The Other Matilda



While researching a piece on Matilda recently I came across the rather delicious 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;

Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,

Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,

Attempted to believe Matilda:

The effort very nearly killed her

And would have done so, had not She

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.

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