Pros: A hard-warming tale with excellent characterisation and humour
There are some children's novels which are destined to become classics - set to take their place on the bookshelf of supremacy alongside the likes of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden and Black Beauty - and Matilda, by the esteemed author Roald Dahl, is just such a novel.
I remember reading Matilda over and over again as a child and have recently revisited the novel as an adult to read it to my own young daughter.
The book is essentially a heart-warming tale of good triumphing over evil as Matilda, the child-prodigy who is shunned by her dim-witted parents due to her inability to fit in, brings down the mighty tyrant that is Miss Trunchbull and skips away into the sunset with the timid yet delightful Miss Honey.
It is Matilda's supreme intelligence which catches the attention of first the local librarian Mrs Phelps and later Jenny Honey and sets her apart from the rest of her classmates. She is able to read by the age of three and by five-years-old has a reading list any university English student would be proud of but is her magical powers which prove to be her finest weapon and 'finally floor' the Trunchball.
The character of Matilda really captured my imagination as a young girl. I too was a bookworm and I really associated with her passion for reading and would let my imagination wander, thinking what if my similarities with Matilda could stretch even further - what if I too could move things with my eyes. I think I even sat at the dinner table and had a go at moving a glass - no luck unfortunately.
I was similarly entranced by the horridness of the character of Miss Trunchbull. She is truly scary for any young child and the headmistress you would be terrified to encounter at your school.
As an adult I am still entranced by the book but for different reasons. I am quite taken aback at the brutaility of Miss Trunchball's punishments. It is shocking to find the like of a chokey or the hurling of a girl by her pigtails in a children's book. Roald Dahl is never afraid to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in children's literature.
The other aspect which makes this book adult friendly is the humour. It is as though Dahl is winking at the adult reader from out of the page going, this one's for you. Particularly humourous are the character descriptions while the scene in which the teachers run in to find Miss Trunchball on the ground and ask who finally floored her is hilarious, as is the scene when the Wormwoods flee to Spain, which would be worthy of any prime time sitcom on television.
But what will ensure Matilda lasts and last is the fact there is far more to this sweet little tale than meets the eye of a young reader. On re-reading Matilda I realised Roald Dahl was frantically beavering away under the surface, filling the lines between the text with a social commentary and a satirical humour which has more than a sniff of Dickens about it.
What we essentially have here is a satire of the ill-educated and superficial through the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Wormwood. Mr Wormwood is a dodgy second-hand car salesman working outside the law, who brings about his own un-doing, while Mrs Wormwood is so consumed with her questionable looks that she is shocked that any woman would wish to attract a man by any other means than her external appearance.
Mrs Trunchball is the classic villain whose tyrany is painted brilliantly through the use of humour, a technique used by the great Dickens himself. An ex-olympic hammer thrower she punishes her pupils by throwing them over the hedge and locking them up in the chokey - substitutes arguably for the cane and the slipper.
Matilda is alienated by her cleverness and struggles to find her way in society. Her intelliegence is so overwhelming for her it is literally spilling out of her eyes and it is only when she finds true acceptance and love from Miss Honey that this metaphysical ability ceases and she finds peace.
Dahl dabbles in the supernatural in bringing about the come-uppance of Miss Trunchball. She is finally flawed by what is painted out to be the voice of Miss Honey's father Magnus speaking from the world of the dead. Victorians were facinated by the spirits of the dead and were driven by their superstitions and so the Dickensian villain Miss Trunchball is brought-down by the echoes of the period she very much represents.
While Mr and Mrs Wormwood's abandonment of Matilda at the end of the story as they flee to Spain is perhaps the greatest social comment of all from Dahl. We all cheer as Matilda escapes her unloving mother and father and goes to live with the wonderful Miss Honey but here we have the breakdown of the family unit and the abandonment of a young child so thoughtlessly.
Matilda is a wonderful tale and it will last and last because unlike Mrs Wormwood's platinum blonde locks it is anything but superficial.