind in one eye, was chronically unwell and, while an Oxford student, threw himself under a train two days shy of his 20th birthday. Grahame's shocking bad luck, natural lack of tact, and ability to attract violence for no particular reason, mark him out as a haunted individual, much safer (like Milne) away from the real worlds of human beings.

The most successful children's writer of the 20th century, Enid Blyton, was, like JM Barrie, a classic case of arrested maturity. The major upset of her young life was when her beloved father, a cutlery salesman, left home when she was 12. Her womb stopped growing, apparently; later she needed hormone treatment to have children. Effectively, she lived thereafter in an artfully constructed child's garden of inventions, of Toytown, Wishing Trees, Malory Towers and St Clare's, Valleys and Islands and Castles of Adventures. She did everything she could to maintain this fantasy world – "everything" included ditching an inconveniently needy first husband, and ignoring her children, when not useful for publicity pictures.

In Enid, a BBC4 film of her life starring Helena Bonham Carter, there's a telling scene in which a gaggle of young fans arrive at the Blyton household, to be regaled by Enid with a tea party of cakes and jelly, while her own children, Gillian and Imogen, excluded from the revels, watch the proceedings from the stairs. "The truth is," wrote Imogen later, "Enid Blyton was arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct. As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult I pitied her."

It would be foolish, for all kinds of reasons, to suggest that the lives of contemporary children's authors will turn out to have been battlefields of neurosis, manipulation and absent parents – though, of course, JK Rowling's mother died just as she began writing the first Harry Potter, and Jacqueline Wilson offered a brisk précis of her young life as follows: "My childhood wasn't happy. I could have written a misery memoir for adults with lots of harrowing details, but it seems a little sad and pathetic to be whimpering about such long-ago things. It's not elegant and it's not even wise, when there could be all sorts of repercussions."

In a week in which Ms Rowling handed over £10m to fund a multiple-sclerosis clinic at Edinburgh University, British children's writers today seem closer to sainthood than the kind of raging egomania we associate with Roald Dahl and his literary ancestors. But it's interesting to be reminded of how much of the enchanted forest – of Tigger and Tinkerbell and Toad, of Mole and Mam'zelle and Matilda, of Big Ears and The Minpins, Heffalumps and the Finder-Outers, Mr Smee and the Piper at the Gates of Dawn – all owe their genesis to childhood heartbreak and grown-up tyranny.

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