Chapter 16 of Matilda doesn’t have the most thrilling synopsis you’ll ever read, but this is undoubtedly one of my favourite chapters in all of children’s literature. You might wonder why I would chose this interlude in a story which is crammed full of wonderful, terrible events, like Miss Trunchbull hurling Miranda Thripp over the school fence by her pigtails, or Bruce Bogtrotter’s heroic cake eating ordeal.
These are the bits everyone remembers and rightly so, but there’s a reflective side to Roald Dahl’s writing which is often overlooked, the moments where Dahl takes stock and look at the amazing world around him. Think of the exchange in James and the Giant Peach where the insects tell James amazing facts about themselves, like the earthworm who swallows and excretes every single piece of soil in the field (stuck with me that one).
In Miss Honey’s Cottage we again get to marvel at the natural world, ‘It was one of those golden autumn afternoons and there were blackberries and splashes of old man’s beard in the hedges, and the hawthorn berries were ripening scarlet for the birds when the cold winter came along. There were tall trees here and there on either side, oak and sycamore and ash and occasionally a sweet chestnut.’
This scene comes after a highly tense few chapters in which the Trunchbull teaches Matilda’s class, torturing her way through the pupils, making our hero hot behind the eyes. She finally expels her backed up brain power, toppling a newt filled glass of water all over the headmonster’s enormous bosom.
The walk back to Miss Honey’s should be a chance for Matilda to talk about her new found powers. Instead we find out some secrets about Miss Honey who, it turns out, lives in penury in a tiny red-brick farm labourers cottage. There’s a fairy tale connection that Dahl makes explicit here.
‘Matilda hung back. She was a bit frightened of this place now. It seemed so unreal and remote and fantastic and so totally away from this earth. It was like an illustration in Grimm or Hans Andersen. It was the house where the poor woodcutter lived with Hansel and Gretel and where Red Riding Hood’s grandmother lived and it was also the house off the Seven Dwarfs and the Three Bears and all the rest of them. It was straight out of a fairy-tale.’
It’s interesting to see Dahl make that parallel, and you have to wonder whether at this late stage in his career he realised that his own work would have the same longevity as Grimm and Andersen? Perhaps not.
Jeremy Treglown’s biography of Dahl describes the immense difficulties the author had with this book. In its first draft the story was less like a fairy tale and more akin to Hilaire Belloc’s wicked Matilda (‘who told lies and was burned to death’). In this version Miss Honey was Miss Hayes (a fact that makes me very happy), the daughter of a bookie with massive gambling debts. Matilda finally comes good when she uses her powerful eyes to nobble a race at Newmarket, providing her teacher with one last big payday.
It’s safe to assume that this chapter probably didn’t exist in the original version. And odd to think that he could get it so wrong after writing so many classics. According to Treglown much of the credit for the second draft goes to his American editor Stephen Roxburgh who suggested a lot of the major changes, such as turning Matilda from a wicked girl into a super-precocious one. He also helped develop the relationship with Miss Honey, who with her gambling addiction replaced with a love of nature and poetry was now an expert foil for Matilda’s boorish parents and psychotic teacher.
I suppose what I love about this chapter is the way it creates, briefly, a perfect sanctuary for Matilda, and makes Miss Honey’s bleak house a home. There’s not much to describe inside the house or what they do there.
‘The room was as small and square as a prison cell. The pale daylight that entered came from a single tiny window in the front wall, but there were no curtains. The only objects in the entire room were two upturned wooden boxes to serve as chairs and a third box between them for a table. That was all.’
But for all that the room has stuck in my mind since I first read about it. Coming back felt a little like walking around the house I grew up in. Dahl makes you feel as though you are the one being served margarine on toast and tea made on a Primus stove. He also makes you realise that there is a great deal you don’t know about the woman who lives there, and of events yet to come. ‘There was a mystery here in this house, a great mystery, there was no doubt about that, and Matilda was longing to find out what it was.’ Perfect.