Excellent piece by Lucy Mangan in yesterday’s Guardian Review
What we think of as the "real" Dahl is there, moving underneath the story like a shark but only occasionally breaking the surface to show his grinning teeth (one mother objects to her child being made into fudge on the grounds that "we’ve spent far too much on his education already"). But it is only after a letter from his former agent and confidante Sheila St Lawrence that you can see him start to really trust his instincts. Although she says now that "he was going to get there anyway … If someone else hadn’t alerted him, I’m quite sure he would have alerted himself", she made a variety of specific suggestions – including making the uniformed assistants "something more surprising than they are" – but also encouraged him more generally to let rip. "I’d like to see more humour, more light, Dahlesque touches throughout," ends the letter. "I hope some of my remarks will produce counter remarks in you that will stir you to flights of fancy to make the book take off and really fly, as it undoubtedly will."
And it did. It was published in the US in 1964 and sold 10,000 copies in the first week (and was acclaimed as "fertile in invention, rich in humour, acutely observant … he lets his imagination rip in fairyland" in the New York Times), and has been pretty much flying off the shelves ever since.