Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being

Mighty Reader and I have decided to have another Dickens readalong, this time with Oliver Twist. I have never read this one; Mighty Reader has. She warns me that it is much closer to the David Lean film than to the musical "Oliver!" we just saw. Which is fine.

This was Dickens' first proper novel (I am led to believe, by the critic who introduces my edition of Oliver Twist, that Pickwick Papers and the "Sketches of Boz" stories are not novels; I have read neither, so I don't know.) It will be interesting to compare it, both in terms of style and technique, with his later works. Mighty Reader and I read Our Mutual Friend last year, if you remember. Even if you don't.

The book starts strong:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them.

That's good stuff. Even with the jokes, this is all about death. Look at the vocabulary:

the item of mortality
sorrow and trouble

The all-about-deathness continues as the chapter develops. And what's this "rather unequally poised between this world and the next" business? Oliver spends most of the novel unequally poised between worlds, yes?


  1. Pickwick is a strange case - it is a non-novel that becomes a novel. An amazing improvisatory feat.

    As to your last question: in theory.

    Eh, who cares, the beginning is so good.

  2. Enjoy Dickens. Has there ever been a writer who has created so many wonderfully named characters?

    Perhaps I need to dig out my copy of Oliver Twist, too.

    Almost any Dickens novel can make one head-over-heels grateful about not living in Victorian England. If England would have tourism boards during Dickens's lifetime, they would have exiled him to another part of the world.

  3. About 80 pages in, and the whole thing still hangs together well. The preachiness might get old after a while; Dickens is wise to wrap all of his moralizing in humor. I always forget how much I enjoy Dickens' prose. Who did he read to get to this point? I'll have to look that up.

    Tim, Dickens was sure looking at the dirty side of London, but who can blame him? He writes well about the city, about the feel of the neighborhoods no matter what the social class. Or so it seems, when you're in the middle of a passage of his. All of his writing is so immediate, so concrete and tactile. He starts to lose me when he gets sentimental, but when he's writing actual scenes, it's stuff nobody can top.

  4. Fielding, Smollett, Defoe, Scott.

    All of the characters who are flat are and non-Dickensian are Sir Walter imitations.

  5. Halloo, Scott--

    That was one of the books I owned as a child, so I read it a ridiculous number of times. Love Dickens. I told R. T. to read Garfield's "Smith" since he loved Dickens, and you should too! Would make a grand comparison, and "Smith" illuminated certain things for me as a writer that you would also find interesting, I think...

  6. "Fielding, Smollett, Defoe, Scott."

    And fairy tales, the Arabian Nights, and Penny Dreadfuls, if I remember rightly. "Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss."

  7. The Arabian Nights, yes of course. That would go some way toward explaining the episodic nature of Oliver Twist.

    Oliver, by the way, has just met an old gentleman named Fagin. Things are looking up for the lad, I think.

  8. Marly, I don't know Garfield or "Smith." I'll go a-hunting now, ta awfully.

  9. And I forgot Don Quixote and Gil Blas. The former obvious in Pickwick, the latter apparently (ain't read it) relevant to Oliver Twist.

  10. I just spent a few minutes with Gil Blas on the internets. It looks like it would be easy enough to find similarities between it and Oliver Twist.

    And golly, what isn't influenced by Don Quixote? Cervantes is everywhere.

  11. Did a quick search for 'dickens' plus 'penny dreadfuls' and apparently he liked something called The Terrific Register:

    "Through this chasm are compelled to pass all the waters, which in the time of the floods bury all the Northern country without frost; but by pressure and velocity, the waters are here consolidated to such a degree of firmness that no iron crow can be forced into it; here iron, lead, and cork have one common weight; here steady as time, and harder than marble, the stream passes, irresistible and swift as lightning; the electric fire rends trees to pieces with no greater ease than this amazing water."