Trundling its author downhill to the stars comes…
James and the Giant Peach
Fifty years ago
a giant peach crashed through the branches of its hitherto barren tree in what passed for the hillside garden-patch of the ugly sisters Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. With increasing momentum it trundled down the sloping demesne, crushing flat those two unpleasant chatelaines, and rolled onward to the sea. Within its hollowed-out stone there were carried down James Henry Trotter and a motley assemblage of comradely insects (and a spider), while Roald Dahl, the inventor of this soi disant ‘children’s story’, was carried up on the first stage of his ascent to the stratosphere.
At that time,
my now aged self was working for a bookseller who specialised in children’s books, but we neither stocked nor sold James and the Giant Peach. That was not because we feared the opprobrium which its author would encounter from sensitive lady critics (‘violent exaggeration of language… grotesque characterisation’ said one even of James) but because we had no knowledge of the book’s existence.
Not only us either,
but most of the British booktrade too. For the story was not published here but in New York as one of the always elegantly designed volumes from Messrs Alfred A Knopf, who had published a number of Dahl’s stories for adults. He had achieved a modest reputation for these – but more for his marriage to the movie actress Patricia Neal – but they were not widely known and nor was his wartime venture into children’s bookery with the Disney-commissioned The Gremlins of 1944.
As the years went by
there seems to have been no rush to get James into print in Britain, nor yet a successor volume from Knopf about a boy winning a chance to visit a chocolate factory. Eventually though, in 1967, that very circumspect publisher, Allen & Unwin, decided to cast a little bread upon the waters and issued the stories of James and of Charlie as a uniform pair, unjacketed and in boards so cheaply laminated that the surface was inclined to flake off to every librarian’s despair.
What then could be the reason
for the rejection of these stories by most of the publishers in London (a French edition of James appeared before any in Britain) and for what looks like an initially very slow ascent to world bestsellerdom? With James it was surely the book itself, whose classic status (if it has one) lies more in its unusual qualities as a ‘first book’ – precisely the exaggerations and grotesqueries that upset our critic – which can now be seen as harbingers of the whole Dahl oeuvre.
are most prominent in the book’s early chapters where Dahl’s pet device is immediately on view: a charming, unassertive child winning his way against egregiously repellent grown-ups. The venom, and the comical magic of the crocodiles’ tongues, which are to cause all the mayhem, are vintage Dahl before the grapes have ripened, but the crushing of the Aunts so early in the story removes a crucial narrative prop and the author must needs fall back on some cranked-up, reach-me-down invention to get him through the number of words needed for a full-length story. The repetitive rejoicing and squabbling among James’s travelling companions, the overlong encounter with the Cloud-Men and the hammy goings-on when the Peach arrives in New York show Dahl apprenticing himself to the Dahl Style. Redemption lies chiefly in his often accomplished handling of comic verse.
The history of the text
is not without interest though. As I’ve indicated, Knopf did Dahl proud in the book’s production – one of the handsomest books in his international output, with drawings in monochrome and colour whose delicacy makes a curious contrast to the rampageous events in the narrative. These were by that scrupulous artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert but they would have made too great a demand on the Allen & Unwin accounts for them to be adopted there and they were replaced by coarser and more dramatic designs by the book’s French illustrator, Michel Simeon. (Three of his drawings of the Cloud-Men at work do not lie far from the artisan Oompa-Loompas, but the Allen & Unwin Charlie, while shunning the excellent Joseph Shindelman who illustrated the American edition, turned to Faith Jaques for that book.)
Such events and such artists
are mostly forgotten history by now, but James had to pass through the always reliable hands of Emma Chichester Clark before eventually being assimilated into the canonic Dahl/Blake consortium (but even then in an unusual way – both he and Charlie arrive in a quarto format with the drawings ‘coloured by Vida Williams with the artist’s approval’). Knopf and Ms Burkert take some beating though.
Brian Alderson’s essay on the illustration of the works of Roald Dahl, ‘Roald Dahl and his Illustrator Quentin Blake’, written for an exhibition prepared for Seven Stories in 2007, received little circulation and can now be found on the BfK website (see Issue 188, May 2011).
The illustrations by Quentin Blake are taken from the Puffin 50th anniversary edition (978 0 14 132263 6, £5.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.