Jane (Austen) and the Giant Roald Dahl Controversy

What version do you prefer?

“She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.


“She went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.”

Personally, heresy though it may be to say on a JASNA blog, I prefer the rollicking “olden day sailing ships” reference of the first. Quote 1 is from the original version of Matilda by British author Roald Dahl (1916-1990), author Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Quote 2 is the rewritten version, part of an effort by publisher Puffin Books to render the books more palatable to modern day parents and children.

Some of the proposed edits seem pretty futile as well as strange. Does calling Augustus Gloop of Charlie “enormous” rather than “fat” really counteract the author’s message that Gloop deserves to be tortured by Willy Wonka because he loves to eat so much? In the case of excising Conrad and Kipling, the justification is that both authors defended racism and colonialism. The stiff reference to “nineteenth century estates” and Jane Austen is more cumbersome, plus, ahem, hasn’t there been a lot of discussion about the source of wealth of those lovely estates in recent scholarship? When did Hemingway become some kind of a free-loving hippy, for that matter?

The organization suggesting the many, many edits, it should be noted, is a consulting firm (“collective”) called Inclusive Minds, not a team of children’s literary scholars or librarians.

It should be noted that, during his own lifetime, Dahl made some changes to his texts to make the Oompah Loompas, well, less terribly racist than they were in the original. Other texts have undergoing small-to-substantial changes for similar reasons. The haunting title of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None was once Ten Unprintable Racial Epithets, based on a British nursery rhyme. Anecdotally, Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (which contains a horrific antisemitic caricature in one scene), while it retains its awful portrayal in the text, has that scene edited out in the audiobook version. And some changes are purely for marketability, like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK) versus Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (US). Apparently we Yanks don’t understand that philosophy stuff.

However, Dahl was angry that American publishers changed the British spelling of his works. “Do they Americanize the Christmas Carol, or Jane Austen?” And he also openly espoused antisemitic views throughout his own lifetime, so he was hardly a warm and cuddly guy. Creating a kind, gentle version of Dahl’s books seems strange, given the appeal of the works often lie in their cruelty and nastiness--death by peach–and the ways in which they challenge adult norms of how children should behave to both grownups and to one another.

Anyway, welcome to Dahl’s world, Jane Austen, in the new edition. For better or (in my view) worse.

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