Why Oliver Twist? – Author David Nicholls on a classic
April 2, 2012
This probably isn’t a very sophisticated or literary approach to take, but my passion for Charles Dickens all started with the musical. Lionel Bart’s Oliver! was something of an obsession for me as a kid. I loved that film, found it thrilling, funny, heart-breaking. My parents had the soundtrack album – they had been to see it on their honeymoon – and I played it whenever I got the chance. For a long time I thought ‘You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two’ was the best thing Dickens ever wrote.
We also had a copy of the novel in our house, part of a small selection of Reader’s Digest Classics, bound in red imitation leather, titles embossed in gold, printed on bible-paper in tiny old-fashioned type-face. The Classics sat on a sideboard and were dusted like ornaments – they certainly didn’t seem like books that anyone would actually read – but at the age of thirteen or so I reached for Oliver Twist.
The book was a revelation. It was much darker than the film, much more unforgiving, violent, ruthless. Stranger. The plot was far more intricate, the characters more ambiguous. The Artful Dodger wasn’t nearly so benign and lovable, Nancy was clearly something other than a waitress. The satire was sharper, the tone unforgiving and darkly comic. Where was my loveable, rascally Fagin? Was that really his fate?
I still loved the Lionel Bart version (I admire it even now – despite the lighter tone, there’s something authentically Dickensian about it) – but the novel was meatier, stronger stuff. That first reading of Oliver Twist led me to Great Expectations – his masterpiece, I think, and pretty much a perfect book – then to Nicholas Nickleby and on through the rest of Dickens work. He remains my favourite author to this day.
Which is not to say that he’s by any means the perfect writer. His heroines, for the most part, aren’t nearly as interesting as his male characters, and while he’s wonderful on the subject of dark, twisted, obsessive love (from Sikes and Nancy to Pip and Estella), his romantic stories are sentimental and bland. He’s a wonderful entertainer, but occasionally there are passages of incredible tedium; David Copperfield, for instance, is terrific right up until about page 350, where it suddenly seems to stop dead for 150 pages. Dickens’ indignation at the injustice of the world can be thrilling, but he can also be pompous, self-righteous, sentimental, conventional, heavy-handed, pious. For the most part his prose is vivid, precise and witty. At other times he seems to be writing by the yard.
And yet there’s still no other author that I’d swap him for. He demands emotional engagement from his readers, and even in his weakest books there are wonderful things. For all the occasional coincidences and contrivances, his stories are gripping, ingenious, thrilling. He engaged with the world around him, both as an author and an activist, and wrote with incredible energy and professionalism. His powers of observation are second to none, and he’s the supreme creator of character in the English language. Even if you’ve never read a word of Dickens, you’ll know about Scrooge and Fagin, Miss Havisham and Smike. Reading Oliver Twist now, I get the sense of an author flexing his muscles. He went on to write finer books (for what it’s worth, I think the greatest are Great Expectations, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend) but Oliver Twist shows a writer realising exactly what he’s capable of; his ability to make a reader laugh, cry, shudder or shout out loud.
David Nicholls is the author of One Day and is currently working on a feature-film version of Dickens’ Great Expectations.