Saturday, 16 June 2012

"Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

My husband has recently done a podcast on "Oliver Twist" which is on ITunes (look for Nerdology UK) or you can listen to it here.  I'm working up to joining in with one of his podcasts - in an earlier podcast I am a coughing fit in the background, in this I am a few words distantly off-mike. 

I also read "Oliver Twist."  This came about because I happened to tweet earlier this year that I had hardly read any Dickens, and I felt like I should.  I had a couple of responses from people who said that they felt the same - including Erik Stadnik of "Erik and His Pointless Blog" - and a pact was formed that we would read Oliver Twist.  My husband, who would admit to reading less prolifically than me, read it fairly quickly.  I struggled, and this post is about why I struggled.  I should warn you now, it is likely to be long on rant and short on academic substance.

I wanted to like this as well, because I love Howard Jacobson and he is a big advocate of Dickens' genius.  But I didn't quite manage it.  Not even for you, Howard.

I'm not worrying about plot spoilers, but I am also not going to give a plot synopsis here.  The plot is so convoluted and unlikely that even thinking about it makes my head ache.  If you would like a plot synopsis, Mark and Erik do that far better than I would in the podcast.

I found it very difficult to start reading Dickens because I couldn't get used to his writing style; he has digressive, convoluted, long rambling sentences, like this one, only worse.  By the time I finished a sentence, I'd forgotten what the start of it was about - but that's probably the fault of my attention span rather than Dickens.  I thought at first that it would take me a while to get used to the Victorian prose style again, but then I remembered how much I enjoy Charlotte Bronte and came to think of it more in terms of Dickens' personal style.  The problem of having to acclimatise to his style didn't just happen at the start of the novel; every time I picked the book up after having not read it for a while, I had the same experience of struggling to get back into his style.  It was a bit like having to adapt to an atmosphere with a different air pressure: the reading equivalent of your ears popping on take-off.

I can give you an example of when Dickens' style irritated me.  In chapter 31, two police officers have turned up to investigate an attempted robbery at a country house.  Dickens writes:
"Lights were then procured: and Messrs. Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage..."
And that sentence goes on for a lot longer than that.  I remember being annoyed by this sentence to an unreasonable extent.  In short? If you had wanted it to be "in short," you could have just written "everybody went into the little room at the end of the passage." Why fart about unnecessarily listing names, if you wanted it to be "in short?"

Now imagine a whole book like this.

I'm being a bit harsh.  I found "Oliver Twist" to be interminably dull for about six tenths of the book, then it gained a bit of momentum when it was moving towards its close for the further three tenths, then it spent the last tenth reaching a ridiculous conclusion founded on a superfluity of coincidences.  I could maybe have bought into an unlikely coincidence at the end, but not as many of them as Dickens chucks in.  There are some set pieces of writing that I did enjoy and thought were very well written, like the chase sequence that Sarah reads in the podcast, the murder of Nancy, and Bill Sykes' subsequent guilty flight from justice in which he can't escape his own conscience.  The bits I did enjoy, however, were not enough to save the book for me.

That's not even to get started on the offensive characterisation of Fagin; however much I try to remind myself that I shouldn't judge the attitudes of Victorian society by the more enlightened (I like to think) attitudes of today, I can't ignore the strong reaction that I have to Fagin.  He is a repellent character, but probably not in the way Dickens intended: my revulsion is entirely directed to Dickens himself for writing such an offensively stereotyped character.  However much I try to intellectualise my reaction in historical context - and it was interesting to learn from Erik in the podcast that the Victorian audience also found the Jewish stereotyping of Fagin to be too strong - my emotional reaction is far stronger. 

I have problems with Dickens' characters precisely because they are so extreme and so memorably drawn: this means that I really like them, or really hate them.  I liked "Bleak House" a great deal when I read it many years ago because there were many characters that I liked - but, even then, for every chapter that I enjoyed, there was a chapter that made me think "Oh no, not them again" (I'm mainly thinking of the intensely annoying Mr Skimpole who tries to avoid any kind of adult responsibility by claiming to be a child, and the Jellybys who neglect their own children while trying to be charitable). One thing that I cannot accuse Dickens of is subtlety. Of course you are meant to dislike them, but Dickens does that so well that I found them hard to read - although I have to admit, I like the fact that I find it impossible to be indifferent to Dickens.  For Dickens, quite literally, the word "meh" does not exist.

Dickens is a writer of extremes.  Everything is heightened: sentiment reaches mawkish proportions, annoying characters are REALLY annoying.  I can believe that attitudes towards the poor were different in the Victorian era - or course they were - but I find it harder to believe that the vast majority of people were as cartoonishly evil as about 85% of the characters in "Oliver Twist" seem to be.  And actually, to be fair, I don't think that the other 15% were as piously good: there is no grey in "Oliver Twist," only extremes of black and white.  That means that, in 'Oliver Twist" at least, I don't buy into him as social commentator on Victorian society because I don't believe that real people act in ways either as unremittingly bad or perfectly good as his characters.  People aren't that black and white now, and I don't think that was any different in Victorian times.

In terms of reading practices, I was very aware that the novel was written for a periodical when I tried to read a few chapters in a row.  The start of chapters seemed to have a "previously on" element to them.  I wonder if it isn't better to read Dickens in the way it was intended to be read: a chapter at a time, at regular intervals (a bit like a regular dose of a nasty tasting medicine which is meant to be good for you).  I haven't totally been put off reading another Dickens at some point, though, and I have been told by a couple of people who like Dickens that "Oliver Twist" was not the best book to have chosen (a view that Erik seems to take in the podcast).  If you are a Dickens fan and want to suggest what I should read next, I'd like to hear from you in the comments.

Incidentally, I read "Oliver Twist" on my e-reader.  While for preference I would always prefer a paper book, there is one element of reading in this media that I found very useful: the inbuilt dictionary.  There are some words Dickens uses that have fallen out of common usage, and I found it helpful to just be able to tap the screen (mine is a touch screen) to find out what the word meant. 

*My word for today is myrmidons (followers who unquestioningly carry out orders)*


  1. I read Great Expectations a long time ago, but apart from the story elements I know from the films, I can't remember a single thing about it. I'm happy not to read any more - although I did read a child's version of Oliver Twist to #2 son.

    1. Great Expectations is one that a few people have recommended as a good Dickens to read. Or Little Dorrit. Or A Tale of Two Cities. Or Pickwick Papers.....