Dickens and Dawkins – a guest blog post by writer James Benmore
April 18, 2012
Nobody would chat up Oliver Twist if they could share a pipe with the Artful Dodger.
-Literary critic Terry Eagleton.
Charles Dickens is one of those novelists who is at his best when writing about people that he disapproves of. His fiction is jammed with glorious monsters, be they misers, bullies, hypocrites or crooks, all jostling for the readers attention and riding roughshod over the more feeble and virtuous characters that they surround. And nowhere is this more apparent than in his second novel, Oliver Twist, where the eponymous character, a pure-hearted and impossibly incorruptible orphan, finds himself upstaged by another young lad of similar age. “A snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy,” who was “as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six.” Jack Dawkins, more commonly known as the Artful Dodger, is the sharpest young pickpocket in the city but wallets and watches are not all that he steals. He also, for this reader at least, manages to make off with the whole book.
When the Dodger first chances upon Oliver, who is shivering and starving on a cold door-step with his feet bleeding after a long walk in from the country, he appears to be the first bit of good fortune that happens to the parish boy. Up until this point in the story Oliver has met with nothing but hardship, cruelty or indifference from all the provincial characters he has encountered but now, in the form of this flashily-dressed and streetwise new friend, it seems his luck is finally turning. No sooner has Dawkins lifted his hat in introduction than he buys Oliver a pub lunch and, before the first pot of beer has been sunk, is offering him a roof to sleep under. “I knows a ’spectable old genelman,” he boasts, “wot’ll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change.” Jack Dawkins is the very first Londoner that Oliver has spoken to since his arrival and he is solving all of Oliver’s problems without even being asked. Everything is going to be alright in this great city after all, or so it would seem, and Oliver can finally consider himself at home.
Everything is not alright however, as Oliver soon discovers. The Artful Dodger deserves his nickname, he is a false friend who wants only to lead an unsuspecting innocent into trouble. He is, much like the insinuating Fox in Pinocchio, the epitome of a bad influence and the respectable gentleman that he introduces Oliver to turns out to be one of the greatest villains in all literature. But despite being very much sided with the devils against the angel child, it is almost impossible not feel affection for such an incorrigible thief. Whilst Fagin and Bill Sykes are painted as demonic figures, the first a corrupter of children, the second a murderer of women, Jack Dawkins is a much more comical figure. The scene in which he is tried and sentenced for pickpocketing is a light and amusing interlude in an otherwise dark second half. The indignant Dodger is shoved into the dock and proceeds to create as much chaos as possible, calling for imaginary witnesses, announcing that he has a more important appointment in another part of town and telling the magistrate to get on with it. All of this is done more for the amusement of the spectators than for his own liberty and he is promptly given five years transportation to Australia.
We never hear of Jack Dawkins again after that and I have always been mystified as to why Dickens should disregard such a wonderful creation in so casual a manner. Perhaps it was because he knew how murderous things were about to turn for the criminal characters and therefore decided to remove Dawkins (after all only a child) before the blood started spilling.
But I have always wondered whatever became of Dodger, my favourite Dickens character, who was so unceremoniously packed off to the other side of the world before the story had even closed. Did he ever hear that Bill Sykes killed Nancy or that his beloved teacher Fagin was hung for crimes unspecified? How would he feel if he was to return to British shores and learn about how these terrible things took place as a direct consequence of his finding that shivering orphan and introducing him to the gang? And, most interestingly of all, what sort of trouble would he get into next?
In fact, the more I think about it the more I wish someone should write a book about it.
James Benmore has written a book about it. His first novel, Dodger, about the continuing misadventures of Jack Dawkins will be published by Heron books in early 2013. A sequel will shortly follow. Follow him on twitter