I grew up watching the 1968 film Oliver! but for some reason only bought a copy of the book last year. The magic of the film has stayed with me throughout my life. When I was little I loved the fact that it was both frightening and funny, and I still can’t get enough of the wonderful songs!
Perhaps because of the music and singing, I was always under the impression that Oliver Twist was a children’s book. However it’s much grittier and at times downright gruesome. There’s also less laugh-out-loud humour, which is replaced by sharp and dark satire. In fact, the book is simply dripping with sarcasm, showing Dickens’ total disgust of the workhouse and justice systems of the time.
The characters are not as fun and exuberant as you’d expect from Dickens, but I did find them more interesting than in the film. Fagin’s house is not painted as a hideaway for jolly ragamuffins, instead his young recruits live in desperate circumstances, making a living the only way they can. Fagin himself is much nastier and more conniving than I’d expected after the almost lovable character I’d always imagined. This is a hard London, and the characters cannot escape that.
Most fascinating to me was the insight into Bill and Nancy’s relationship. Both characters are written with such perception, particularly that of Nancy, whose moments of despair are truly heartbreaking. Hers is the saddest story in the book, but I also found myself seeing Bill in a different light. Oliver Reed still gives me nightmares with his gruff, silent and menacing portrayal in the film. But the book goes far deeper into his mind and explores his guilt-ridden conscience. This made me think about his childhood – surely he would have started off much like the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates. The cycle of crime in Dickens’ London is evident in this book. We see why it begins, how it can develop and where it ends up – and, spoiler alert, it nearly never ends well.
Putting all the gloom to one side, a ray of light does filter through in the form of Oliver’s more caring friends, Mr Brownlow and the Maylies. These chapters are almost hazy in my memory compared to the grimy underbelly of Victorian London, and they are my least favourite. Everything is too idyllic and there are far too many happy coincidences – it’s hard to suspend disbelief at times.
This book is not for the faint-hearted as it touches on disturbing issues and can be very graphic, but I urge everyone to read it anyway. It clearly shows Dickens’ views on the unfair society he lived in and, I believe, is still relevant today.