Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

 Ah yes, the almighty Charles Dickens! What has  been written about this great of the written English word this humble writer only all to well knows he can't add a thing! It has been almost twenty years since my nose wheedled its ways into a Dickens novel and after a spur of the moment ( and months of readers block ) my hand picked up his second novel , Oliver Twist.

 I mentioned the term 'readers block'. I'm wondering if anyone else suffers this frustrating condition whereby they are not able to read a thing of note. There is no particular reason for it, but from time to time this reader finds himself unable to digest a word. The affliction can last mere weeks up to months on end, and my last dose of this mysterious illness ( !!! ) lasted two and half months. Then last Monday, on a whim, I picked up Oliver Twist, and lo and behold my ability to read and concentrate on said activity had returned!! I tried a novel as I couldn't even begin to face picking up the almost finished memoirs of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf ( which has been so for almost three months! ).

 The last Dickens's novel I read was Great Expectations many years ago when I was in my early twenties. I started Oliver Twist and suddenly found that I had read almost one hundred pages in one sitting. I had a vague outline of the story having seen a recent mini-series adaptation on the story box ( telly!! ). This helped as I got used to the prose without needing to follow the plot as closely as I might otherwise have had to do. The initial thing that strikes you as you read an author of that era is the sentence length and the prodigious use of commas to make them comprehensible. Modern writers have lost this skill with commas. I actually know a woman who, in her job does a lot of writing, who won't use them. She says she hates them but I, delicately as possible, said that it is more likely she doesn't know how to use them.

  This is borne out somewhat in my years of extramural slog through uni where so many of the high and all mighties sigh at the poor punctuation within the newer generations coming through. So it was very refreshing to delve into Dickens and delight in how the English language was once so well written and I ripped through Oliver Twist in four days. It is four hundred and eighty pages long but the print is small and the concentration levels must been keen, for if you wander you lose the thread of what is happening very fast.

  Oliver Twist is a very sharp and satirical look by Dickens into the lives of the poor in early 19th century England. It is a prescient and honest look at the sordid  face of the orphanages , workhouses, and career criminals of the time. Dickens's himself is purported to have grown up very near to these type of institutions so had first hand knowledge of their goings on. Twist may be one hundred and seventy years old but it its descriptions of the filth and squalor are still vivid and send shivers up the readers spine in revulsion. You can almost smell the seediness of the bad end of London and its inhabitants.

 The contrast between the rich and poor is marked, and Dickens's shows this well. The poor are dressed  in virtual rags and stink to high heaven. They are uncouth, vulgar, devious, and have to steal to survive, after all, this is the hey day of the pick pocket. But the scum of the earth are well aware of the consequences of being caught and often refer to the gallows and transporting. Newgate prison of Dickens's time had an appalling reputation for filth and brutality and even hardened criminals feared its notorious walls and gallows.

  The rich are of course are well dressed, fed, and educated, and quite unaware of the situation of the paupers of the world. Dickens conveys which side of the fence it was better to be on quite convincingling! But one can't quite escape a bit off 'sniffery' from Dickens. It is an unfortunate part of life in that there will always be rich and poor. Dickens does try though to temper his tone by having young Oliver land on his feet after some dark adventures within the under world and those who had wronged him all getting their just deserts.

  It is pure novel though, with a happy ending for Oliver. Somethings have dated but it must be read with an eye for the times. The language between the rich friends of Oliver got on my nerves at times, especially when talking about the lady characters ( sweet lady, fair maiden, so lovely a soul, etc). Bram Stoker's Dracula was like that and it drove me spare!! We of the equal opportunities generation would have a fit if we had to speak to woman like that today!! The other thing is one character, Fagin, is more commonly called 'the Jew'. Would an author today be able to get away with this? Not likely, and it shows the attitude of the times to the Jewish race. Dickens has shown the anti-semitism of his era loud and clear.

  Oliver Twist is a very good and enjoyable read. Like all of Dickens novels it has  characters with memorable names, who can look past 'the artful dodger!!  It is a snapshot into pre-Victorian life in England. There is something of the puritanical though. Nancy is a girl from the streets who is eventually murdered. Dickens has no compunction it telling us how so but will only imply, in disguised language, her former trade as a prostitute whose former looks were gone. Dickens's also had his faults in regards to the Jews, but his eye for the depredations and attitudes of those socially inferior to him are apparent, and he is quite sympathetic to their plight. He is well aware of the criminal class and what awaits them if caught but in his under stated way feels their treatment is unwarranted and that there are better ways of dealing with them. It is a novel indicative of its time. It is a social, satirical commentary of life in England encompassed within novel form. It is both informative and a good story to boot.

  I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it to all. If you wish to tackle Charles Dickens then Twist is a good place to start. Its length isn't as forbidding as say The Pickwick Papers or Bleak House and is a relatively short and easy introduction to Dickens's style. I first thought I would read his novels in the order he wrote them but after the first few pages of The Pickwick Papers I found I had bit off more than I could chew and thought it better to start with something shorter and lighter.

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