As part of the Roald Dahl Museum’s 10th birthday celebrations, Collections Manager Rachel White picks her Top 10 archive treasures
Roald Dahl went to boarding school from the age of nine; first to St. Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare and later to Repton School in Derbyshire. Every week, he wrote to his mother and sisters (see image above) telling them what he was up to. Unknown to him, his mother kept most of these letters, as well as his school reports and postcards. They became the basis of Boy: Tales of Childhood and now provide fascinating insights into Roald Dahl’s life as a schoolboy growing up in the 1920s and 30s.
This unique book (see image above) is the record of Roald Dahl’s flying career in the RAF, from early training flights to his 1941 missions in Greece. His notes offer a tantalising glimpse into those few months that were to affect him profoundly for the rest of his life, both physically and in his writing career. Two particularly significant episodes are included in the Log Book. One was his crash in the desert in 1940 that left him with life-long injuries. The other records his part in the Battle of Athens in April 1941, when he and the 14 other pilots in his squadron fought more than 200 German planes over Athens harbour. He narrowly escaped with his life. Roald Dahl later wrote about these episodes in Going Solo and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.
Right from the start of his writing career, Roald Dahl kept notebooks in which he jotted down ideas for stories. He often went back to them, sometimes years later, ticking off the ideas he had used and writing the title of the finished story next to them. This means it’s possible to trace many of Roald Dahl’s best known stories – Matilda, The Twits, The BFG - from the original ideas in these notebooks.
James and the Giant Peach was Roald Dahl’s first children’s novel. The first draft manuscript starts with several pages of notes about different types of insects, including pond-skaters, woodlice and woolly aphids. This early version is much scarier than the published book; in this story, the mysterious old man who meets James early on is described as a witch who wants to chop James’ legs off in exchange for the magic green crystals!
In 1982, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake were discussing The BFG, and how the character of the giant should look. In early drafts, Roald Dahl had described the BFG as wearing big black boots and a leather apron. However, after seeing Quentin Blake’s preliminary drawings, Roald Dahl didn’t think this looked right. A few days later, Quentin received a bulky parcel in the post. It contained one of Roald Dahl’s own Norwegian sandals (see image above) and if you look closely at the pictures of the BFG, you’ll see that he’s wearing the same ones.
Roald Dahl was asked to write the screenplay for the 1968 film adaptation of his friend Ian Fleming’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The adaptation, directed by Ken Hughes, underwent several rewrites, however, arguably the biggest impact Roald Dahl had on the film was the introduction of one of the most feared villains in popular culture: the Childcatcher. The character was not in Ian Fleming’s original novel and seems to have been a relatively late addition to the screenplay. In this draft screenplay, the Childcatcher is introduced for the first time. He’s depicted by Roald Dahl as “a Sinister Man in an old black frock coat. He carries a large net," and treats the children as if they were rats!
Roald Dahl had always been fascinated by children with extraordinary talents, such as Mozart. While Matilda Wormwood had amazing powers, interestingly, early drafts show that he had intended her to be a bad child, playing horrible tricks on her kind and unsuspecting parents. This early draft has a surprising end, as after ultimately deciding to use her talents for good, Matilda dies after using her powers to save a bus full of children involved in an accident. But Roald Dahl wasn’t happy with this first draft. It wasn’t until he swapped the characteristics around, making Matilda a good character, giving her hateful parents and introducing Miss Trunchbull that the story began to take shape.
Listen to Roald Dahl talking about the first draft of Matilda here.
This is one of two small hardback sketchbooks that contain very early versions of the story of Mr Fox and his family. In fact, the earliest drafts had the simple title Mr Fox, and Roald Dahl intended them to be for very young children, with one or two lines of text per page and accompanying pictures. In planning the story, Roald Dahl drew his own pictures, showing the foxes digging their tunnel - not to the farmers’ chicken and goose coops as in the published book, but to the nearby town, where they emerge inside the local supermarket and go shopping with trollies! This version of the story was later changed when he introduced farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the second long book for children that Roald Dahl wrote. At its core is an idea which had been sitting in the back of his mind since he was a schoolboy. At Repton, he had been asked to test new chocolates and been fascinated to realise that there must be actual inventing rooms in the Cadbury’s factories. The first few pages of this draft give details of the inventiveness of Mr Wonka, describing all the amazing confections that he had created. Although this early version of the story is quite different from the published book – there are no Oompa-Loompas and Charlie is one of 10 children - it shows us the richness of Roald Dahl’s imagination.
This plain and rather battered plastic box had a very important role in Roald Dahl’s life - he used it to store his after-dinner chocolates. After every meal, the box would be circulated round the table for guests to take their pick. He deliberately filled it with the sort of everyday chocolates you’d find in a sweet shop: Mars Bars, Smarties and Yorkies. He was fascinated with the ‘Golden Age’ of chocolate invention in Britain. In one speech he told children not to “bother with the Kings and Queens of England," but to learn the history of chocolate and memorise the dates that various British chocolate bars were invented.
You can see a selection of Roald Dahl’s letters, ideas books, manuscripts and first drafts on display at the Roald Dahl Museum. You can also book one of the Museum's Discover Dahl’s Archives sessions to take a look behind the scenes.