‘Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother’, edited by Donald Sturrock ****

I really enjoyed Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl, Storyteller, when I read it a couple of years ago.  I was thus very excited to read Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, which Sturrock edited.  Whilst on yet another (largely unsuccessful) book-buying ban at the time of purchase, Love From Boy looked far too lovely to pass up when I spotted a single copy in Fopp.

From his early childhood, when he was sent away to boarding school, Roald Dahl sent one letter each week to his Norwegian mother, Sofie Magdalene; he continued this habit into adulthood, and ‘unbeknown to Roald, his mother lovingly kept every single one of them.’  Of this practice, Sturrock writes: ‘Sofie was, in many ways, Roald’s first reader.  It was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate 9781444786286and entertain.’  She clearly had an enormous influence upon him, nurturing him, and facilitating his love for plants and never-ending greed for homemade cakes and food parcels.  Indeed, Dahl later ‘acknowledged her as the source for his own interest in horticulture, cooking, wine, paintings, furniture and animals.  She was the “mater familias”, his constant reference-point and guide.’

In Love From Boy, we are able to ‘witness Roald Dahl turning from a boy to a man, and finally becoming a writer.’  Michael Rosen heralds Sturrock’s effort here, believing that his ‘commentary on the letters is meticulous, thoughtful and kind.’  I found this to be true with Storyteller too; it is so well-informed, and so sympathetic, without feeling overly sentimental, or glossing over any details.  A lot of thought has been put into the accompanying comments in Love From Boy, and into which of the letters should be included here.  As readers, Sturrock has allowed us to step into Sofie’s shoes; ‘we can experience his adventures, recounted in his own unique voice: a delightful and sometimes disconcerting mixture of honesty, humour, earthiness and fantasy.’

Literary Review captures the spirit of these letters wonderfully, writing that this is: ‘An entertaining and eye-opening collection…  it is his younger self that is captured here – jaunty and anarchic, yet a recognisable forerunner of that more subtly anarchic, stooping, cardiganed figure who was the world-famous author, gazing out on the world from his garden shed with watery, mischievous eyes.’  The correspondence of authors, from my experience of reading quite a few collections, often shows a different side to them entirely.  Fans of Dahl’s fun and quirky children’s books may be surprised at how much heartbreak he had in his life, and these letters do show that he had a very serious side, contrary to that which he revealed in much of his writing.

The cache of more than 600 letters which Sturrock had to choose from for this collection end two years before Sofie’s death.  Roald was bequeathed the letters, all of which had been kept in their original envelopes, after her death in 1967.  Unfortunately, none of Sofie’s letters to Roald have been recovered, and so her part in proceedings, says Sturrock, is ‘more mysterious’.  Evidently so aware of Dahl’s life and feelings, he points out that many elements and emotions were left out of these letters entirely.  He says that they are ‘interesting for what they do not say.  They seldom convey self-pity or unhappiness…  In that situation [of school-imposed censorship in his early correspondence], admitting vulnerability was treated with scorn and derision.’  There is a sense throughout of Dahl trying to protect his mother, putting a gloss on the harder things which he experiences so as not to worry her; an example of this is when he was horrendously bullied at school, but just put it down to boyish high-jinx in his letters home.

Sturrock has chosen to split these ‘remarkable’ letters into seven main sections, spanning specific periods between 1925 and 1965.  The letters themselves were sent to Sofie from Weston-Super-Mare and Kenya, from Egypt and Texas, from Iraq and Canada.  They detail Dahl’s experiences with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and the various postings he was given, many of which he had to be rather secretive about.  The approach which Sturrock has made here is wonderful; he provides an index of locations, along with corresponding symbols for each, and has mapped them too.

Love From Boy is so nicely laid out, and include copies of Dahl’s original letters at times.  The introductions to each section are heartfelt; Sturrock helps to contextualise the letters, as well as adding thoughtful comments and biographical details.  In the second section, for example, when Dahl is at his second boarding school, Sturrock says: ‘Whether tobogganing down a hill, rioting on a train, chucking powder around his dormitory, or climbing illicitly up the tower of Repton Church, the letters convey an exultant and infectious delight in the adventures of childhood, and a sense that these simple, unsophisticated pleasures can put misery and adversity to flight.’

Some of what Dahl recounts in his letters is so matter-of-fact that it becomes comical.  In January 1927, at the age of ten, for instance, he writes: ‘I have not eaten any of what you gave me accept [sic] one little chocolate, and on Bristol Station Hoggart was sick, and when I looked at it I was sick but now I am quite all right.’  The way in which he writes is often charming and warmhearted, and his vocabulary very of its time; he speaks of a ‘topping lecture’, of a schoolmaster who has ‘got a long hanging ginger moustache, and is quite fat’, and asks, in 1927, ‘How much are the monkeys at Harrods?  It would be rather nice to have one.’  Later, hilarious satirical comments are made about political figures, the likes of Hitler and Goebbels.  When living in Dar es Salaam in 1939, Dahl writes: ‘It’s pleasant lying back and listening and at the same time watching the antics of Hitler and Mussolini who are invariably on the ceiling catching flies and mosquitoes.  Perhaps I should explain that Hitler and Mussolini are 2 lizards which live in our sitting room.’

Love From Boy is such an endearing collection, and is a lovely book for any fan of Dahl’s to read.  Sturrock’s selections give an insight both into Dahl’s life and his relationship with his mother, and allow readers to chart his changing loves and interests as time passes.  Love From Boy is, too, a fantastic piece of social and biographical history, which is both entertaining and touching from start to finish.  The letters here are full of character, as one would expect, and are a true delight to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository


The Book Trail: The Biographical Edition

I am beginning this particular instalment of The Book Trail with a fantastic biography of one of my favourite children’s authors.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock 8789494
A single-minded adventurer and an eternal child who gave us the iconic Willy Wonka and Matilda Wormwood, Roald Dahl lived a life filled with incident, drama and adventure: from his harrowing experiences as an RAF fighter pilot and his work in British intelligence, to his many romances and turbulent marriage to the actress Patricia Neal, to the mental anguish caused by the death of his young daughter Olivia. In “Storyteller, “the first authorized biography of Dahl, Donald Sturrock–granted unprecedented access to the Dahl estate’s archives–draws on personal correspondence, journals and interviews with family members and famous friends to deliver a masterful, witty and incisive look at one of the greatest authors and eccentric characters of the modern age, whose work still delights millions around the world today.


2. Eudora Welty by Suzanne Marrs
Eudora Welty’s works are treasures of American literature. When her first short-story collection was published in 1941, it heralded the arrival of a genuinely original writer who over the decades wrote hugely popular novels, novellas, essays, and a memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that became a national bestseller. By the end of her life, Welty (who died in 2001) had been given nearly every literary award there was and was all but shrouded in admiration.  In this definitive and authoritative account, Suzanne Marrs restores Welty’s story to human proportions, tracing Welty’s life from her roots in Jackson, Mississippi, to her rise to international stature. Making generous use of Welty’s correspondence-particularly with contemporaries and admirers, including Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen-Marrs has provided a fitting and fascinating tribute to one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.


53505433. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O’Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O’Connor’s significant friendships–with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others–and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O’Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006. O’Connor’s capacity to live fully–despite the chronic disease that eventually confined her to her mother’s farm in Georgia–is illuminated in this engaging and authoritative biography.


4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.  Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness.


5. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard 7905899
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved. At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark’s parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington.  With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years—until her death in 2006—she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine.  Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon. 16 pages of b/w photographs.


6. John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats’s entire life, from his early years at Keats’s Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats’s poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.  Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats’s childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats’s father, his mother’s too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats’s doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.


37541007. George Eliot by Jenny Uglow
Best known for her masterpieces Middlemarch and Silas Marner, George Eliot (1819–1880) was both one of the most brilliant writers of her day, and one of the most talked about. Intellectual and independent, she had the strength to defy polite society with her highly unorthodox private life which included various romances and regular encounters with the primarily male intelligentsia. This insightful and provocative biography investigates Eliot’s life, from her rural and religious upbringing through her tumultuous relationship with the philosopher George Henry Lewes to her quiet death from kidney failure. As each of her major works are also investigated, Jenny Uglow attempts to explain why her characters were never able to escape the bounds of social expectation as readily as Eliot did herself.


8. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
With the posthumous publication of his long-suppressed novel Maurice in 1970, E. M. Forster came out as a homosexual— though that revelation made barely a ripple in his literary reputation. As Wendy Moffat persuasively argues in A Great Unrecorded History, Forster’s homosexuality was the central fact of his life. Between Wilde’s imprisonment and the Stonewall riots, Forster led a long, strange, and imaginative life as a gay man. He preserved a vast archive of his private life—a history of gay experience he believed would find its audience in a happier time.  A Great Unrecorded History is a biography of the heart. Moffat’s decade of detective work—including first-time interviews with Forster’s friends—has resulted in the first book to integrate Forster’s public and private lives. Seeing his life through the lens of his sexuality offers us a radically new view—revealing his astuteness as a social critic, his political bravery, and his prophetic vision of gay intimacy. A Great Unrecorded History invites us to see Forster— and modern gay history—from a completely new angle.


Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, will you be adding to your to-read list?

Purchase from The Book Depository


Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (18th June 2014)

The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition by Robert Graves *****

‘The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition’

1. I received this gorgeous and much sought-after book for Christmas, and could not wait to read it.  I have always adored Greek mythology – more so since I visited Olympia in Greece last year.
2. I really like the format which Graves has adopted.  Each myth has been given its own heading, and Graves in turn writes the story using as many different sources as he could find, and comments upon such details as the history and social conditions of each item of interest.
3. Graves’ prose style is so smooth, and so well thought out.

Purchase from The Book Depository
Katherine Mansfield: A Darker View by Jeffrey Meyers ****
1. My boyfriend knows how much I adore Katherine Mansfield, and bought me this biography as an anniversary present.  I adore Mansfield criticism, and this is amongst the best I have come across thus far.  The introduction, however, does not seem to paint Meyers in the best light – he seems dismissive and quite offensive at times.
2. Throughout, Meyers has used his sources well, deciding both to back things up and discount others by use of his evidence.  He has spoken to a wealth of first-hand sources too, which makes all the difference.
3. Meyers does not paint the most flattering portrait of Katherine, but perhaps that is what a biographer should do – setting out what he believes are the facts for his readers, whether acting in the favour of his subjects or not.  It is sure to provide Mansfield fans with much to consider, and a lot to learn.

Purchase from The Book Depository


‘Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl’

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock ****
1. The cover design of the lovely paperback (pictured) is stunning, and the utmost consideration has been made about its layout.
2. From the first, Sturrock’s account is marvellously written.  I love the way in which he weaves in different anecdotes from Dahl’s life.  Calling it ‘human’ may sound odd, but it is profoundly so; I have rarely read a biography which does not occasionally become bogged down in details, but Storyteller remains fresh and coherent throughout.
3. Dahl was an incredibly complex man, and Sturrock both realises and understands this.  He has so much respect for Dahl, and is thus the perfect author for such a book.

Purchase from The Book Depository