A month ago I blogged about the Herculean task some of us are undertaking at Penguin, reading all of Dickens’s novels. Second on our list – Oliver Twist! Is it possible to mention this book without using an exclamation mark? I find it difficult because, shamefully, it is so firmly associated in my mind with Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! (I’m not even upmarket enough to think of the David Lean version). It came as a bit of a surprise to me that Oliver(!)’s pages weren’t populated with chirpy high-kicking cockneys singing “Consider Yourself!”, but was in fact a far darker, more flawed and much more fascinating work than I’d anticipated.
For a start, Fagin is not at all lovable. He is as villainous as Bill Sikes. He’s horrible. Likewise, the Artful Dodger is a far more ambivalent character and, in fact, everyone (aided considerably by George Cruickshank’s sinister illustrations) seems tinged with weirdness and grotesquerie – even the goodies. (Except for Oliver, who is rather beige, although I didn’t find him as irksome as other readers did: see Becky’s brilliant comments below).
Dickens’s utterly scathing, ironic humour also comes as a shock – and must have done for his readers in the 1830s too, fresh from the adventures of Pickwick. At the beginning of the novel, when he’s describing the workhouse conditions (“The poor people liked it!”) this is very effective, but it gradually becomes wearisome. It reminded me that Dickens was a young man when he wrote this, and I’m interested to see when things become more subtle in his later writing.
Despite these problems, Oliver Twist is a real page-turner. The characters are so vivid that I can see why they’ve taken on a life of their own, the foggy atmosphere of filthy, noisome London is marvellous – especially Jacob’s Island, where Sikes gets his comeuppance – and I found the character of Nancy heartbreaking and her murder, where Sikes is horrified by the sight of her hair sticking to his club, a complete nail-biter.
My verdict: an uneven and problematic book, but a genuinely haunting one.
Here’s what the rest of us thought:
‘The only problem I had with Dickens' difficult second novel, Oliver Twist, is that I really hated Oliver Twist. He is so terribly good, wide eyed and saintly, and is always clasping his delicate lily white hands to his heart with emotion. He is born with an in-built upper middle class accent, even though he is a workhouse orphan reared by ain't-ing, ay-ay-ing, apples n' pears-ing working class folk. I'd always laughed at the famous film musical for giving little Oliver! a posh voice, but now I realise it was being faithful to the book. I think Dickens got tired of Oliver too, because there are large sections in the second half where he barely features, and at that stage I started to love the book. It has one of the best and creepiest murder scenes that I've ever read and, against all the brilliantly fun, grotesque criminal characters, the abusive relationship between Bill Sykes and Nancy stands out as being pyschologically convincing and compelling.’
Becky Stocks, Art
‘Even though I didn't finish this one (again) I enjoyed it so much – the cynical humour still feels so relevant, cutting and important, particularly in the era of social cuts to the poorest and most in need, while the fat Bumbles spoon off their creamy feasts and wonder why those suffering families ask for "more"…
Anyway. This is a brilliant book, full of vital characters and great scenes, although I have to agree with Becky that Twist himself is a bit of a wet rag, who could indeed benefit from "a kick in the face". But I loved the other characters, and the grim, grimy darkness of the world Oliver grows up in. 7/10.’
Sam Binnie, Marketing
‘I haven't read Dickens for years and years, and he was just as morally unambiguous and bluntly ironical as I remembered – but also much, much better. It doesn't matter that Oliver is impossibly saintly and that ugly characters are bad, attractive characters good. It is a totally addictive and refreshingly un-post-modernist read: things are what they are in Oliver Twist, and they happen to make a very, very good story.
My two favourite characters are definitely Nancy and the Artful Dodger, the latter of whose extraordinary cockney slang alone makes the book worth reading. Oh, and the book contains probably the best murder scene I've ever read. For all Oliver and Rose Maylie's lily-livered goodness, this is a dark, macabre and irresistibly sinister book.’
Marina Kemp, Editorial
Copywriter Manager, Penguin Press