A love story, a hate story, and a grieving Roald Dahl

"He had loved her from his balcony for many years, but he was a very shy man and he had never been able to bring himself to give her even the smallest hint of his love."

I’ve been loving this little project of ours, reading through all the books we can find by Roald Dahl. When I bought Esio Trot from Book City, the woman smiled at me as she rang up the sale and said, “Oh, this is a great little love story.”

And it is.

Dumpy, balding, middle-aged Mr. Hoppy lives for two things: the potted plants on his balcony, and the splendid Mrs. Silver — “sweet and gentle and full of kindness” — who lives one floor below, fussing over her tiny pet tortoise Alfie. But Mr. Hoppy is too shy to profess his love for Mrs. Silver, and makes do with years of small talk and fleeting glimpses until one bright day in May, when Mrs. Silver confesses she’s worried Alfie isn’t growing fast enough. “Try to think how miserable it must make him feel to be so titchy! Everyone wants to grow up … I’d give anything to see it happen.”

Mr. Hoppy sees his chance, and gets scheming. He teaches Mrs. Silver a chant in “tortoise language,” a series of backwards words to be muttered to Alfie morning, noon and night. “Worg pu, ffup pu, toohs pu! … In a few months’ time, he’ll be twice as big as he is now.”

Then he visits every pet shop in the city, and buys up their supply of tortoises. Each week, he steals a “titchy” tortoise and replaces it with one just two ounces bigger. And just as a parent doesn’t notice her child growing steadily day by day until suddenly the clothes don’t fit, so Mrs. Silver doesn’t notice Alfie’s girth until he is too big to get through the door of his tortoise house. Of course, Mr. Hoppy has a chant to fix that too: teg a tib rellams, a tib rellams.

How could Mrs. Silver fail to fall for such a clever man? (She doesn’t realize just how clever he is — deceptively so, and cleverly deceptive — but that’s another matter.)

Carl van Vechten portrait of Neal and Dahl. Patricia Neal said in People Magazine, March 1997: "Over the years, I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald – who died in 1990 – couldn't say a word.... It was locked inside him."

In a way, Esio Trot is the flip side of The Twits, which was a kind of hate story rather than a love story, and saw Mr. Twit shaving away bits of Mrs. Twit’s cane so that eventually she came to believe she had “the shrinks.” It makes me wonder what kind of a practical joker (or worse?) Dahl himself was in his day. Certainly his love life got complicated. He was married for 30 years to the actress Patricia Neal, and they came through many tragedies as a family: in 1960, their son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab, and the baby suffered a brain injury; two years later, with Theo still vulnerable, their 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis; in 1965, a pregnant Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms, and sank into a coma for weeks. She delivered the child safely, and Dahl became very involved in her rehabilitation, but their marriage, apparently always turbulent, was never the same.

These horrific events took place within a mere five years, while Dahl’s career as a children’s writer was just getting going. I wonder how he coped, and how writing played a role. A couple of years ago, when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, I put my pen down the day I got the news. I got up from my desk and left everything just where it was for weeks. I couldn’t return to it right away, not even to close things up or to tidy. It was as if everything was suspended. But there came a time I needed to return, and though it wasn’t me who was sick, writing was my medicine.

The Guardian calls Dahl "a tricky customer for a biographer.... Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite. Tempered by the desire to be very wealthy, he was able to finesse this native nastiness into a series of compelling books for children who loved to see their anarchic inner world caught on paper. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Matilda all do the work of contemporary folktales, allowing young readers to stray into some very dark places and still get home in time for tea."

Dahl was writing James and the Giant Peach when Theo was injured in 1960; and he was revising Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Olivia contracted measles. Donald Sturrock’s biography of Dahl recounts this period in detail. It’s almost unbearable to read about the father wrapping his daughter in an eiderdown and carrying her to the ambulance. Harder still is a passage written by Dahl himself, meticulously documenting Olivia’s decline. “I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said.” And later: “Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. ‘She is warm.’ I said to doctors in hall, ‘Why is she so warm?’ ‘Of course,’ he said. I left.”

According to Sturrock, the account was written in a notebook labeled OLIVIA and tucked in a drawer. It was found 28 years later, when Dahl himself had died. One can only speculate as to why he wrote it, and why in that clinical style. I suspect that no words seem powerful enough to express such profound grief, so rather than document the impossible emotions, he documented the facts that stood out to him — both to get them out of himself, and to preserve the last moments of his daughter’s life.

We’re in a bit of a lull right now, as we need to go Dahl-shopping, but this is how our list looks so far:

The Gremlins
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Magic Finger
Fantastic Mr Fox
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
The Twits
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The BFG
The Witches
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Matilda
Esio Trot
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Minpins
Revolting Rhymes
Dirty Beasts
Rhyme Stew

I’m adding three more — Dahl’s autobiographies Boy: Tales of  Childhood, Going Solo and My Year— because I’m sure it will be interesting for both of us to read about the author’s life having read so much of his fiction. Autobiographies written for children don’t seem terribly common to me, so I’m curious to see what N will make of these. I like that she thinks about authors as well as the books themselves, and it sounds like plenty of kids do so when it comes to Roald Dahl. According to his widow Felicity (he and Patricia Neal divorced in the 1980s), children still turn up looking for Dahl at the home they shared.

“It’s just awful because they look over the gate and say, ‘Roald Dahl lives here doesn’t he?’ … And I say ‘Well he did.’ [They say], ‘Oh, has he moved?’ And I have to say, ‘No he died.’ And it shatters them.”

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “A love story, a hate story, and a grieving Roald Dahl

  1. I had no idea there was a biography — glad to know.

  2. There’s an earlier one too, by Jeremy Treglown.

  3. I am reading your blog with great interest. I wonder what N would name as her top 5 books. I wonder what you would…?
    xo Auntie s

  4. Isadora

    Esio Trot reminded me of one you wrote years ago…a short story about a lovely old couple having spent a lifetime together…….that one brought tears to my eyes, as did your recounting of Dahl’s daughter’s last few hours. Creating becomes a way to unravel and work through the challenges life throws our way, and I agree with your interpretation of why he wrote the way he did of this unspeakably painful experience.

  5. Marilyn

    The story of Mr. Hoppy and his secret love, Mrs. Silver, sounds like a lovely story. What a wiley guy he was to think of getting larger turtles to take Alfie’s place. I knew of Patricia Neal’s story but I didn’t know she was married to Roald Dahl.

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