Roald Dahl Museum Archivist, Rachel White, takes a look at one of the biggest influences on Roald Dahl’s life, his mother, Sofie Magdalene Dahl.
Sofie appears to have been a woman of indomitable strength and intelligent humour. Here in the archive at the Museum in Great Missenden we can trace her role in bringing up her family largely single-handedly in Wales and England. She represents Roald Dahl’s Norwegian roots, a link that is brought out in his tale of fiendish wickedness and deep familial love – The Witches, but her influence can also be linked to Roald Dahl’s most English stories, rooted in the woods and fields around Great Missenden, where she brought her family to shelter from the London Blitz.
Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg was born in Norway in 1885 and married Harald Dahl in Oslo in 1911. She was his second wife and moved to live with him in Cardiff where he ran his shipping business. She also took on the care of his two children from his earlier marriage, Louis and Ellen and with Harald, had four more children: Astri, Alfhild, Roald and Else.
Sofie Magdalene Dahl, left c1911 and right 1936.
However, in 1920 the family was shattered, first by the death from appendicitis of seven-year-old Astri and then a few weeks later with the death of Harald from pneumonia. Roald Dahl later wrote that his father was so devastated by grief for his daughter that he stopped wanting to live.
Sofie Dahl was left with a young family to care for and pregnant with her youngest daughter Asta. While moving back to Norway and her own family must have been a tempting option for her, she decided to keep her family in Cardiff and following her husband’s wishes, ensure that their children had an English education.
Roald Dahl went to boarding school at the age of nine and one of the greatest treasures we have in the archive is the collection of over 900 letters that he sent home to his mother and sisters. Unknown to him, Sofie Dahl kept them all, and she continued to save his letters to her when he wrote to her as an adult from Newfoundland, Africa, Greece and America.
One of Roald Dahl's letters home, written in 1927.
These early letters provide a fascinating insight into Roald Dahl’s school life. By themselves they offer a wonderful piece of social history, telling us what it was like for a schoolboy living away from home in the 1920s and 1930s and providing clues about his interests and hobbies. However, because these are Roald Dahl’s letters, we can also get an early preview of Roald Dahl the writer. His letters are full of anecdotes describing his friends, teachers and events at school.
In one letter he relates with cheerful relish how he pulled out one of his own teeth (and in the next line asks for more sweets!). In other letters, he describes setting off fireworks with his friends for Bonfire Night and tells his mother of the talks given by visitors to the school. Already, it is possible to see how his eye for detail and humour would later be used to create his witty and disturbing short stories for adults and his fabulous and funny novels for children.
Sofie wanted her children to know their Norwegian heritage. She took her family back to Norway every summer for weeks of exploring the fjords by boat, fishing and sunbathing. The family would meet up with their Norwegian relatives and in Boy, Roald Dahl relates the fantastic feasts of Norwegian food, including freshly caught fish and home-made ice-cream.
All my summer holidays, from when I was four years old to when I was seventeen, were totally idyllic. This, I am certain, was because we always went to the same idyllic place and that place was Norway… We all spoke Norwegian and all our relations lived over there. So in a way, going to Norway every summer was like going home.
Boy, Roald Dahl
His mother also provided the inspiration for one of the strongest – and gentlest - characters in his stories: the Norwegian Grandmother in The Witches. The unnamed boy in the story relies on his grandmother to protect him from and teach him about the evil witches. Her love for her grandson and the Norwegian stories she tells was based on Roald Dahl’s perception of his own mother – a woman who was the centre of her family.
In Memories with Food at Gipsy House, later published as Roald Dahl’s Cookbook, Roald Dahl describes how he and his sisters always remained close to their mother because, ‘she was the matriarch, the mater familias, and her children radiated round her like the planets round a sun.’
This family intimacy was based on physical location as well as emotional closeness. On being forced to leave their home in Bexley, Kent, during the bombing raids of the Second World War, Sofie and her daughters simply piled their belongings into the back of their car and drove in search of a new home. They found this in Buckinghamshire and while they lived in several places around the Amersham and Great Missenden area over the years, the Dahl siblings and their mother always stayed near to each other.
This led to what was another major influence on Roald Dahl’s life and work. Through his mother’s choice of location and the family’s desire to live close to her, Roald Dahl ended up living in a space and environment was a great inspiration to him. His books Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny the Champion of the World and The BFG evoke this sense of place and Roald Dahl’s deep love for his local area. His mother lived near him for the rest of her life and was on hand to help Roald Dahl’s family through various severe family traumas, including the death of his daughter Olivia and his wife Pat’s stroke and subsequent recovery.
Sofie Dahl died in November 1967 aged 82. Through her, we can see another side to Roald Dahl, as a son who was intensely proud of his mother and his Norwegian background and who used the security and love of his childhood and family as a basis for creating his wonderful stories.
See some of Roald Dahl's letters home during our Letters to Mama archive tour on Sunday 6 March 2016.