As it is the 200th anniversary of his birth, I decided to revisit Dickens, and read, for the first time, Oliver Twist, which was originally published between 1837 and 1839 in serial fashion. The first instalments were so popular that stage versions appeared before the serialisation ended in 1839 and since then the novel has been transformed and performed so often it is reduced almost to one trifling line: ‘Please Sir, I want some more’.
Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy’s Progress is in some ways two books in one. The first part concerns itself with the tragic birth and early life of Oliver – surviving the baby farm and the workhouse, being apprenticed to a coffin maker and his escape to London and into the arms of Fagin’s gang. Dickens writes in an ironic manner in response to the Poor Laws, and is harsh against the powers that be and their treatment of the poor, with their systematic starvation and neglect of child foundlings, who weren’t even entitled to the word ‘orphan’, which was saved for children born with married parents. Dickens himself was actively involved with the Foundling Hospital, both financially and by using his writing as a means to arouse awareness of the issue of child welfare.
The second part of the novel concerns itself more with the intricacies of the Gang’s life as Oliver is pressed into their service – Fagin the pickpocket teacher, his students, the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates; the brutal violence of Bill Sikes, and the character of his prostitute girlfriend Nancy. The second half is like a window into Australia’s convict past, with Fagin’s gang representing our founding fathers.
Oliver’s first attempt at crime puts him in the hands of the beneficent Mr Brownlow, who nurses Oliver back to health. His second attempt, housebreaking, leads to Oliver being shot and his fortunes improving with the owners of the house, the Maylies, nurturing him back to his rightful place. But the Gang does not give up easily, as Oliver knows their secrets, and they persist in tracking him down.
‘In a little community like ours, my dear,’ said Fagin, who felt it necessary to qualify this position, ‘we have a general number one; that is, you can’t consider yourself as number one, without considering me too as the same, and all other young people … we are so mixed up together, and identified in our interests, that it must be so … You can’t take care of yourself, number one, without taking care of me, number one.’
After being forced to read David Copperfield as a student, I was reluctant to dip my toes in the ocean that is Dickens again – the characters can sometimes be drawn too broadly, the moralisation can be too sickly, the saccharine endings seen a mile away. However, though these criticisms can apply in Oliver Twist, they don’t affect the flavour of the novel, which had me hooked.
The world of the Gang is particularly intriguing. Fagin was based on Ikey Solomon, a Jewish convict Dickens was aware of, who was transported for his crimes to Tasmania in 1828. His subsequent escape and retrial is also reminiscent of that other great convict, Magwitch, from Great Expectations. There is a real question regarding Dickens’s anti-Semitism (and a curious factual story of how a Jewish woman who bought Dickens’s house implored him to remove a lot of the anti-Semitic references in his work – which he did), however, I found Fagin a richly drawn as well as duplicitous character. It is Fagin who provides Oliver with his first kindness, a meal of hot sausages sizzled in the pan, and a warm place to sleep. Fagin also pleads with Sikes to be ‘not-too-violent’ with Nancy, knowing that her betrayal must be paid for, but pleading for her life. Fagin, though a criminal, never pretends to be otherwise, and he is in some ways the first one who ‘mothers’ Oliver in the story, as he does with all the other young pickpockets under his care.
The relationship of Bill Sikes and Nancy is also intriguing. At no point does Dickens actually say Nancy is a prostitute, but it is implied by all the other characters in what they don’t say. Nancy is the moral heart of the novel in the Victorian sense, pleading for the greater good in saving Oliver, but like most of Dickens’s fallen women, her leading role in directing the narrative must end in her transgressions being paid for.
Bill’s and Nancy’s is a co-dependent and destructive relationship. Throughout the novel, all the characters cower before Bill, who is captured by Dickens with great clarity of observation, and Oliver, like the reader, cowers more than most. Sikes is violence personified and his speech bristles off the page. His murder of Nancy is restrained and devastating:
He struck a light, kindled a fire and thrust the club into it. There was hair upon the end, which blazed and shrank into a light cinder, and caught by the air, whirled up the chimney.
Sikes, on the run, even attempts to kill his faithful dog, as it shadows him too closely and identifies him to the police, but the dog, unlike Nancy, lives another day and helps bring accidental justice to Sikes.
There is the sense that, as Dickens wrote the book in instalments, he at times was not sure where he was going with the narrative, which gives the reading a wonderful runaway-train momentum. Each chapter has the suspense of a cliff-hanger, making the reading experience feel fresh and untainted by the numerous BBC adaptions. It is somehow like being in a time-travelling machine, reading the way contemporary readers did when the novel was first published, waiting for the next instalment of the first English novel with a child protagonist. Oliver Twist, though, was never a book for children, with its child abuse, infidelity, hangings, beatings, verbal attacks, deprivation and acts of extreme violence. Using a child as his protagonist, Dickens allows all these things to be seen through eyes that may have become jaded. My only small quibble was with the final exposition, although it does provide the tying up of loose threads and offers a cathartic ending.
Dickens was aged only 24 when the first instalment of Oliver Twist was published, yet the characters I mentioned above are so well-drawn and maturely observed that they have an eerie ability to come off the page with a life of their own. Please Mr Dickens, I want some more.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Vintage, 2007, PB, 496pp, 12.95
Sandra Leigh Price is a Sydney writer of mostly fiction. Her screenplay Dear Dove Divine has been optioned in the UK and a chapter from her novel A Tabernacle for the Birds was published in Wet Ink magazine.
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