How Dahl's Matilda nearly died

For years the yellowing papers and notebooks lay untouched in the garden shed where Roald Dahl dreamt up his children’s stories.

But now, for the first time, Dahl’s drafts, jottings and letters are being sorted and catalogued, giving fascinating glimpses of the genesis of some of his most popular characters and a fresh insight into the author’s mind.

Among the details that might take Dahl aficionados aback is the revelation that the author first imagined the hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a black boy and the piece of fruit in James and the Giant Peach as a huge cherry.

It has also emerged that Matilda died at the end of an early version of her story rather than living happily ever after, while only at a late stage was the child in The BFG named after Dahl’s daughter, Sophie.

After Dahl died in 1990 his family and friends were reluctant to set foot in the hut at the bottom of the garden, which had been his private den.

But the family has decided that the archive ought to be a centrepiece of a centre that is due to be opened next year in Great Missenden, south of London, where Dahl lived. The centre will tell Dahl’s life story and include classrooms, reading rooms and interactive displays designed to encourage children and adults to read and write.

The documents, full of spelling mistakes, crossings out and Dahl’s scrawly handwriting, have been moved from the shed into the writer’s old snooker room where they are being read and preserved for posterity.

There have been many surprises, not least the early drafts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In one the story had the politically incorrect title, given the hero’s colour, of Charlie’s Chocolate Boy.

During the tour of Willy Wonka’s factory, he becomes covered in chocolate.
Charlie is taken to Wonka’s house where he witnesses a burglary and is rewarded with a gift of a sweet shop.

By the third version the story was closer to the published version in which all the children except Charlie, by now a white boy, meet sticky ends.

Sophie Dahl was surprised when it was discovered that in an early draft of The BFG, the child who befriends the big friendly giant was a boy called Jodie, rather than a girl named Sophie. —

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