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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Matilda's reading list

Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that, in reissuing books by the beloved-but-controversial children’s writer Roald Dahl, his publisher had . . . smoothed some rough edges. Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, had quietly altered language deemed out of step with contemporary sensibilities concerning such matters as disability, mental illness, body size, and gender.

Cue predictable outrage over censorship! woke police! cancel culture! Even Queen Camilla was said to be appalled! (And, late last week, cue publisher's retreat: Puffin announced that the original, unexpurgated books will be republished alongside the revised versions, as The Roald Dahl Classic Collection.)

I too think that expurgating the originals was a stupid decision. Children are perfectly capable of understanding that people in the past felt differently than we do, and that old books reflect those differences. Indeed, one of the reasons we bother reading old books is to consider alternative points of view, for better and for worse. Books aren’t viruses; you can be exposed without catching outmoded ideas. I’d prefer to let children read the unexpurgated versions -- the Roald Dahl Classic Collection, as we must now call them -- and then discuss anything problematic they find there.

But for now, let us ignore all that and turn to Puffin’s Jane Austen-related edits.

According to the Telegraph, Dahl’s 1988 book Matilda, about a precocious little girl who uses her telekinetic powers to vanquish her abusive headmistress, has been edited to emphasize different entries on the eponymous heroine’s ambitious reading list. In the original, Matilda “went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.” At another point, she imagines how much better off her horrible parents would be if they would only read “a little Dickens or Kipling.”

In the edited version, the Telegraph reports, Matilda “went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.” She imagines her parents’ improvement from reading “a little Dickens or Austen.”

The edits aren’t entirely without foundation in Dahl’s work--his list of Matilda’s reading matter includes Pride and Prejudice and The Grapes of Wrath--and the motivation behind the changes is easy to guess. Dahl’s original sentences mention only male authors, while these days Conrad and Kipling are often seen as racists with problematic views on imperialism and colonialism. (Reductionist, yes, but that’s the rap.)

And kids picking up Matilda in 2023 are probably more likely to have heard of Austen than of either Conrad or Kipling—although that was likely just as true in 1988: Dahl’s version of a precocious kid’s reading choices owes more to the habits of a 1920s childhood, like his own, than a 1980s one.

Of course, the new foregrounding of Austen begs a crucial question: Which Austen do Puffin’s sensitivity readers intend children to absorb? Is it the spiky, feminist, anti-slavery Austen of the left-wing imagination? Or the sedate, Christian, family-values Austen of the right-wing one? Is Puffin trying to persuade girls that life is better if you stay single, as Jane Austen did? Or that every girl must, like her heroines, find fulfillment in marrying a man?

Problematic any way you slice it! It’s a minefield! And they call Roald Dahl controversial!

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