What can we learn from Roald Dahl's The Witches?

Thirty years on from the publication of Roald Dahl's <em>The Witches</em>, Jemma Crew looks back to her childhood reading and recalls how the author reimagined the reality of adulthood for a whole generation of children.

 

Who didn’t, upon reading The Witches, momentarily fix the nearest adult female with a beady eye, making a mental note to check for cavernous nostrils and blue spittle? Such was Roald Dahl’s ability to tap into the imagination of young people. But it is precisely because of his vivid and unforgettable depictions of women/witches in the book that it has been deemed misogynistic and sexist, causing it to be placed at number 22 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books.

Despite this, Dahl was voted teachers’ favourite author in 2012, even as a recent Renaissance Learning survey suggested that Dahl is falling in popularity with children. That Dahl exists as both nation’s darling and the author of works deemed politically incorrect, macabre and sexist is testament to the way his stories have split opinion. Such conflicting views of the childhood author suggest a depth that prior responses to The Witches have overlooked. While children might be passing him over for Twilight, The Witches might just make Dahl the unlikely source of inspiration for feminists today.

What Dahl did best was to show up, ridicule, and then bring crashing down the rules that adults live by through a drastic re-imagining of reality. In this particular re-imagining witches masquerade as women in an attempt to rid the world of children. Hints of Rose West abound in these motherly killers, provoking horror and fascination in equal measure. Dahl’s message is not that all women are disturbed and inherently untrustworthy, but that "some people can appear other than they are". It is a message that he has used stereotypes, humour and hyperbole to convey, a message that demands a second glance at things that seem self-evident.

Such a closer look is forced upon Dahl’s young, nameless narrator when he accidentally becomes trapped in a room of around 200 witches. The boy does nothing to disguise his horror:

I simply cannot tell you how awful they were, and somehow the whole sight was made more grotesque because underneath those frightful scabby bald heads, the bodies were dressed in fashionable and rather pretty clothes. It was monstrous. It was unnatural.

As a hyperbolic example of the way history has feared women, this description hits the nail on the hairless head. The most dangerous part of these witches is their powers of deception. They are feared because they are more than they seem to be. These witches are women who have successfully hoodwinked the world in order to further their murderous agendas. The contrast between their clothed bodies and exposed heads only heightens the grotesque effect.  What’s monstrous and unnatural for the child is not merely the witches’ scalps but the colossal gap between appearance and reality. This is what troubles the child, whose shock is that things are not how they seem.

But the queen of false appearances is the Grand High Witch, whose pretty face is revealed to be a mask, hiding a "fearsome and ghastly sight":

There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.

This is a face of death, but what exactly has been destroyed? For women today, it is the possibility of existing outside of the expectations placed on how we present our bodies - without judgement or shame. Most shocking of all is the emptiness behind the mask – the nothing that we are led to believe we will amount to without the acceptable degree of beautifying camouflage. We are as pruned, plucked and perfect as Dahl’s witches, but underneath our plastic smiles we too have sores that will not heal. Scared to appear without our masks, we are taught that the world’s reaction will be one of abject horror. Women will see in us what they desperately try to conceal; men will be repulsed by what we are told we should protect them from. 

The transformative power assigned to women has historically been understood as evil and deceptive, yet this is precisely what is being demanded of women the world over under the name of beauty. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Of course, a kind of double-edged irony emerges in the gap between illusion and reality, in the way that expectations levelled toward women’s bodies undermine the female body in its unaltered, unimproved state.

Defenders of the beauty industry say choosing to wear makeup is a feminist decision. It makes me feel better about myself, they say. I wear it for me. But nobody questions why it is that many women feel  inadequate, cosmetically or otherwise, in the first place. Or why self-worth in these cases is always linked with aesthetic improvement.  What’s the big deal, we are asked, in women choosing to remove their pubic hair? The practice has become so widespread that the non-waxed vagina is beginning to emerge as a fetish. Botox? It’s cosmetic self-empowerment: try it, you’ll feel great - especially if the new motion-emotion hype is to be believed.  

But makeup and the like is becoming less a tool of self-expression, and more a mask under which we disguise a face that we feel uncomfortable presenting.  Each day we stringently guard the worst kept secret of society: the materiality of female flesh. Vilified as castrators, we now castrate ourselves by rejecting our material selves and – most insidiously – claim our choices are feminist. Having internalised countless patriarchal obligations, women quietly continue the sexist’s dirty work from within, and all the while voices misguidedly assert that equality has been reached and feminism has no use as a political movement.

Why should we be concerned about this? Because as Andrea Dworkin has argued, a woman’s beauty practices "define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom". The witches are permitted to remove their disguises only when they are hidden from the outside world by chained and bolted doors. Their freedom is curtailed by the imperative to cover up their deformities. While we may not be deformed in the sense of having feet without toes and fingers with claws, derivations from the common beauty standard elicit similar responses of disgust and a compelling need to conceal these flaws from external view.  

30 years on, who are the witches? We might not be on a mission to turn all of England’s children into mice, but the way we habitually exercise power over our bodies is certainly destructive. We are now more than ever Greer’s eunuchs - like the hairless, toeless witches, there is some crucial part of us that we continue to cut off and disown. But unlike Dahl’s creations, we aren’t motivated to modify our looks to achieve some devastating aim. There’s something more sinister in our debilitating lack of agency coupled with an external pressure to conform. We might want to learn from the narrator’s Grandmamma, whose unfeminine aspects – her thumb-less hand and penchant for cigars – make her refreshingly real.  

The Witches was written for an intermediate audience, readers poised before the brink of adulthood and self-realisation. Many women currently occupy a similar stage in our development: we freeze our bodies into ageless unreal images of desirability and in doing so lock ourselves out of growth. We aspire towards eternal girlhood – hairless, odourless, increasingly thankless - yet our bodies betray us.   Maturation takes a woman beyond her best. Development is stalled in order that we continue to appeal. 

While feminist critics have not responded well to The Witches,nbsp;the story rebels against these aesthetic rules imposed on women. As adults, complicit in our literal self-effacement, we could do well to read this book and be reminded that the way we present ourselves is anything but revealing.   

A detail from Quentin Blake's cover illustration for The Witches.
HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad