The Matilda Prototype

I’ve recently been reading a lot of short stories by Edwardian master Saki (the pen name of HH Munro).  The stories are largely wonderful — a combination of funny and macabre that I haven’t seen since Roald Dahl.  Speaking of Dahl, he was a huge fan of Saki.  Here’s his blurb on the back of the Complete Works:

In all literature, he was the first to employ successfully a wildly outrageous premise in order to make a serious point. I love that. And today the best of his stories are still better than the best of just about every other writer around.” – Roald Dahl on Saki

Why is this interesting?  Well, I have recently been thinking about Betsy Bird’s SLJ poll of the top 100 children’s books — in her piece on Matilda, Betsy mentions a rumor that the character of Matilda was originally conceived to be “a nasty little girl, somewhat in the same vein of Belloc’s Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death.  Revision after revision turned her instead into the sweet little thing we all know and love today.”

This seems like a good comparison, but for the fact that Belloc’s Matilda is not terribly smart.1  So imagine my surprise and delight when a few weeks ago, while reading Saki’s short story “The Boar-Pig“, I encounter a shrewd little girl named Matilda Cuvering whose sole mission in life is to terrorize stupid adults.  In the story, Matilda humiliates and extorts a pair of social climbers trying to crash a garden party.  And she doesn’t limit her wrath to adults:

I was told to imitate Claude, that’s my young cousin, who never does anything wrong … It seems [My aunts] thought I ate too much raspberry trifle at lunch, and they said Claude never eats too much raspberry trifle. Well, Claude always goes to sleep for half an hour after lunch, because he’s told to, and I waited till he was asleep, and tied his hands and started forcible feeding with a whole bucketful of raspberry trifle … Lots of it went on to his sailor-suit and some of it on to the bed, but a good deal went down Claude’s throat, and they can’t say again that he has never been known to eat too much raspberry trifle.”

Of course, we’ll never know for certain whether Dahl had this character in mind when he created Matilda Wormwood, but I can’t help but wonder.2


  1. she’s basically a “Boy who Cried Wolf”
  2. For those interested, I also wrote about Matilda and helicopter parenting here.

5 Comments Leave a Comment

  • So interesting, I’ve never heard of this author before, I definitely want to read the short story, I like the excerpt you included :) Exciting to see you back again, hope the new baby is well!

  • Jess,
    It’s good to be back! I hadn’t heard of Saki either until my father mentioned him to me. But once he was on my radar, I started to see his name everywhere. If you click the link on “The Boar Pig” above, you can read the whole story online. It’s five minutes well spent!

  • Thanks! I’ll have to read that soon. Question, do you have any suggestions of really great children’s lit theory? I’m an undergrad and transferring to a new school in order to major in children’s literature (!) and I’m reading those three texts I mentioned back on twitter, but thought I would ask you if you had any suggestions that came to mind right away. Your blog is actually the blog that really made it clear that there was this whole world of academia in the field of children’s lit, so thanks :)

  • Children’s literature scholarship is more of my wife’s thing, so chances are anything I’ve read you already know. Two books that I enjoyed were FROM INSTRUCTION TO DELIGHT (ed. Demers and Moyles), which is an annotated anthology dealing with early children’s literature, and CHILDREN’S LITERATURE by Seth Lerer. From what I understand, Lerer is a medievalist who came to children’s literature later in his career — I think this background gives him an unusual voice in the community. Other than that, I just poke through Norton and Penguin Classics editions of books and read the essays and introductions. (Like I said, I’m a dilettante.) Another writer my wife likes is Perry Nodelman … not a week goes by when she doesn’t pester me to pick up WORDS ABOUT PICTURES. Hope that helps!

  • Thanks so much!! I think I have Lerer’s book but I haven’t read it yet, but glad to know it was good. I’ll have to look into From Instruction to Delight, sounds really good and yes Perry Nodelman I’ve heard his name a lot but I didn’t know he wrote that one, I’m really interested in illustration so I’ll have to look into that one too! Thanks again!

  • Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

    Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS