The first ten parts of Oliver Twist were written at the same time Dickens was writing the last ten parts of Pickwick. Each section of Oliver Twist ran to about eight thousand words, and each section of Pickwick ran to about twice that or a bit more, so Dickens was writing ninety pages a month of these novels, while also working on other essays, articles, speeches, and plays. Evidence is that he would write the dark, ironic chapters of Oliver Twist first, then the light, comic chapters of Pickwick. The death of Mary Hogarth caused him to miss the June number of both novels and, some critics say, to soften the harshness of Oliver Twist; but in spite of his profound mourning, he never stinted his activities.

All through 1836 and 1837—that is, while writing, editing, getting married, moving house, and having children (Mary, called Mamie, was born on March 6, 1838)—Dickens was also writing plays and promoting or overseeing their production. He wrote four dramatic works during this period: The Strange Gentleman a comic piece; The Village Coquettes, an operetta; Is She His Wife?, a farce; and The Lamplighter, another farce. And though all of them went into production, and three of them had performances, only The Strange Gentleman ran for more than a handful of performances, and Dickens (reluctantly, perhaps) gave up playwriting for the time being. While not lasting works of art, the plays are testament both to Dickens's creative energy and to his surpassing love of the theater, which would emerge in later life in several potent ways.

Along with A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist is probably the best known of Dickens's narratives, certainly because, like many of Dickens's own works and like many other nineteenth-century novels, it was reworked for the stage, where the simple and vivid story of the workhouse child who falls among thieves and then is rescued and restored to his own wealthy grandfather made a dramatic and cohesive play. The arc of the narrative is fairy tale–like, but the details of Oliver's companions and surroundings came directly from Dickens's immediate world. The New Poor Law, under which members of families were parted from one another according to gender, with the feeding regulations that Oliver so memorably flouts when he asks Mr. Bumble the beadle for more, had been in effect for some three years and was widely opposed by more liberal and radical elements of English society, of which Dickens counted himself one. The area of London where Fagin and his gang of thieves lived was very close to where Dickens lived while he was doing much of the writing, and Dickens, with his lifelong love of walking, was intimately familiar with it (as with most of London and, indeed, all of the places where he lived). Dickens's outrage at the primitive conditions that the poor of London had to live in was genuine, both on their behalf and as what we might term an "ecological understanding" that there could be no real separation between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the diseased, the dirty and the clean, the educated and the ignorant. Images of the flow of all things abound in his fiction from beginning to end, and in some sense he was always striving in his work to include more and more, to make each novel bigger and broader and also more particular, and to make the links between all things less linear and more netlike, to reproduce on the page the simultaneity and comprehensiveness of the way his mind and world around him joined.

Like The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist was related in form to other works that were popular at the time, in this case narratives of the lives of real orphans; but, according to Ackroyd, it was the first English novel to take a child as its protagonist. In some sense, Oliver Twist turned the world upside down and offered a new view of things to Dickens's readers—life at the bottom of Victorian society, as seen through the eyes of a child. The form allowed the author to approach at a distance issues of his own childhood that he was not yet ready to address, among them feelings of victimization and abandonment.

Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books


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