Posted on 14 May 2010, 23:04
Still reading Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens and have got to the point where Dickens is writing his monthly serialisations of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist at the same time.
There can’t be many (if any) novelists who have written two such famous novels simultaneously, one full of darkness and terror, the other brimming with comedy. Ackroyd says that Dickens, ‘the novelist of a thousand moods,’ got into the rhythm of writing Oliver first each month, and then The Pickwick Papers, and that the pathos of Oliver fed the lightness and laughter of Pickwick.
Anyway, I decided to take a right turn at this point and dive into one of these novels for myself. I’ve never read any Dickens before, all because of the grim TV serials which aired on Sunday afternoons when I was little, which I found horribly full of cruelty towards David Copperfield and other Dickens children.
So it was with a deep breath that I plunged into Oliver Twist a couple of nights ago, and so far, so grim. Oliver’s mother dies on page one and he’s brought up in a house ‘where one kind word or look had never lighted the gloom of his infant years.’
Dickens’ voice in the story is constantly and unexpectedly ironic. For example, in the workhouse, after the famous ‘Please sir, I want some more’ scene, Oliver’s punishment is described: ‘As for exercise, it was nice cold weather, and he was allowed to perform his ablutions every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane.’
Dickens then adds: ‘... while Oliver’s affairs were in this auspicious and comfortable state…’ This voice of Dickens is lacking from the dramatisations I ever saw, and it redeems the cruelty through its mocking humour, which invites the reader to judge the actions of the adult characters.