Hat tip to Dr Olivia Murphy for casually informing me that “Roald Dahl almost lost his nose twice”, and prompting the following investigation.
Dahl was of course the writer of some of the most ’embodied’ characters in literature, and produced this classic rumination on facial difference from The Twits: “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
Dahl’s nose was severely injured in a car crash when he was a child (recorded in Boy: Tales of Childhood ), and a plane crash in WWII. The latter was recorded in Flying Solo (1986), but he also described it in short stories ‘A piece of cake’ (1942), and ‘Shot Down Over Libya’ (which he later said was the magazine editor’s title) in The Saturday Evening Post (1942). A more creative reworking was ‘Beware of the Dog’ (1944), although in that version the facial injuries have been omitted (not the temporary blindness).
On first dig, I haven’t found any reports that Dahl carried any significant scarring, or any accounts that he felt himself to have an ongoing visible facial difference (suggestions welcome!). But on reading his accounts of the accidents and the responses of onlookers and medical responders, there is a definite awareness of, and concern with preventing long-term visible effects. We must bear in mind, of course, that Dahl was known for polishing his accounts for effect — David Sturrock highlights, for example, the ways in which Dahl twigged the story of the plane crash in later retellings to absolve himself from any possible blame for the crash, and remove a pilot in a second plane (Douglas McDonald, who appears in ‘Shot Down’ as Shorty) from the story (pp. 130–2). But for the time being, let’s look at how he represented the incidents.
The first accident occurred during the family’s very first drive in their very first motor car. In the front was a driving sister (21), a half-brother (18), and another sister (12), and in the back Dahl’s mother (40), himself (9), and two sisters (5 and 8) (Boy, p. 101). When they crashed head-first into a hedge, they were all thrown from the vehicle. Roald had the misfortune to fly through the special backseat windscreen: “My nose had been cut almost clean off my face as I went through the rear windscreen and now it was hanging on only by a single small thread of skin. My mother disintangled herself from the scrimmage and grabbed a handkerchief from her purse. She clapped the dangling nose back into place fast and held it there” (Boy, 103). When they reach Dr Dunbar in Cardiff, the doctor asserts that Dahl “can’t go round without a nose for the rest of his life!” to which Mrs Dahl responds blithely, “It looks as though he may have to” (p. 105). Dr Dunbar then sews the piece of nose back into place. When Roald wakes up and is told his nose has been sewed back on, he asks “Will it stay on?” (107), and his mother tells him that the doctor thinks so.
The next injury occurs when Dahl is a pilot in World War Two and is compelled to do a forced landing in the desert (see Sturrock for the fullest reconstruction of the event). Dahl was badly injured, and vividly recounted having to crawl out and away from the burning plane while bullets were set off by the fire and shot at him.
In ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, he describes assessing his injuries before the pilot of a second plane arrived to help: “My face hurt most. I slowly put a hand up to feel it. It was very sticky. My nose didn’t seem to be there. I tried to feel my teeth to see if they were still there, but it seemed as though one or two were missing.”
Shorty (McDonald) then arrives:
“I said, “Shorty, where’s my blasted nose?” and he said, “What d’you mean, where’s your blasted nose?”
“It’s not here,” I said.
I heard him striking a match in the dark, and then he said, “Where’s your blasted nose? What a mess! Does it hurt?”
“Don’t be a damn fool. Of course it hurts.”
And then it started to get cold. It always gets cold at night in the desert, and Shorty lay down close alongside, so that we could both keep a little warmer. Every now and then he would say, “You’ll look funny without a nose. I’ve never seen a man without a nose before. They’ll laugh like hell.” (‘Shot Down’, p. 38)
In Flying Solo, Dahl went into more detail about his subsequent treatment at the Anglo Swiss hospital in Alexandria. He describes being treated by a doctor who was “a famous Harley Street plastic surgeon before the war” (p. 106) (an initial search hasn’t enlightened me on his identity, so further digging ahead!). Dahl’s nurse jokingly reassures him that he’s lucky to be getting such a top surgeon for nothing: “’You’ll be all right with him,’ she had said. ‘He’s a wonderful worker. And it’s all free. A job like you’re having would be costing you five hundred guineas in civvy street.’” (p. 106).
The doctor’s discussion privileges aesthetics. After telling Dahl that “‘We can’t have you going about like that for the rest of your life, can we?’” (p. 109), the doctor offers a celebrity nose model:
“‘I am going to give you a lovely new nose,’ he had said, patting me on the shoulder. ‘You want to have something nice to look at when you open your eyes again, don’t you. Did you ever see Rudolph Valentino in the cinema?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘I shall model your nose on his,’ the surgeon said. ‘What do you think of Rudolph Valentino, Sister?’
‘He’s smashing,’ the Sister said.” (p. 110)
Celebrity models for cosmetic surgeries won’t surprise anyone now!
At least in Dahl’s lighthearted recounting of the discussion, the doctor brings aesthetic concerns to the fore. His handling, and the nurse’s joke about the cost of the operation on “civvy street”, provide a smart reminder of the ever-shifting lines between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘reconstructive’ surgeries, which continue to meet with very different social attitudes and funding structures — including insurance coverage — but involve many of the same techniques and practitioners. In retelling the story, Dahl may also have focused on aesthetic concerns as the “lighter” side of the story, rather than the medical trauma, inadvertently downplaying the issue of facial difference within the stories.
Naturally I must leave you with comparative profile shots to see whether the surgeon made good on his promise:
Roald Dahl, Going Solo 1986 (London: Puffin, 2001).
Roald Dahl, Boy: Tales of Childhood 1984 (London: Puffin, 2001).
Roald Dahl, ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, The Saturday Evening Post (1 August 1942), pp. 29, 38.
David Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (London: Harper Press, 2010).