When I was researching my piece on Matilda the other week I came across the rather delightful fact that Roald Dahl had initially intended for her to be an absolute horror. His template for the character was another Matilda, the doomed anti-heroine from one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children. This Matilda, so the subtitle explains, ‘Told lies and was burned to death.’
Belloc’s Matilda was first published, alongside a number of other distressing morality poems in 1907. While much of this prolific writer’s serious political and religious writing has turned to dust, the Cautionary Tales remain. And along with his other work, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, Belloc’s comic verse was surely a majorinspiration for Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts.
The original edition came complete with Edward Lear-like illustrations by Belloc’s friend Basil Temple Blackwood.They have been republished numerous times since with new pictures by the likes of Quentin Blake, Posy Simmonds and (inevitably) Edward Gorey. Below is the first of a series of Cautionary Tales accompanied by some of my favourite illustrations.
Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her
Discovered this Infirmity.
For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London’s Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
‘Matilda’s House is Burning Down!’
Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;
And took Peculiar Pains to Souse
The Pictures up and down the House,
Until Matilda’s Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away!
It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.
That Night a Fire did break out–
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street–
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) — but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.