Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Published as a serial 1837 – 39

(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge)

So far as I can recall, I worked my way through school without ever reading a word of Dickens.  My introduction came later – as part of an Open University Arts Foundation Course, when we were obliged to read Hard Times.  The appositely-named Mr Gradgrind did not endear me to Dickens.  My antipathy was compounded by B’s negativity: he has no time for Dickens at all and will argue his case strongly, based around the teachings of an influential English teacher from his Kiwi school days.  Coming slowly to a recognition of my ignorance of the classics, eventually I decided to give Dickens a try for myself, unencumbered by syllabi or the attitudes of others.

A Christmas Carol is now an all-time favourite: to be savoured every year as Christmas approaches.  I have it in various guises: the book, on audio, and of course as The Muppet movie.  Next I read Great Expectations and loved it.  Wonderful characters, exciting, well-paced story.  And after that, The Pickwick Papers, which – rather to my surprise – I also loved.  More memorable characters, and much jovial nonsense.  A joy to read. Now is the turn of Oliver Twist, written hard on the heels of Pickwick.

It’s almost impossible not to know the basic story of Oliver (or to start humming a tune or two from the musical).  The angelic orphan endures many trials and meets with much misadventure before all comes good in the end.  And this was a key factor in my early response to the novel: I just wasn’t ‘getting it’.  It seemed long-winded and predictable – which of course it was, because I knew what came next.  It lacked the humour of Pickwick, and the joy of surprise.  I felt I was plodding through it, primarily so I could tick it off the list. But slowly, imperceptibly, the writing got its hooks into me. I can’t say where in the book this happened, so gradual it was.  But I realised one day that instead of stopping at the end of the daily installment, I really wanted to read on.  (Luckily there is an option to do so on dailylit.com.) I finished it willingly a few weeks ago, and have taken time to reflect on my responses to Oliver Twist and on my limited experiences of Dickens to date: four works into the catalogue.  (I’m excluding Hard Times until I read it again.  I may of course, never read it again…)

The phrase in my head is this: Dickens is a consummate story-teller.  Hardly an original phrase but a place to start.  I googled it, and numerous usages flashed before me from a range of sources, including the Dickens Fellowship and Michael Rosen.  But it’s an important statement for me for two reasons. Firstly, I now have an opening line of argument in my own, individual response to Dickens’ works (supported by suitably eminent literati).  Of course, I shall be adding more to the argument but this is a solid start.  (The second reason for its importance is this: it offers a piece of the puzzle that one day might enable me to neatly encapsulate what makes a great book for me.  And that is the catalyst for a whole new post.  One day…)

Back to Dickens and his consummate storytelling.  In 2012, Rosen gave a lecture for the Dickens Fellowship which was described thus:

“One of the great imaginative writers of all time, Charles Dickens was a consummate storyteller who could draw his readers into the heart of his narrative. Michael Rosen delves into Dickens’s story-telling skills and techniques, including how his ‘voice’ appeared both as the narrator and in the minds and mouths of his characters. With the skill of the modern-day filmmaker, Dickens could convey the broadest scene to the most intimate detail.”

Now, if I had been able to listen to that lecture, how much more I could add here!  As it is, the comparison with Dickens to a modern-day filmmaker gives me further food for thought. (I’m not sure that I can agree with it – yet.  Simply because I haven’t read enough Dickens – yet.) It also prompts me to get a copy of Rosen’s YA book: “What’s so Special about Dickens”.  (For the illustrations as much as anything.)

Writing in the Guardian, again in 2012, the novelist Paul Bailey celebrates Dickens’ skill in writing wonderfully memorable, minor characters, and discusses his ability to create:

“…a recognisably diverse and disordered world.  Dickens had, and has, the ability to catch life on the hop.”

I can see that.  But I suggest that Oliver Twist is not the best book to illustrate these arguments, purely because it is already so well-known.  There are memorable characters aplenty, and scenes from the most genteel of drawing rooms to the darkest of hovels.  It’s just more difficult to see the skill and mastery in Dickens’ work because the scenes are already familiar and the characters already have faces, voices and personalities – courtesy of David Lean, Lionel Bart and more.  But I can apply these arguments to Pickwick and of course they hold good.  A litany of memorable characters and a gamut of likely and unlikely locations – major and minor – come to mind, and immediately make me smile.

In that same article, Paul Bailey compares Collins and Dickens.  He talks of Dickens as:

“… a novelist of wayward genius.”

I’m looking forward to the day when, properly versed in a respectable number of Dickens’ works, I can have a response to that.

I am glad to have read Oliver Twist though it won’t feature as a personal favourite: the story and the characters are too overly familiar.  And I’m glad that I read it early on in my Dickens experience, because I think there is even better stuff to come.

Oliver Twist - Mr Bumble

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17 thoughts on “Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens”

  1. I absolutely agree with your B on Dickens, he was a horrible person and that puts me off almost as much as his writing does, and I’m not too keen on Collins either. I am a big fan of Trollope though and I’m planning on starting a Walter Scott binge at some point too.

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    1. That’s so interesting, Katrina. In what was he a horrible person, and can you say what you don’t like about his writing? I’m keen to hear all sides 🙂 I have a Trollope on my classics club list, and I’m sure I had a Walter Scott. I can’t see it now – the problem with too much tweaking!

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      1. I love Dickens. LOVE HIM. I think he was both a good person and a questionable person, like any of ys. And his writing is SO JOYFUL. But I read a biography recently which (may) shed some light, Sandra. (If you haven’t read it already.)

        * Feel free to edit out the link if you prefer it not to be on your blog. I’m just sharing if you’re interested, and it’s easier to link to the post than explain it all in a comment. 🙂 *

        Oliver Twist is my least favorite Dickens so far. I adore A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. I haven’t read much of his work yet. A Tale of Two Cities made me cry, in a good way…

        Great Expectations is on my club list. 🙂 As well (if I recall) as Bleak House (the opening is magnificent) and Hard Times, and maybe Little Dorrit. It’s sad that I don’t know, isn’t it? 🙂

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      2. Jillian, I’ve just read your linked post – thank you 🙂 I haven’t read the book but I have seen the film of the same name. Interestingly enough, what I took from the film was how joyful Dickens was as a person – which you pick up on in his writing. There’s very little of his wife in the film as I recall, and the “invisible woman” was just that really: invisible. Very passive but with a conniving mother. I’m trying to recall the ending… I think Nelly is indeed shown as strong and independent in the closing scenes. Now I want to watch it again – and the book has been on my tbr list for ever! I very much enjoyed your thoughts on the Invisible Woman. I hope to add my own if/when I finally get around to reading it!

        Your thoughts on Oliver Twist seem in line with mine and those of others who’ve commented. I’m looking forward to reading more Dickens. And I just took a peek at your classics club lists – oof! You have some serious titles on those lists!

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  2. How interesting, Sandra – I too read Hard Times when I was doing the Open University Arts Foundation Course. I quite liked it – there were parts that reminded me of a Monty Python sketch, the one where they’re trying to out do each other about how poor they were, the ‘think yourself lucky’ one.

    I haven’t read Oliver Twist – it’s on my CC list, although like you I know the story. I agree that Dickens is a consummate storyteller. Last year I read and really enjoyed The Old Curiosity Shop, for its plot and its characters and I also like the way he highlights the effects of industrialisation and the terrible working conditions and life of the poor. I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens and yes, he was by no means a perfect man, and at times I’ve wondered whether I want to read about an author’s life if it’s going to put me off his/her books – I don’t think it should but if there are things that are personally against the grain it’s had to see past that. I’m not putting this very well, I know, sorry – what I’m trying to say is that I would rather enjoy the books for themselves.

    I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed some of his books – such as Barnaby Rudge, for example, although it has a very slow beginning. I hadn’t seen a dramatised version of it and knew nothing about it before I read it, so totally new to me, unlike A Tale of Two Cities, which we read at school (the only one I read at school as far as I can remember.

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    1. It sounds like we must have been studying with the OU around the same time, Margaret! (Roughly 1984 – 1989 if memory serves.) When I read Hard Times I felt I was being asked to read it as an illustration of the horrors of industrialisation etc – and clearly I wasn’t ready to assimilate any of that! Neither did I bother to consider Dickens’ writing, though we were almost certainly given pointers and opportunities to do so. (I’m very much aware of the necessity to meet a given book/author at the right time in life: it suggests I’m something of a late developer!)

      None of us are perfect of course, but those in the public eye are subject to more scrutiny than most. Dickens was indeed far from perfect, but definitely a larger than life character. I can see that for some people his indiscretions and weaknesses will adversely impact on their view of his books. I’m sure that must apply to me too with some authors – I just can’t think of any right now. I do enjoy knowing more about what lies behind a writer’s books. I like biographies, autobiographies and memoirs in general. Either I like knowing what makes people tick, or I’m just plain nosey!

      I chose to include Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop on my classics club list. Barnaby Rudge is one of the titles I know absolutely nothing about. Perhaps I’ll squeeze that one is as well 🙂

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      1. I’ve just checked – I took A102 in 1989, so started the OU as you finished! I found some of my notes and TMAs – happy memories! I did enjoy the OU courses so much.

        Nicholas Nickleby is also on my CC list to read.

        I also enjoy reading around a writer’s books and biographies etc – Dickens’ character and life hasn’t affected how I view his books – and I like finding out how they were viewed by their contemporaries as well.

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  3. Margaret, I’ve often been tempted to study for another OU degree – I would choose entirely different courses (arts-related rather than social science based). But it’s too expensive now sadly. Besides, I don’t have time for that commitment to study now that I’m retired! 😉

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  4. I’ve read the Claire Tomalin biography Margaret mentions above and it certainly left me with a negative impression of Dickens as a person, but I still enjoy his writing. I think I’ve probably read about half of his novels now and loved, or at least liked, all of them. Oliver Twist isn’t one of his best, in my opinion – my favourites so far are A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend. I’m pleased to hear that you loved The Pickwick Papers as that one has never sounded very appealing to me and I’ve been putting off reading it.

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    1. I shall be very interested in your thoughts on Pickwick should you decide to read it some time, Helen. Full of comic characters, all memorable, and plenty of ridiculous adventures. Not a book to take seriously! In time I shall reach your two favourites. Dickens wrote so many books!

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  5. Dickens- mmmmmm…. It’s taken me some time to pluck up the courage to respond to all your erudite comments!
    Having read Dickens on and off, for 7 years of Eng Lit O and A level ( those onerous book lists!!) in the late 50s,early 60s, I will always associate him with the discomfort of lisle stockings, serge gymslips and felt hats! ( Exceptions being tale of 2 cities and Christmas carol- both of which I love, and probably came upon later in life). Force fed a school diet, all we girls desired to consume were DH Lawrence and Ian Fleming – and the prospect of silk stockings and even silkier thighs!

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    1. Ha ha! Oh Pat, you’ve made laugh out loud! 😀

      You raise a serious point though: the legacy of being force fed great literature. (Not that I’m making a case for Oliver Twist being great literature.) I have yet to overcome my school introduction to Shakespeare, for example. What a responsibility English teachers hold in their hands! (And how interesting that you read so much Dickens and I read none at school.)

      And whilst still on the question of introducing literature to children: I have just started reading Rosen’s book: “What’s so Special about Dickens?”. Intended of course, for children. I’m curious to discover whether I shall see it as a book that might have piqued my interest in those formative years.

      I shall now return to the image you painted of serge-clad girls surreptitiously reading Ian Fleming behind their desk lids…

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  6. Oh we did, we did! Strangely enough, I’ve been left with a lifetime passion for Shakespeare- could it be to do with the fact that we read some of it aloud in class- and , living in the Midlands, were able to visit Stratford to see and hear live performances.How we are formed when young!!

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    1. Thanks, Joseph. I don’t feel that I’ve read enough Dickens yet to propose a favourite but my guess is that Oliver won’t be up there: there seem to be so many other wonderful Dickens novels to come! Everything suggests that A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield will be in my top few though, especially the latter. I’m really looking forward to that one, but I think my next Dickens will be Nicholas Nickleby.

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