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.
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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle