Why the world needs more ‘girly swots’ like Matilda

Roald Dahl's 'extraordinary girl with a magical mind' was a rebel ahead of her time, and her spirit lives on in the women shaping the world today. 

Jessie Thompson
Matilda re-imagined as a world traveller for the 30th anniversary, by Quentin Blake
Matilda re-imagined as a world traveller for the 30th anniversary, by Quentin Blake

I used to think that If I could wave a magic wand, I’d use it to summon Roald Dahl and make him write a sequel to Matilda. The children’s author died in 1990, just two years after the novel was published, so we’ll never know what the future held for the little girl who used books to make a better life for herself.

But when you think about the world in 2019, it’s not difficult to imagine how she’d flourish. Matilda is the tale of a small girl whose survival method was to turn the space inside her head into a sanctuary from a family who didn’t understand her. It is a paean to the powers of imagination, and a celebration of the magic of girlhood. But above all, Matilda is about a girl who rebels.

'She pulled off the greatest power move in literary history'

History has never liked girls who rebel. They generally get forgotten or burned at the stake. (More metaphorically than literally these days. Small blessings.) Breaking the rules isn’t what girls are meant to do – we’re made of sugar, spice and all things nice. (An organic and very expensive recipe.) But thirty years on from Matilda, that’s changing. Whether they’re trying to tackle the climate crisis, expose abuse and inequality or just, like me, make a point of talking about periods loudly in the office (something I like to think Matilda would approve of), rebel girls are in the ascendancy. And Matilda Wormwood is the best kind of rebel girl: the kind who wins.

She was taught by her parents that ‘girls should be seen and not heard’. How did she respond? By teaching herself how to talk by the age of one and a half. It’s one of the greatest power moves in literary history. Those same parents, whose antics these days would cause the Mumsnet servers to crash, also thought evenings should be spent slack-jawed in front of the telly. (And they didn’t even have Netflix then.) Matilda’s comeback? To read the entirety of an undergraduate’s three-year reading list before she has even started school. 

Roald Dahl signs autographs for young fans at the Westbury Hotel in 1988
Roald Dahl signs autographs at the Westbury Hotel in 1988 (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images).

Dahl writes, ‘The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.’ Books have always been a weapon of choice for all kinds of resistance; they don’t just pass on ideas and make the world seem wider, they also teach empathy and compassion. When Matilda turns away from the telly and her family’s sniping in favour of Austen and Hemingway, she is also rejecting a world view framed by anger and bitterness. 

Being a girl may be brilliant – I can recommend it, I get to paint my nails different colours – but it’s also unique from being a boy in the sense the very noun is used as an insult. (Girly swot, anyone? Big girl’s blouse?) The villains in Matilda’s world are in no doubt that being a girl is the worst thing they can possibly imagine. ‘You choose books, I choose looks,’ Matilda’s mum tells Miss Honey, ironically precipitating the dilemma at the heart of Naomi Wolf’s seminal feminist book The Beauty Myth. Then there’s Miss Trunchball, who wears her internalised misogyny like it’s a roll-on deodorant. She hates girls so much she’s tried to erase her femininity as far as possible.  ‘Nasty dirty things, little girls are. Glad I never was one,’ she tells Miss Honey. But gaslighting herself about her own gender identity is small fry compared to the moment she uses her Olympic-throwing skills to wage a war on pigtails, sending a timid little girl called Amanda Thripp flying through the air for the unforgivable sin of wearing them to school. 

Matilda re-imagined as an astrophysicist for the 30th anniversary, by Quentin Blake
Matilda re-imagined as an astrophysicist for the 30th anniversary, by Quentin Blake

If a girl is dangerous and a rebel is even worse, a rebel girl with an imagination is a dynamite combination. All that power, mixed up with the knowledge stories can end in any number of ways? Suddenly you can write it yourself. Matilda understands implicitly that only she can change her own life. If you don’t, as in the case of her father and his crooked car business, the ending can creep on you. Suddenly you’re boarding a flight to Spain to escape the police.

From Malala Yousafzai to Greta Thunberg to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Matilda’s rebellious spirit burns bright in female heroes shaping the world today. Like her, they’re armed with curiosity, self-taught knowledge and the belief they can bend the universe to their will. We live in a time of lofty aims – save the planet and also democracy, while you’re at it – but also unprecedented cynicism. Matilda reminds us that you can be optimistic, even when it doesn’t seem like there’s much point. You can answer back even when everyone else seems much bigger than you. And you can imagine a different future if you don’t like the one in front of you.

Dahl created her at a time when female protagonists were hard to find in children’s books. But time and trends have had no bearing on how loved she is. Matilda has always been there: the first heroine to turn a library card into a superpower, the original girly swot.

Jessie Thompson is Digital Arts Editor of the Evening Standard.

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