I first met Oliver Twist when I was around fifteen years old. I remember that I liked the book, but I didn’t like it enough to go on and read more Dickens. So when I found that Allie at A Literary Odyssey was hosting a readalong of Oliver Twist I didn’t rush to sign up.
But then the idea began to grow on me. I realised that when I thought of Oliver images from Lionel Bart’s musical came to mind. It was time to replace those images with Dickens’ original words, time to revisit a classic text.
I signed up!
The story opened quietly, a child orphaned in infancy and growing up in a workhouse. There was no wordiness, there were virtually no descriptions, the story was grey. And it worked, focusing attention on the child’s plight and on the callous disregard that those responsible. so-called pillars of society, had for their charges.
And yet Oliver had spirit, and was prepared to stand up and ask for more when he was elected by his fellows.
He suffered for it, and was sold into virtual slavery. And by telling his story simply and clearly Dickens delivers a stinging condemnation of the treatment of the poor in Victorian Britain.
It was hard not to cheer as Oliver made his escape, and colour found its way into his story.
Colour in the form of The Artful Dodger, a wonderful creation, and in the form of Fagin. I still can’t make my mind up about Fagin. Did he think he was helping his boys. Was he doing his best for his boys, giving them means to survive in a cruel world? Or was he simply exploiting them, keeping them sweet to serve his own ends? I do wonder what his history was, what brought him to that place in life.
I was vexed though by Dickens’ decision to give his Jewish villain an Irish name and then repeatedly refer to him as the Jew. words fail me – why?!
But I was swept along by the story, through many twists and turns: Oliver’s apprenticeship as a thief, his unexpected path into a different life, and his unwished for return into Fagin’s clutches.
I was fascinated by the emergence of the complex character of Nancy, by the appearance of Bill Sykes, as effective a villain as I have met in the pages of any book.
And I was particularly struck by the study in between Oliver’s three guardians: the unthinking, uncaring, self-interested Mr Bumble; the manipulative, watchful Fagin; and the compassionate, maybe socially concerned, Mr Brownlow.
What a story, what a picture of Victorian society!
I like this simpler, more straightforward narrative from a relatively young Dickens, and I think now that maybe it is time I worked by way through his novels chronologically, building up steadily to the more elaborate, more acclaimed later works.
That’s something to ponder, but what I want now is to press on with Oliver’s story, to find out what happens next …