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“Please, sir, I want some more.”

It was one of the classic lines isn’t it?

I’ve been doing some reading on Newgate Gaol of late which is why, when I decided to celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I chose Oliver Twist, for it is typically classified as a ‘Newgate Novel’.  This seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer because there is precious little of the novel set inside Newgate.  (As an aside, the nefarious place went by endless nicknames which, according to Kelly Grovier in his excellent book, The Gaol: The Story of Newgate (2008), include: ‘Whittington’s College’, ‘The Quod’, ‘Rumboe’, ‘The Start’, ‘The Stone Pitcher’, ‘The Stone Jug’, and ‘The Mint’.  Presumably ‘The Start’ was coined because of the role Newgate played in the education of young thieves.  But I (sort of) digress!)

We’ve all grown up with Oliver Twist.  His is a classic tale, the poor orphan boy brought up in the workhouse and escaping off to London where he falls in with Fagin’s gang of thieves, including the evil Bill Sikes and the boy who runs the pickpockets, the Artful Dodger.

The interesting thing is that there is much of the novel in which Oliver is ‘off-stage’, or at its edges.  Often when he appears in a scene he says very little.  Things happen around him, affecting his prospects.  He is a pawn in a larger game.  I felt a surprising distance to Oliver which was, I believe, exacerbated by the omnipotent narrator, who calls himself a ‘biographer’ of Oliver, but he is much more than that.  This framework goes some way to explaining the very mature and learned diction of Oliver’s dialogue, but it read unevenly to me; some of it sounded like that of a young boy, while elsewhere it sounded more adult-like.

The streets of London are suitably dark, grimy, and – for children particularly – full of menace.  Oliver’s introduction to them is described as follows: [p63]:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen.  The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.  There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside.

The story is populated with memorable characters – or caricatures if you prefer.  There is the arch-criminal (though uncomfortably racially stereotyped) Fagin, with his “My dear(s)” reeking of malevolence.  His whole ethos is captured in his advice to Mr Claypole, [p360]:

Every man’s his own friend … Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven.  It’s neither, my friend, neither.  It’s number one. 

Working for him is the Artful Dodger, who sadly has far less of a part than I expected.  There is the menacing Sikes.  There is Nancy, the prostitute whose heart wins over her shortcomings but who, maddeningly, cannot see a way out of her relationship with Sikes.  There is the scheming, bumbling, ‘parochial’ Mr Bumble, always complaining of the pauper’s demands; there’s a great scene in which he edges his chair around the table to lay a kiss on Mrs Corney, in which her feigned protests – “I shall scream!” – are indeed a scream.  Monks’ ravings are perhaps less successful.

Dickensian humour is found throughout, too.  Take Oliver’s first night spent in Fagin’s den, [p64-6]:

One young gentleman was very anxious to hang up his cap for him; and another was so obliging as to put his hands in his pockets, in order that, as he was very tired, he might not have the trouble of emptying them when he went to bed.

There is a wonderful recurring motif of the noose as neckerchief/cravat.  (The irony of course, and I’ll give a small spoiler alert here, is that when Oliver meets Fagin, Fagin is described as having a bare throat.)

Adding to the enjoyment is the dark artwork of George Cruikshank.

As with any satire, the thematic aims are lofty: the treatment of the poor, how they are at the mercy of those with wealth and power, how they are exploited by the criminal class.  It explores how criminals operate and instil their code and methods into the young boys who find themselves cast out of society with little choice but to play the game.  Much of this is summarised when the lowly Nancy says to the lady Rose [p333]: “Oh, lady, lady! … if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me…”

Part of the intrigue of Dickens’ writing is the way he published in serial form.  In the case of Oliver there is disagreement as to how much of a plan he had for the story when starting out.  Often his writing was only a few chapters ahead of the latest published ones.  It’s a remarkable achievement in many ways, especially considering modern writers’ editing practices using all manner of word processing and other organisational tools.  In the case of Oliver Twist it means somewhat ‘loose’ plotting and some astonishing coincidences (all those handily placed aunts and chance meetings!), though serialised ‘novels’ were not usually tightly plotted.  Many of his later novels were far more controlled in this regard.

Even more astonishing is his work ethic and the fact that he had often started – and had published the first chapters of – a new story before reaching the end of the one in progress.  This overlap was more than just chronological; it was often thematic as well.  The end of Oliver Twist is set in Newgate, while the start of his next book, Nicholas Nickleby, sees Nicholas in a fright at seeing Newgate and has him imagining an execution.

For all that, Oliver Twist was slightly disappointing.  Though I can point to some reasons, I don’t fully understand why I felt the distance between myself and the eponymous hero because, on paper, the fact his life is at risk should be moving.  The result was that I didn’t love Oliver Twist in the way I did Great Expectations (see my review here).  In a sense, I was a boy like Oliver, wanting just that little bit ‘more’.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Penguin Classics

1837-8

ISBN: 9780141439747

455 pages & additional appendices.

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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