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Oliver Twist

13 February 2013

Oliver TwistOliver Twist by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughts prompted by reading it.

Dickens is generally regarded as a Good Author who wrote Good Books, and so reading them must be Good For You. Even F.R. Leavis allowed Dickens into his canon.

As a result, Dickens’s books are often prescribed reading for schoolkids, to do them good. But the only book by Dickens that I liked when I was at school was A tale of two cities. It seemed to fit in with The scarlet pimpernel and others of the same genre.

Another one we had at school was Great Expectations. It was a matric set book, and our English teacher, a guy called Derrick Hudson-Reed, told us that in 20 years time we would come back to visit the school and confess to him that we had never read Great Expectations. Quite a number of us told him that right after the exam. We’d read an executive summary to get the main points of the plot. Perhaps if I’d read it I’d have got an A instead of a BB in the exam, but I rather doubt it. I rather suspect that Charles Dickens is wasted on the young.

About every four or five years I pick up a book by Dickens and read it. I’ve enjoyed them, but as I’ve read them I’ve been glad that I hadn’t read them when I was younger. There was so much that I just would not have appreciated.

Oliver Twist begins with scenes in a 19th-century workhouse in England. When you are at school, they explain such things in a brief footnote, or maybe the teacher would say something about it.

But reading it now, at my age, I’ve read quite a bit about workhouses because of my interest in family history. I know that my great great grandfather (well, one of them) died in Bodmin Union Workhouse at the age of 83. It was what passed for an old age home in those days, and if you’d spent your life as a woodman, scrounging wood from the woods, you didn’t end up with much in the way of a pension. Oliver Twist not only describes life in a workhouse; it has graphic descriptions of death in a workhouse.

And reading the descriptions of death in a workhouse put me in mind of the saying, “you can’t make this stuff up”.

Dickens was writing fiction, so obviously he did make this stuff up, exceopt that things like that really did happen. Read the case of Absalom Henry Beaglehole, here, and see for yourself. Even his name is the kind of thing Dickens might have made up.

So I’m glad that I read it at the age of 71, rather than at the age of 11 or even 21. If I’d read it then, I’d have missed too much.

Having said that, I might not have noticed the plot holes if I’d read it earlier. There are just too many improbable coincidences, too many people fortuitously meeting too many other people who turn out to have been related, or friends of relations, or enemies of relations. I suppose that that is in part the result of its having originally been written as a serial, and having so many plot threads that Dickens had to find ways of tying together in the end.

If you haven’t read it yet, you might enjoy it, especially if you are over 50.

But Dickens, in spite of having a chapter to tie up the loose ends, never does tell us what happened to the Artful Dodger.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Errol Narain permalink
    13 February 2013 11:16 pm

    The Artful Dodger just did what came naturally. He dodged.

  2. 14 February 2013 7:13 pm

    I don’t have a Dickens on my shelf any longer. And I doubt the tiny library in the tiny town where I live will have a copy but I’ll look. Good for you to point out the weaknesses in what is universally accepted as a classic. I remember reading Dostoevsky and upsetting people by claiming he’s Russia’s Dickens.

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