‘Associated with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation,” was the damning verdict of Britain’s Royal Mint on Roald Dahl. As we learnt earlier this week, the sub-committee that decides who gets to be honoured with commemorative coins chose not to nominate Dahl in 2016, the year of his centenary.
Not an author of the highest reputation? It depends on how you look at it. His standing as a favourite author of millions of children, already established before his death in 1990, has only increased in the years since, as has his status among critics. But it is as what the BFG would call “a human bean” that his reputation starts to become problematic.
When I first began to read about Dahl’s life, having devoured his books as a child, I was not surprised to discover he was a difficult man who liked to shock people with his outrageous opinions. And it is the nasty bits of his books that come to mind most vividly when thinking back on them: Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker being crushed to death in James And The Giant Peach; Mr Twit making his wife think she is shrinking by adding tiny pieces of wood to her walking stick and chair legs every day.
If Dahl had been a nice man, I don’t suppose he would have been able to inflict such refreshingly transgressive views on his young readers. Christopher Hitchens once wrote an essay examining the truth of the accusation that Dahl was an adulterer, bully and anti-Semite. “Of course it’s bloody well true,” he concluded. “How else could Dahl have kept children enthralled and agreeably disgusted and pleasurably afraid? By being Enid Blyton?”
There is no doubt that he was extremely anti-Semitic. In the 1980s, he made several inflammatory statements in articles and interviews about Jews. “Our hearts bled for the Lebanese and Palestinian men, women and children, and we all started hating the Israelis”, just as “our hearts bled for the Jewish men, women and children, and we hated the Germans” 40 years previously, he declared in an article he wrote in 1983 on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
He declared of the Jews that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t pick on them for no reason” and suggested they were easy to kill en masse because “they were always submissive”.
Dahl sometimes peddled Jewish stereotypes in his fiction. His biographer Jeremy Treglown notes that in his first novel, Sometime Never (1948), “plentiful revelations about Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust did not discourage him from satirizing ‘a little pawnbroker in Hounsditch called Meatbein who, when the wailing started, would rush downstairs to the large safe in which he kept his money, open it and wriggle inside on to the lowest shelf where he lay like a hibernating hedgehog until the all-clear had gone’.” There is also the short story Madame Rosette in which the title character is described as “a filthy old Syrian Jewess”.
Perhaps the most insidious example of Dahl’s anti-Semitism was his screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Dahl invented a character who did not appear in Ian Fleming’s original novel — The Child Catcher. The mannerisms of Robert Helpmann’s performance, combined with his black hat, long black coat and huge pointy nose, suggested a Jew who seemed to have taken on the role of a Nazi, exercising power over a town in which children are not permitted to live and dragging those whose hiding places are discovered off to be imprisoned.
Dahl’s own books for children are not notably anti-Semitic, although his publishers are said to have cut racist and misogynist content from Matilda (in which the title character was originally not a proto-feminist heroine but a “devilish little hussy”), The BFG, The Witches and the Charlie Bucket books. The delightfully naughty Dahl we all enjoy is a watered-down version, made palatable by publishers who knew that cask-strength Dahl would be beyond the pale.
Dahl still has high-profile defenders, even among the Jewish community. Steven Spielberg, who directed the The BFG, has said that “nothing in anything he’s ever written has held up a mirror to some of the statements he made in 1983... I don’t truly believe somebody with such a big heart, who has given so much joy and so much epiphany to audiences with his writing, was an anti-Semitic human being.”
But Dahl certainly caused pain along with joy. In April 1990, he received a letter from two San Francisco schoolchildren that read: “Dear Mr Dahl, We love your books, but we have a problem... we are Jews!! We love your books but you don’t like us because we are Jews. That offends us! Can you please change your mind about what you said about Jews.”
Dahl sent a message back saying it was injustice he hated, not Jews; but in this instance, he had let his readers down. His children’s books, allegedly purged of his more extreme views, will always inspire delight in young readers, I hope; but one can see why the great and the good are very careful about how they choose to honour him.