If you’ve been following along as I read my way through the List, you may have thought this day would never come. I’m here to tell you that I read a whole Dickens book in less than a week – and I enjoyed it. #182 Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.
Oliver Twist is a pretty well-known story, what with all the movies and the hit musical, never mind TV shows, plays, tales for children and more. It tells the story of one child, Oliver Twist, who is born in a workhouse and dragged up in early 19th century England. Oliver suffers a series of reversals, and the cast of secondary characters is astonishing – not just because of the variety but because of how they take over. You don’t even see Oliver for chapters at a time, but I certainly didn’t care.
I didn’t find the story upsetting but there is plenty of grief in the book, and a lot of violence, including towards children. However, it didn’t bother me – I can’t usually take it any more seriously than the characters do, and Dickens goes so wry at those points that I quite often had to reread a passage to realise that something quite grim indeed had just happened. But it’s worth a warning.
Oliver has the most luck of any child in any story I’ve ever read. It’s not all good luck – far from it, most of it is dreadful luck – but honestly, if you knew Oliver you’d be tempted to send him to buy a lottery ticket because either he’d win or be abducted by aliens or fall down a hole and land in a dragons hoard, and whatever happened, it would be entertaining.
Oliver himself is of the faint and faithful, delicate and good child. I doubt Dickens invented the type, but between Oliver, Tiny Tim (from A Christmas Carol) and poor little Nell (who I haven’t actually encountered yet, as The Old Curiosity Shop isn’t on the list) he certainly added to its numbers. Thanks to his faint, faithful, goodness, he very nearly expires several times and almost vanishes from the novel entirely, shoved aside by much more vivid characters.
And, oh, Dickens is good at a character portrait, when he’s having fun. The Artful Dodger, Nancy, Sikes, the good Doctor, the workhouse beadle and the matron – the villains and quirky characters are a delight, steal every scene shamelessly and make the book. It starts with a bang and carries on with new twists and turns in every chapter – none of the waiting around I found in Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. Start Oliver at the beginning and run with it through to the end.
If you’re familiar with the text, you’ll notice I didn’t mention Fagin. Dickens first published Oliver Twist in 1837, and it ran as a serial story until 1839, neatly covering the period when Queen Victorian became queen and was crowned. So although Oliver is often treated as a tale of Victorian squalor, it’s actually earlier than that.
Which is to say, that if you thought Victorian attitudes to certain sections of society were unreconstructed, you should see their predecessors. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, a hanging was a good day out, the British Empire was a brilliant scheme for dealing with foreigners and savages and people were only just starting to consider the idea that starving poor people to death might not be an appropriate punishment for the crime of being unlucky.
Fagin is a very memorable character. He’s thief-in-chief of a gang of juvenile delinquents. He’s taken up and trained each of them, looks out for them, to a certain extent, and makes sure they’re fed and kept in gin and tobacco. He’s intensely miserly, doesn’t care much about anyone but himself and is thoroughly unpleasant. He’s also Jewish. Which wouldn’t, of itself, be terrible except that it’s so rare to see a Jewish character in Great Works of English Literature before 1950 (partly because the Jewish texts aren’t considered Great Works generally, maybe Pretty Good Works or perhaps Unjustly Forgotten works, like, oh, all the rest of the Others) and Judaism is mentioned like a vice, another bad character trait when the character is already cringing, creeping, miserly, grasping and physically disgusting, like Shylock in Merchant of Venice.
Dickens tagged his characters – the ginger hair, the white waistcoat, the angel, the brute – so people would remember them throughout the months and years of reading a serial in installments. Fagin is ‘the Jew’ – he’s pretty much the only Jewish person in Dickens, so in one, narrow, sense it’s a reasonable appellation, but in another: it sucks.
Wikipedia suggests that Dickens was made aware of this problem and worked to correct it, which is interesting and – like the conversation about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does raise the question of which edition one should read: the first (‘true’) edition? the later (‘director’s cut’) edition? an even later, even cleaner one? I, personally, tend to see this sort of change as correcting a mistake – like tweaking a story to fix a plot hole or factual inaccuracy, but one does have to draw the line somewhere, and other texts are trickier.
All in all, I enjoyed Oliver Twist. I’ve read it twice now, and think it’s a good story and probably my favourite Dickens so far. I’ve been told to look forward to David Copperfield – that and Bleak House are the last two on the list, so any words of encouragement are welcome!
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.