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 and 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.