Finding inspiration in the archive

Posted by
Rachel White, The Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
10:50am, 27th April
Categories
Danny, Museum
Roald Dahl's school photo 1926. Image: RDNL

One of the most exciting parts about working with the archive is finding links between Roald Dahl’s life and the stories that he wrote.

Here at the Museum, our recent archive display in Boy Gallery showed a few of Roald Dahl’s childhood interests which highlight some of these connections.

Danny, the Champion of the World is best known as the story of a boy and his amazing, sparky father, who lived together in an old gipsy caravan by a filling station. It’s easy to see elements of Roald Dahl’s own adult life in the story, from the woods and fields which are reminiscent of the countryside around Great Missenden, where he lived, to the gipsy caravan which he bought for his own children to play in.

However, there are other links, which will have been spotted by readers of Boy: Tales of Childhood.

In the scenes set in Danny’s school, the teachers are very similar to Roald Dahl’s own schoolmasters at St. Peter’s School in Weston-Super-Mare which he attended from the ages of 9 to 13. Currently on display at the Museum are Stripes – punishment forms handed out for poor work or bad behaviour – given out by Captain Lancaster, and also letters mentioning Mr Corrado and his dog Caesar.

(You can see a school age Roald Dahl in the photo above, he's in the front row, 4th from the right. We believe the teacher might be Mr Corrado.)

Although Captain Lancaster was renamed Captain Hardcastle in Boy, it’s easy to find similarities between Roald Dahl’s description of his real teacher, with his orange moustache and “savage face” and the character of Captain Lancaster with the “carrotty moustache” in Danny who certainly seems to be in the same mould: “he was a violent man, and we were all terrified of him”.

However, Roald Dahl clearly had fond memories of Mr Corrado, and his namesake in Danny is a friendly, decent teacher, secretly in love with Miss Birdseye. One final parallel between the real teacher and the character in Danny lies in one of Dahl’s letters home to his mother, in which we learn that the real Mr Corrado fell in love with the school Matron!

Boy has a connection with another of Roald Dahl’s books, The Witches, which again links back to his childhood. Reading through the rough drafts and deleted chapters, it is clear that Roald Dahl originally intended his tale about the boy who became a mouse and outwitted the monstrous witches to have intriguing elements of his own life inserted into it. The passages about the trip to the doctor and about his friend Little Ellis are first recorded here, and it’s fascinating to read these autobiographical sections alongside the folkloric stories of children being turned into porpoises. In the event, Roald Dahl’s editor felt that these stories from his childhood didn’t work within the rest of The Witches and persuaded Roald Dahl to write the memoir of his boyhood that became an enthralling account of his schooldays and holidays in Norway.

Another link to Roald Dahl’s schooldays can be found in the name of the sweetshop in The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me. The Grubber was the slang name for the school shop at Repton School, and we have a letter from Roald Dahl to his mother in which he describes both this shop and the man who ran it. This letter is also interesting as it gives us an insight into school life at the time: the boys were expected to buy and cook their own suppers, and The Grubber supplied food for this purpose – tins of beans, sardines and bread, and also other things such a sweets, tinned fruit and shoelaces. One last interesting fact is that the Repton School shop is still called The Grubber to this day!

There is another, little-known event that took place during Roald Dahl’s time at Repton, and this gives us a clue to the creation of two more unpleasant characters – the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the screenplay of which was co-written by Roald Dahl) and the rat catcher in Claud’s Dog, one of his adult short stories. This connection was recently discovered during part of a research enquiry, one of many queries about Roald Dahl and his work that we receive from researchers all over the world.

The enquiry in this case came from Adrian Schober, an Australian academic working on a paper about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the creation of the character of the Childcatcher. Although this character is one of the most well-known villains in children’s literature, there has always been some question as to who invented the character, as he does not feature in Ian Fleming’s original novel.

The earliest portrayals of the Childcatcher in the draft screenplays, held here at the Museum, describe a sinister figure in a black coat. This description is very similar to that of the Ratcatcher in Claud’s Dog, a menacing, evil man with a highly unpleasant method of pest control, and it’s easy to make a connection between the two characters, particularly since the children in the kingdom of Vulgaria in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are described as vermin.

But where did Roald Dahl’s inspiration for these two characters come from? By chance, while helping Adrian with his enquiry, we came across a discarded chapter from Boy: Tales of Childhood in which Roald Dahl recounted an episode that took place at Repton School. He describes the arrival of Mr Howard Baker, the school handyman who was also the rat catcher. This unpleasant man, described as "sly and obscene" by Roald Dahl, took delight in setting his dog on any rats he caught, for the entertainment of the schoolboys watching.

Roald Dahl was at pains to point out that he and his friends hated these occasions, but his description of Mr Howard Baker, and his connection with rats, is markedly similar to that of both the Ratcatcher in Claud's Dog and of the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Many of these literary links to his childhood were never directly confirmed by Roald Dahl himself, and we always have to remember that first and foremost, he was a master storyteller who would adapt events to suit his stories. However, reading the original material in the archive and discovering possible connections between his characters and plots, and the events of his own life is exciting, and adds an extra dimension of realism to the fantasy in his stories.

We would like to thank Adrian Schober for his assistance with this article.