Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Please, sir, I want some more Dickens"

The Biography Project, Day 19

I'm past the point in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life where she talks about the composition of Oliver Twist, but I wanted to post about it here at the blog before I got too far ahead of myself.

To put it bluntly, Tomalin was not entirely charmed by the vapid, snot-nosed, gruel-addicted street urchin.  She's not about to burst out with a chorus of "Consider yourself part of the furniture" any time soon.

And I'm okay with that.  Oliver Twist has never been high on my list of Dickens favorites.

Which is odd, considering the fact that it was Oliver who first brought me to worship at the feet of the Great One in the first place.

When I was five years old, my parents took me to the State movie theater in Kittanning, Pennsylvania and there, with a cardboard box of Red Hots candy clutched in my tiny hand, I watched Charles Dickens bloom to life on the screen above my head.  Of course, I had no idea who Charles Dickens was at that time--and wouldn't for many years--but I was dazzled, frightened, and thoroughly enraptured by the singing-dancing orphans and street urchins of Oliver!  I don't think anything had filled me with as much joy and love in my young life as Lionel Bart's musical--not a mouthful of Red Hots, not the evening tuck-in from my mother, not even an overflowing Christmas stocking.  What I was witnessing in this early stage of my literary education, long before critical analysis and deconstructionism, was Grade-A melodrama, the pure and holy attention to Story.  My mouth fell slack, Red Hot juice trickling onto my chin, as I was swept into the trials and tribulations of young Oliver (Mark Lester) at the brutal orphanage, the terrifying undertakers', the cart full of hay bound for London, then Fagin's apartment with his smart-ass pickpockets, and finally to the sunny fairy-tale ending in the care of Mr. Brownlow.  I was entertained and emotionally moved beyond all measure.  Of course, the dancing prostitutes didn't hurt, either.

Oliver! captures the very best qualities of Dickens, running the whole gamut of sentimentality and delivering a potent stew of story and songs that worm their way into viewers' ears and, if they're open enough to it, their hearts.  A few years later, my parents gave me a glorious gift for Christmas: the large hardback movie-tie-in edition of Oliver! from Random House.  It's written by one Mary Hastings who "freely adapted" Dickens' novel and it's filled with movie-still photos.  Turning the pages, I relived the movie day after day, night after night.  I wore out that book to within an inch of its life.  Later, in the move from Pennsylvania to Wyoming--where I would spend the rest of my growing-up years--the book was tragically lost and I was bereft of Dickens for a number of years, until high school when I saw a BBC production of A Tale of Two Cities, read the novel, and my love for Dickens was rekindled.  (As a postscript, I'm happy to report I found a copy of that Oliver! hardback at a garage sale not too long ago here in Butte.  I'm sure you'll believe me when I say tears of joy stung my eyes when I saw it sitting there in the 4-for-$1 cardboard box.)

The day I first received that hardbound edition of Oliver! back in the late 1960s was the day I started worshipping Charles Dickens.  For the first time, I had a name to put to the creation of the story I loved.  I was probably six or seven years old at that point and I was already becoming an accomplished reader, the world of books opening like a set of double doors onto an entirely new, verdant landscape.  I was beginning to understand that books did not spring forth, parentless, from some back room at the public library.  They were brought to life by real people with real typewriters (or quill pens) who carefully, artfully arranged the words on the page.  I was becoming aware of the creature called the Author.  Charles Dickens, therefore, by virtue of being the imagination behind my favorite movie, was the first celebrity author I ever encountered.

It's been that way practically from the start of Dickens' life.  He began his career as a journalist, covering Parliament and the Old Bailey.  His keen observations of the foibles and follies of his fellow mankind soon found their way to the page, after being pasteurized and processed by his fertile imagination.  His first major success, The Pickwick Papers, was a wildfire among London society as it came out in installments.  Tomalin writes:
Each number sold for a shilling and they were passed from hand to hand, and butchers' boys were seen reading them in the streets. Judges and politicians, the middle classes and the rich, bought them, read them and applauded; and the ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it. He did not ask them to think but showed them what he wanted them to see and hear...It was as though he was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving them injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them.
At the same time he was producing serialized installments of The Pickwick Papers, he had begun work on his first truly-plotted novel, Oliver Twist.  From where I sit, this was an incredible feat of energy and skill.  I can't imagine serializing a complex story, let alone engaging in all the other whirling-dervish activities Dickens threw himself into.  Tomalin gives us a taste of what life was like for C.D., circa 1837:
Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot, with Pickwick accused of breach of promise, the dealings with lawyers, the trial and his imprisonment, all of which demanded more care in setting up each number; and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right first time. How different this is from the way most great novelists work, allowing themselves time to reconsider, to change their minds, to go back, to cancel and rewrite. Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time. He wrote in a small hand, with a quill pen and black (iron gall) ink at this stage--later he favoured bright blue--on rough sheets of grey, white or bluish paper, measuring about 9 x 7½ inches, that he’d fold and then tear in half before starting to write; he called these sheets ‘slips.’  For Oliver he spaced the lines quite widely, fitting about twenty-five lines on each sheet where later he would cram forty-five.  Something like ninety-five slips made up one monthly number. In the course of a day he might produce eleven or twelve slips, and if pushed up to twenty. He had also to arrange for the two illustrators--Browne for Pickwick, Cruikshank for Oliver--to see the copy to work from, more often than not deciding for them what would make the best picture. On top of this he was editing Bentley’s Miscellany, which meant commissioning and dealing with other writers, and with the printers. The pressure was intense, but the results were gratifying: in February Pickwick sold 14,000 copies, and after the opening instalment of Oliver was reviewed in four papers, 1,000 extra copies had to be printed of the next number.

When it was later published in three volumes, Oliver Twist caught on well with the reading public--including, Tomalin reports, "the young Queen Victoria, who found it 'excessively interesting.'"

For her part, Tomalin thought portions of the melodrama were overwrought:
Apart from the colourless virtuous characters, the chief failure of the book is Nancy, on whom Dickens lavished great care and whom he claimed to have modelled on a young woman he had known.  He was proud of his portrait and said it was drawn from life, but he fails because he makes her behave like an actress in a bad play: she tears her hair and clothes, writhes, wrings her hands, sinks to her knees and contrives to lie down on a stone staircase in the street....Dickens must many times have observed prostitutes in the streets, yet he is creating a stereotype here, one he used again in later novels: the penitent woman who tears her hair and seeks the river to make an end of things.

Tomalin may be correct here, but when I read Dickens' novel, there is such a hard shellac of my Oliver! memories over my eyes that I can't see anyone but the movie Nancy (Shani Wallis) on the page.  And my ears can't hear anything but "Oom-Pah-Pah" or "It's a Fine Life" as Nancy whips the bar crowd into a beery joyous frenzy.

I'm perfectly aware this is a Technicolor vision of a life that's not "fine," but brutal, deadly, and degrading to women. There's an ironic heartbreak plucking an off-key chord when Nancy sings:
Though you sometimes do come by
The occasional black eye
You can always cover one
'Til he blacks the other one
But you don't dare cry!

Sad as it is, I grew up with this skewed Hollywood vision of Oliver Twist and, no matter how many times I read Dickens' novel, I will take it with me to my grave (where, no doubt, I'll be humming "Reviewing the Situation").


  1. This 'Hollywood Oliver' is the first I knew as well. You brought back a lot of memories with this piece. Thanks, David.

  2. Nice piece! I've just returned to Dickens after many years away and am having a great time. I love the way you capture how intense our love for certain books can be when we are young.

  3. I discovered Oliver! at just about the same age, and fell in love with it as well (although I still haven't quite gotten the Dickens bug... but there's always time). At six, though, I completely missed that Nancy was a prostitute and didn't really get the horror of her relationship with Bill Sykes -- picture a little suburban girl trotting around singing about black eyes and beatings. Niiice.

  4. How nice to discover another die-hard fan! I hope you have gotten to his home and museum in London...I can hardly describe the feeling of being in the only surviving home where such greatness lived and wrote. I return to these novels over and over, for the pure joy of the written word! Thanks for the Saturday morning entertainment!