Matilda’s Turning Thirty

explores the continued relevance of Roald Dahl’s best loved character and why she’s a feminist icon

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original publication of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which first hit our book shops in 1988, Dahl’s renowned illustrator Quentin Blake was asked to imagine the child-genius as she might have become as an adult. He said: “It was not long ago that the publisher of Matilda pointed out to me that the book was published 30 years ago so that, if we thought of Matilda as a real person, she would also be 30 years older – and might I have any thoughts about what she would be doing now. Since as a small child Matilda was gifted in several different ways, that wasn’t very difficult. I imagined that for each version of our grown-up Matilda, one of her extraordinary talents and achievements had come to the fore and shown her a role in life.”

Blake imagined Matilda in many different roles including a world traveller, special effects artist and my personal favourite, the Chief Executive of the British Library. It’s fantastic for us to see Matilda at 30, taking on the role of astrophysicist, or poet laureate, especially as a woman. In children’s literature, the lack of female protagonists remains an issue, as children’s fiction continues to be dominated by male characters. They are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, constantly highlighting the casual sexism inherent in children’s literature.

Credit: Amazon

Therefore, Matilda is as relevant and inspirational today, if not more so, as a feminist icon for both children and adults. In 2018, women around the world still face many hurdles and obstacles: from employment opportunities and wages, access to education, sexual harassment and contraceptive rights, to name a few. Three decades since the original publication of Matilda, society is still implicitly teaching women that their voices aren’t important. Despite this, females are using their influence to raise their own opinions.

Young activists such as Emma Gonzalez and Malala Yousafzai are making sure their voices are listened to and fighting for what they believe in, Gonzalez as a campaigner against gun crime since surviving the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, and Yousafzai as the Pakistani activist whose campaign resulted in an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Young women are pushing the stereotypes and breaking the silence to achieve great things. The message that women and girls today must continue to take from Matilda is that despite being taught that little girls “should be seen and not heard”, she always found ways to assert her power, express her opinion and fight for what she believed in.

Portraying Matilda in multiple possible roles with no limits on the things she can achieve, Blake allows and encourages readers of all ages to imagine Matilda in an endless array of fields and professions, from a school teacher, or an engineer at NASA, to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. A public survey by the Roald Dahl Story Company asked readers what they thought Matilda would be doing as a grown-up in today’s society and 42% said “standing up to Donald Trump”. A statue has since been unveiled in the author’s former home in Buckinghamshire of a defiant and undeterred looking Matilda Wormwood, standing atop a pile of books with her hands on her hips, smiling in the face of the US president.

Bernie Hall, from The Roald Dahl Story Company, said “Matilda demonstrates that it’s possible for anyone, no matter how small and powerless they feel, to defeat the Trunchbulls in their own lives – a message that feels even more relevant today than it did 30 years ago.”

Surely Matilda today would be looking up to the likes of Emma Watson and her launch of the United Nation’s Women’s campaign HeForShe, which calls upon men to advocate for equality alongside women, as well as Michelle Obama and her Let Girls Learn initiative, helping to educate the 62 million girls around the world who aren’t in school. Mara Wilson, who played Matilda in the 1996 film, says her character has “been like a big sister: someone I have admired, someone I have aspired to be like […] On some level, she’s an archetype, beloved and widely appreciated. Matilda, I believe, displays what [Dahl] considered to be the best virtues: a love of learning and an innate sense of justice, courage, warmth, and a dry wit. She’s thoughtful and self-confident, but never obsessive or conceited. She is extraordinary, but never elitist. She’s perfect.”

Credit: ‘MovieClips’ Youtube

Dahl gave us arguably the most inspiring children’s book; teaching children so many things, encouraging children to believe in their own abilities, to challenge things they see as wrong, and that authority figures aren’t always right. Wilson makes the most important point, too, in telling us, “Matilda’s story is allegorical. Reading and education do give you powers, just not necessarily telepathic ones.” However, there have been some alternative reactions to the imagining of an adult Matilda. Author Cressida Cowell’s Guardian Online article ‘Matilda, stay young: why seeing Roald Dahl’s hero at 30 is bittersweet’ offers a reaction to the unnerving and perhaps unrealistic efforts of an adult Matilda: “Looking at those Matilda covers makes us question how far we have come as a society in 30 years. That’s where the bittersweet part comes in. Not far enough.” Cowell argues that while it is great to see Matilda grown up and explore all the things she could achieve, the real world has not quite progressed as much as we may have hoped. “I assumed that the future we were travelling towards would be very different from the present.”

It is understandable to see what Cowell is stressing, that what we may have hoped for the future still seems so unreachable, however it is still so important to praise the things that have been achieved. We must take pride and comfort in the things we have reached and keep striving for those we have not. In addition, we know that Matilda is no Peter Pan and is destined to grow up, but what we have to remember is that fictional characters are just that – fictional. She is ingenious, from a fictional world, with telekinetic powers,  which is something we must recognise when looking at these illustrations. Although Blake has envisioned various different roles Matilda may grow up to take on – presenting her growth in adulthood – these are simply hypothetical and fictional. She will continually and predominantly be presented and remembered as a child.

Since the great success of both the novel and the film, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced their plan to do a musical adaptation in 2009, written by playwright Dennis Kelly and with music by comedian Tim Minchin. In such a short time the musical was received just as positively, with staggering success. Running since 2010 there have been more than 5 500 performances, seen by over seven million people worldwide. After transferring to the West End and Broadway, the RSC’s tour of Matilda the Musical has won 85 international awards, including 16 for Best Musical.

Clearly, the story of Matilda continues to resonate with many audiences, as many people want to rework it using different mediums, proving that it is still relevant. Presenting the story of Matilda in so many different formats makes the morals and messages even more accessible for both children and adults, in ways that offer different interpretations of the story.

Matilda at 30 reconnects adults to the story and character, reminding us how important a girl she is and of her continued relevance. Seeing Matilda at 30 is utterly inspirational for all – for children, adults, and the ever so slightly lost student like myself -presenting the variety of different routes one child (albeit an ingenious one) can take.