Sunday, 4 October 2015
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1837-8)
"Please sir, can I have some more?"
These are among the most memorable words of English literature, and memorable is an apt word to refer to Dickens' second novel, Oliver Twist, in many ways the most popular of his works. That's no doubt in part due to the (outstanding) 1968 Lionel Bart musical, which made the storyline the mainstay of every primary school End of Year Show from now until doomsday, but there are also a ridiculously large number of film and TV adaptations, and, perhaps on a more basic level, Oliver Twist is a cracking adventure novel with an enjoyable pace and a host of riotous characters.
It also boasts the first appearance of several recurring Dickens tropes. The story is not at all unlike a Shakespeare play in elements of its theatricality, which is perhaps what separates it most from The Pickwick Papers. Dickens was a renowned lover of the theatre, and when he had a spare moment he would write plays voraciously, although they are little remembered now. Characters in Dickens novels have the most dramatic of entrances, storming on and off the "stage" in a way most guaranteed to whip up the excitement of his readers. And they are a strong cast of characters, from the destitute orphan hero to the gruff and taciturn Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed growling "you avaricious old skeleton" is seared into my childhood memory) to the I'm-a-baddie-but-you-love-me-really Fagin, to the immensely sympathetic Nancy.
Twist also sees the debut of telling the life of one key character, which will preoccupy Dickens in sagas like David Copperfield, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. We follow Oliver as he journeys through the different avenues of London, encountering troops of vagabonds, grumpy beadles, and the kindly Mr Brownlow. Oliver is our way in - our identification figure, if you will.
As mentioned above, this is quite possibly the Dickens novel that it is easiest to get one's teeth into, especially if you are relatively unacquainted with Dickens but have already seen the musical. It is particularly great for children, likely as they are to relate to the title character and the more mischievous rogues like the Artful Dodger. With his first novel, Dickens chose to make the public of the 1830s roar with laughter; but for his second, he chose to "show the principles of God surviving through every adverse circumstance". Certainly, this tale of social misery and brutality is counterpointed with a searing compassion, and that is what makes it all the greater.