Recently I have found myself thinking a lot about a former, very toxic relationship I was in. I have managed to deal with it in various ways from counselling and therapy sessions through to repressing memories through to building confidence in different ways over the years that have passed since, but sometimes it sort of jumps out at me, often when I least expect it and so am least equipped to face it.
I love children and occasionally I am called upon to babysit. Last night was such a night. We made popcorn, watched a film, played with the dog, and eventually it was bedtime. The girl was reading Matilda by Roald Dahl as a bedtime story so of course I took up the torch and continued from where her last reader had left off.
Now I haven’t read Matilda or watched it or anything in at least 15 years but probably more. The details were a bit hazy to say the least. All I remembered was a bullying headmistress and a boy being forced to eat cake and a very smart child called Matilda.
I started reading just as Matilda got to Miss Honey’s house and was amazed and horrified by its starkness. As I read on, Miss Honey began to unveil her story, an explanation for her circumstances. An explanation that raised her in Matilda’s eyes from a beloved teacher to a hero. And well it should. But I could barely read it.
Mrs Trunchball’s treatment of Miss Honey read as a case file for domestic abuse, an all too familiar one. She had broken Miss Honey’s confidence so she could not stand up to her, and had very nearly broken her spirit, she had isolated her, controlled her, physically abused her, withheld funds without which it was (all but) impossible to break away, bullied her, threatened her, forced her to do things she was not happy about and more or less relegated her to slavery, and justified all of her actions in ways that held some (truly perverse) logic, all the while maintaining a respectable face in public, reserving her brutality and malice for when she was alone with Miss Honey.
As I read it I could feel tears threatening. I kept losing the flow while reading, choking on words, but the child I was looking after was sharp, and I had to persevere; I couldn’t break down or stop and face her asking why.
She was pretty quick to guess that it was Mrs Trunchball who was the abuser, just a page or two into Miss Honey’s story. I was impressed. She also seemed to grasp some of the gravity of the situation Miss Honey was in, but not the full extent of its horror (how could she, at a mere 8 years old, if she hadn’t experienced it first hand and it goes without saying that I am profoundly grateful she had not).
Dahl definitely dealt with some less than savoury subjects in his stories but I don’t think I realised quite how brutally clear he was on them until last night. As a child I expect much of the story’s severity went straight over my head. The language was simple enough to understand but the experience a wholly different matter. You could perhaps recognise it as something abstractly bad, something that seemed like it could be real, but distant.
While in some ways it is admirable that Dahl tried to portray such a real and unsavoury aspect of life in a way that was accessible if not fully resonating with its child audience, but I think he did one great disservice. In Miss Honey’s story it is suggested that Mrs Trunchball was a respected member of the community, and yet throughout the book we see her more monstrous side (leading the little girl I was babysitting to guess so quickly the identity of the abuser). The school may be somewhere behind closed doors where she can exert tyranny but the fact we see it all before we learn about Miss Honey makes it more plausible. She’s already a villain in the readers’ eyes.
What would have been far more compelling would be something much more like Prince Hans in Frozen, outwardly the epitome of charm, responsible, loving, light-hearted, trustworthy, who only at the very last minute is revealed in his true nature. I’m not saying he was abusive, just megalomaniacal with no moral compass and a pretty face. But what I am saying is that to be more representative, the abuser might have been the last person you would expect, someone you hadn’t already been conditioned to hate.
Someone with confidence, charm, and outwardly a perfect person with many friends, living an apparently perfect life. The man your mother would want you to bring home.