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.