“Don’t you ever stop reading?” complains Mr Wormwood to his daughter in Roald Dahl’s much-loved novel Matilda. Snatching the book from her hands—a novel by Steinbeck—he asks her: “What is this trash?” And in spite of her insistence on the work’s merits, it’s clear that he has already made up his mind: “Filth. […] If it’s by an American it’s certain to be filth. That’s all they write about.” The scene reaches a climax as an enraged Mr Wormwood rends the volume’s leaves from its spine: thus prejudice and philistinism conspire to cut Matilda’s long story short.
Dahl’s characters are invariably hyperbolic. Matilda’s negligent parents, James’ ill-proportioned aunts and The Twits all share a quality of fairy-tale villainy, where evil rears its head without subtlety and is painted in grotesque colours that evoke overheated childhood imagining. It is thus justly presumed that the critique forwarded by Dahl in Mr Wormwood’s personage—led to destroy a book out of ignorance—was, at the time of composition, wholly of the author’s invention. But even his instinct for the outlandish has proven to be no match for the excesses of the 2023 activist class. Mr Wormwood, whether he knew it or not, was but a fictive forbear of the modern publisher, who, armed only with Tipp-Ex and a perverse disregard of authorial authority, blots blithely at the literature sworn to his protection.
The facts of the case have by now been much discussed. It began with an investigation by The Telegraph, bringing to light hundreds of changes made in Puffin’s latest editions of Dahl’s novels. These omissions, reformulations, gender-neuterings and wholesale reversals of meaning constitute a great slew of edits, whose professed intention—per a brief introductory note—is to “ensure that [the novels] can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” To take one example: no longer is the larger-than-life Augustus Gloop “deaf to everything except the call of his enormous stomach”; rather, he is simply “ignoring everything”. No longer do the Oompa-Loompas versify his fate as a “pig” who will “gorge and guzzle, feed and feast”; he is merely characterised as ‘vile’—an adjective which appeals to sensitivity readers in its useful ambiguity that makes no reference to weight. Elsewhere, it is difficult even to identify the cause of offence: faces are no longer “white with horror” but rather “agog”; and “crazy with frustration” is now rendered as “wild with frustration”—apparently relegating ‘crazy’ to a mental health-related slur. Predictably, the scalpel taken to Dahl—wielded by a hand far less skilled than that of the author himself—has left the text in a sorry state of mutilation.
But this time, the woke brigade wasn’t going to get away with it. Galvanized by The Telegraph and perhaps spurred on by glazed memories of pram-borne pheasants, pigtail-flung pupils and giant peaches, the adults in the room got talking. Sir Salman Rushdie—the cancelled author par excellence, who at one time had an entire Middle Eastern state hankering for his hanging—condemned Puffin for “absurd censorship”. David Mitchell, the stalwart humourist of the Guardianista set, made the high-status, anti-capitalist argument for opposing the edits—which to his credit is not unconvincing. In what was presumably a desperate act of damage control, Puffin promised to publish the original texts alongside their updated cousins, an announcement largely drowned out by the thunder of Britons fulminating against the evils of the anti-Dahl axis in pubs across the country. This is no mere exaggeration: I had politically disengaged friends roused to anger over what was seen as an assault on their childhood culture. And outrage is a sentiment Dahl would have shared: he once warned that if his posthumous editors should change so much as a comma, he would—from the grave—“send along the ‘enormous crocodile’ to gobble them up.” It must be conceded that a crocodile of such proportions would make short work of a puffin.
But perhaps it’s case closed? Compromise achieved? The pre-operative texts are, after all, now bound for the printing press. Sadly, critics who close the book on this affair so readily fail to see its broader significance. Because it was not long ago that works of literature were treated with a kind of reverence, a protestant-adjacent radicalism that emphasised the inviolable text. The author was a kind of sacred idea, not wholly accessible to the reader, but nonetheless the spirit that gave unity to any written work; if possible, every pen mark or key-stroke was to be preserved in amber. As much became evident to me when studying Of Mice and Men early in secondary school, where liberal teachers, from a department more keyed into the social implications of their work than any other, suddenly had students read aloud the most offensive passages of that book. The offence was of course discussed, analysed and contextualised—but never omitted. It was part of the book, and that was that. Of course, there are differences between what is discussed in a classroom of twelve-year-olds, and what is given to the child at the age of eight for personal reading. But the point stands: better surely to let helicopter parents ban Dahl to protect their fledglings from the possibility of offence, than to rob the whole corpus of its authenticity. Once a precedent for edits is established, the books will, one imagines, enter a state of perpetual flux, until eventually—like a latter-day Ship of Theseus—there will be no signifier of the past society in them, no relic that might (Heaven forfend) summon up traumatic visions of the old ways.
Thus the tyranny of the now seems to exert an irresistible gravitational pull. Modern editors aim to unanchor texts from their historical moorage—crudely replacing, for example, a reference in the Witches to women working as secretaries with a new sentence about their employment as ‘top scientists. We are left with Frankenstein texts whose fabric remains inalterably baked into the culture of their time and place, adorned with the limbs and digits of a different era, as incongruous as those of a different species.
The sensitivity reader has fired a warning shot. So deludedly emboldened to so crudely desiccate the writings of an author so recently passed—they have placed their cards on the table. We can be certain that they will befoul all the more readily older texts whose values are even further from those of the current moral order. And it’s a process the authorities abet: just last month, in a Prevent research document, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis numbered among an illustrious company with the dubious honour of being listed as red flags for white supremacist terror. These trends seem likely to worsen as a younger generation—for whom the cardinal sin is prejudice—come to dominate publishing and government alike. To the book-lover there is only one course of action available: buy the books you love, and stow them away under your mattress. At least then the greatest risk of desecration comes from a disgruntled Mr Wormwood-character, whom you can fight off with your hands, and not a great faceless publisher of which you know nothing and in the face of which you are powerless.