I’ll say at the outset that I am a bit of a Dickens fan. I’ve loved his books ever since I was old enough to understand his long, twisty, ironic, beautiful, biting, evocative, scary sentence structures. But Oliver Twist is not a favourite.

Let’s set aside for a moment the rather ugly anti-semitism that runs through the characterisation of key villain Fagin. Let’s ignore for a moment the more than usually obvious sweet-and-innocent-maiden / irredeemably-fallen-but-still-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes of the two main female characters, Rose and Nancy. Even apart from those things, I just don’t get Oliver Twist.

Here’s a boy, taken from birth and raised by the parish in the most utterly loveless place imaginable. Never hearing a kind word, never shown a good example, never taught to say his prayers, never taught anything at all, let alone good manners or religious sentiment – a boy treated harshly and unjustly in the dog-eat-dog world of the workhouse. Here’s a boy, that never knew his mother or father and never had a kind word, or any word, said to him about them. Here’s a boy that driven to desperation runs from “home” to London and is caught up with a band of robbers and pickpockets, the first people to treat him wiith even a drop of humanity (albeit of a very self-serving kind) who set out – by kindness, by cunning and by wickedness – to make him one of them.

Yet here’s a boy that has such moral fibre, such uprightness, such sweet holiness about him that he resists to his last ounce of strength and resolve, always insisting on maintaining his purity.

Let me run away and die in the fields… Oh! pray have mercy on me and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in heaven, have mercy upon me!”

Sorry, Mr Dickens, but this just makes me want to puke. As well as being stupidly repulsively angelic, Oliver is just implausible. People who are treated and brought up as he was, simply do not turn out like that! The whole thing just reeks of Blood Will Out because, of course* (stop reading here, though if you don’t want to spoil the surprise), it turns out that Oliver is no ordinary workhouse boy, but the illegitimate offspring of somebody rather special, whose sweet nature and loving sensibilities he has inevitably inherited.

[* The “of course” applies only if you know the Dickens formula. If you don’t, then the coincidences you will find in this novel are about as believable as the characterisation of Oliver himself. But never mind that. It’s a Dickens thing, and rather quaint.]

Anyway, once you have accepted these irritations, had a moan about them and got that off your chest, you can actually settle down to enjoy the story. Oliver’s adventures as he falls in with a criminal gang, is rescued, kidnapped, and rescued again… as his friends try to unravel the mystery of his past and as it all works up to an exciting climax and denouement… are as thoroughly enjoyable as any Dickens novel ought to be.

All in all, not bad – good enough for me to have read several times anyway. But not my favourite Dickens either, not by a long way.

Here’s am Amazon link.
I have a 1903, soft-leather-bound pocket edition, rather battered, but very well-loved.

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