Review: Oliver Twist

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

Anti-semitism and a cavalcade of colons


My mother sees no humour and little worth in the works of Henry James. Christopher Hitchens defended smoking and called team sports “pointless.” England manager Roy Hodgson regularly overlooks Michael Carrick. In these and similar tastes it is hard to measure the ratios of intransigence, astuteness, and emotional scarring. I like to think that my dislike of the novels of Charles Dickens contains more of the latter two than the former.

I realise I am on risky ground here. When he first met Martin Amis, the aforementioned Hitchens asked the man who would become his closest friend to name his favourite writers. “One has to look somewhere between the twin peaks of Nabokov and Dickens,” replied Amis. Hichens and Amis were almost always on the same wave length, and the realm of Dickens is no exception. In his review of Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens, Hitchens writes:

The first real test is that of spending a long and arduous evening in the alehouses and outer purlieus of London, and here it has to be in the company of Dickens and nobody else. The second real test is that of passing the same evening in company with the possessor of an anarchic sense of humour. This yields the same result.

Oliver TwistAs you may have guessed from this flurry of references, I count Christopher Hitchens as my favourite writer and thinker. It pains me, therefore, to take such a polar stance. I have to be true to myself, though: I HATE CHARLES DICKENS!

I mentioned emotional scarring in my introduction. In my second year of university I suffered through a seminar of such opaque tedium that it made my philosophy course of the previous year feel like Glastonbury. It was so boring, in fact, that I can’t remember the name, but I do recall that the nadir was the aptly-named Hard Times. My essay on this ridiculous novel included some smart-arse observations about Dickens’ choice of names, particularly Mr. Gradgrind (though I resisted the urge to compare such a moniker to the ivory dealer named Mr. Blackheart in The Simpsons). From this bout of literary torture we moved on to Beloved. Ah! I remember the name of the course now: ‘Vastly Overrated Novels Founded On Flimsy Premises, Fatuous Characters and the Faintest of Plots.’

If anyone is thinking of teaching such a course, you might make use of the second (and, I hope, last) Dickens novel I’ve read, Oliver Twist. About the only the thing that kept me going through this dreary text was my love of punctuation. Where in Buenos Aires I used to enjoy counting the number of dogs a professional dog-walker could handle at once (the record was 14), with Oliver Twist my diversion came from Dickens’ attempts to set a world record for most colons in a paragraph. Here’s a mild example:

Mr. Noah Claypole: receiving a free pardon from the Crown in consequence of being admitted approver against Fagin: and considering his profession not altogether as safe a one as he could wish: was, for some little time, at a loss for the means of a livelihood, not burdened with too much work.

When it comes to words Dickens is even more excessive. In fact, his persistent padding reminds me of my attempts to bolster that essay I mentioned. At this point in the discussion somebody always pipes in with the observation that Dickens was writing for a newspaper, as if this excuses his grammatical gluttony. I don’t care who you’re writing for, there is no excuse for the following sentence:

As it would be, by no means, seemly in a humble author to keep so mighty a personage as a beadle waiting, with his back to the fire, and the skirts of his coat gathered up under his arms, until such time as it might suit his pleasure to relieve him; and as it would still less become his station, or his gallantry to involve in the same neglect a lady on whom that beadle had looked with an eye of tenderness and affection, and in whose ear he had whispered sweet words, which, coming from such a quarter, might well thrill the bosom of maid or matron of whatsoever degree; the historian whose pen traces these words – trusting that he knows his place, and that he entertains a becoming reverence for those upon earth to whom high and important authority is delegated – hastens to pay them that respect which their position demands, and to treat them with all that duteous ceremony which their exalted rank, and (by consequence) great virtues, imperatively claim at his hands.

It’s a shame I’m not writing an essay, for that quote would greatly augment my word count. What that essay would be on I’m not sure, for, as so often, Dickens has deployed a swarm of clauses to say nothing of any great import. He keeps up this habit on a macro and micro level: one is bored by his overuse of words and troubled by his fondness for one word in particular, ‘Jew.’

Dickens initially defended his descriptions of the greedy and sinister Jewish character named Fagin. There were, he said, a great many thieves and criminals of Jewish origin in London’s East End at that time. He then changed his tune somewhat in response to the pointed criticism of a Jewish banker and his wife who had helped him sell his house. So embarrassed was he by his own writing that he diluted much of the anti-semitism, most notably by replacing ‘the Jew’ with ‘Fagin,’ though this adjustment is mostly limited to the second half of the novel and somewhat negated by the satisfied tone with which he describes Fagin’s execution.

If, then, the novel we know today is Dickens’ attempt at philo-semitism one wonders how bad the earlier editions were. Take this example from the former:

It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.

This and similar passages are rendered less surprising but no less shocking when one learns of Dickens’ contempt for the lower classes. He once had a poor woman arrested for using vulgar language on the street. He sympathised more with the Confederates in the American Civil War and made some shocking remarks about African Americans. Perhaps even more surprisingly for one so apparently concerned with workers’ rights, he wrote that if he could he would “exterminate from the face of the earth” the Indians involved in the 1857 rebellion.

Let’s suppose, though, that you love colons and clauses as much as you hate the Zionists. The last thing I would say to spare you the agony of this novel is that Oliver Twist is tedious, repetitive, predictable and possessed of only the faintest murmurings of that “anarchic humour” that Christopher Hitchens mentioned. The plot, though as weak as an underfed orphan, is only concluded thanks to a handful of convenient coincidences brought to light about 120 pages too late. Please, sir, I don’t want any more.

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