Are You My Mother?

Jacqueline Rose writes:

Matilda the Musical, adapted from Roald Dahl, opens with what might be described as the paradox of maternal recognition. A troupe of hideously grimacing children sing ‘My Mummy says I’m a miracle’ in such a way as to suggest that they are monsters while Matilda, who really is miraculous in that she has magic powers, fails to be recognised by her parents. Her mother, unaware that she was pregnant until very near the point of delivery, neither wanted a baby nor knew what to do with one; her father was expecting a boy (he persists in calling Matilda ‘boy’ till almost the end of the play). They both hate their daughter for her gifts, and have nothing but contempt for the love of reading into which she pours her unhappiness and through which she escapes it. Matilda is special, we are repeatedly told. She needs to be seen. She is eventually adopted by a schoolteacher, Jenny Honey, an orphan whose mother died in childbirth (in the book, when she was two), who recognises her unique qualities. The implication is that Jenny can save Matilda because she herself was denied, and therefore knows, what Matilda is looking for. Failed mothers are everywhere – overinvested, neglectful, dead. Just how high the stakes are can be gauged by the immense difficulty Dahl had in completing his story. In the first version, Matilda herself didn’t survive.

(LRB 19 June 2014)

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