Chapman & Hall
New Burlington Street
Oliver Twist - Editorial Notes (by John Ross) to Mr C. Dickens:
(My notes, below, are on the text of the three-volume “Boz” edition we hope to issue this coming November. Any revisions you make will, of course, be used in the continuing serialization in Bentley’s Magazine, due to run until the Spring of next year.)
The excellence of your story lies in:
1. The richness of character;
2. The intricacy of the plot;
3. The superb descriptions of certain places;
4. The sense of fate that threatens Oliver’s life and happiness throughout.
Any redrafting of the story should preserve and enhance these points of excellence.
That said, such a report as this must inevitably concentrate on the weaknesses; it must also suggest possible remedies. One fundamental weakness is father to all the rest, viz. your seemingly incorrigible belief that the story cannot stand on its own merits but must constantly be ‘spiced up’ with manufactured dramas, threats to Oliver’s life or sanity, and comic characters who would make us grind our teeth to stumps were we so unfortunate as to meet them in real life. And there’s the rub, Sir : Real Life! You are a master who knows no equal in your descriptions of real life. Did you but trust your genius there and give us a plain tale, where the horrors of poverty and exploitation are allowed to speak for themselves and not to be constantly elbowed into the wings by the villains of melodrama or the buffoons of pantomime … oh what a tale that would be!
There is one further general point. The story was written in weekly episodes and you habitually worked so close to the hour of printing that you could not possibly concern yourself with the details of even the following episode, which in many cases had still to be written. One example will suffice: In chapter 5, Oliver, now Sowerberry’s “delightful mute” for funeral processions, is left for an eternity in the paupers’ section of the graveyard while the rain pours down and the Important Personages take shelter. Since they are about to bury another pauper, Oliver must know that this is the closest he has ever stood to his mother since he could stand at all. Does he reflect on it? He does not. Instead he plays leapfrog over the gravestones with some other lads. Yet in the very next chapter, when Noah Claypole muses that Oliver’s mother must have been “a regular right-down bad ’un,” the little lad goes berserk and half kills him. What a chance you have missed here to link the two chapters and prepare us for such a violent response! Oliver standing in perplexity before a thousand unmarked graves, wondering which one holds his only link to a lost family and an unknown home! Oh Sir, what a verbal feast you could serve us here, now that you know at last where your tale is leading! It is these very inconsistencies that we must now extirpate; the reader of a novel deserves no less.
And so – to the particulars. The three specific weaknesses are as follows:
Weakness 1: Over-reliance on coincidence.
There are no fewer than 26 Incredible Coincidences, which give rise, inter alia, to 21 Unanswered Questions and 5 Plain Impossibilities – as follows. (Chapters are shown in parentheses where relevant.)
Unanswered Question 1: The Dodger is terrified of entering London by daylight when he first meets Oliver (8); the following day and ever after, however, he shows himself with impunity by daylight everywhere. What has changed meanwhile?
Incredible Coincidence 1: Dodger and Bates happen to pick the pocket of Brownlow, who turns out to have been Oliver’s father’s greatest friend (10).
Incredible Coincidence 2: Oliver’s brother, Monks, happens to see Oliver being arrested and carried to Fang’s court and notices so great a likeness to their late father that he knows him at once for his half-brother. (This is not mentioned at all in 11, where it happens, but it is reported in 37, when it becomes convenient – nay, essential – for it to have happened).
Plain Impossibility 1: How did Monks manage this identification when Oliver’s nose is smashed in and his face all smeared with blood – to say nothing of his being only 10 or 11 years old?
Unanswered Question 2: What was Monks’s business there, anyway? The court is described as being tucked away in a difficult-to-reach courtyard – not a place one would casually pass on one’s way to somewhere else.
Incredible Coincidence 3: Brownlow happens to own a picture of Agnes, Oliver’s mother (12). Several characters comment on her likeness to young Oliver – so now he bears a striking resemblance to both his parents!
Incredible Coincidence 4: Fagin happens to acquire Oliver’s old clothes, sold by Mrs Bedwin to unnamed dealers (14) ...
Unanswered Question 3: ... by what means?
Unanswered Question 4: And why does he, though desperate to find Oliver, never once try to trace him through those unnamed clothes dealers – especially as they are now his only link to the boy?
Incredible Coincidence 5: Nancy has somehow discovered that Oliver is living at Brownlow’s and has been very poorly (15).
Unanswered Question 5: How did she manage that?
Incredible Coincidence 6: Nancy and Sikes just happen to be walking down the very street Oliver takes on his ill-starred errand from Brownlow, when they kidnap him back (15).
Incredible Coincidence 7: Mr Bumble – one of your very finest characters – gets sent to Clerkenwell, arriving on the very day (and the only day) Brownlow’s advertisement seeking news of Oliver appears in the papers (17).
Incredible Coincidence 8: Fagin chooses a particular house in Chertsey, 20 miles outside London, for Oliver to help Sikes burgle; this one house out of thousands just happens to contain Oliver’s Aunt Rose and the kindly lady who adopted her (19).
Incredible Coincidence 9: Old Sal (whom you simply call ‘Mrs Thingummy’ in Chapter One), after many wanderings comes back to the very workhouse where Oliver was born to give a pawn ticket to the matron; the pawned items, which she stole from Agnes’s corpse, would prove Oliver’s lineage (24).
Incredible Coincidence 10: Nancy, left for drunk by Fagin, is immediately sober enough to walk a couple of miles from Sikes’s crib to Fagin’s den in Whitechapel, arriving in perfect time to overhear Monks confessing his role in wishing Oliver out of the way (26); but he only wants Oliver turned into a criminal, not killed. Their father’s will, written when he did not know whether Agnes was dead or alive, much less delivered of his bastard child, specifically excludes any inheritance by such a child if he turns out to be a criminal.
Unanswered Question 6: Why did Nancy dodge Fagin on this particular night since even Fagin did not know Monks was coming?
Incredible Coincidence 11: Oliver, wounded and staggering about the fields and lanes near Chertsey, manages to end up fainting on the doorstep of the very house he burgled a few hours earlier (28).
Incredible Coincidence 12: When Oliver and Dr Losberne go to Pentonville to interview Brownlow, they find he has gone to the West Indies (with Mrs Bedwin and Mr Grimwig). They think Monks is still living out there. Brownlow’s sole reason for uprooting his entire household is that he wants Monks to explain the strange likeness between Oliver (of whom he has no portrait) and Agnes Fleming (32). He does not know that Monks has ever seen Oliver or that Monks even knows of the boy’s existence. Yet he seems willing to risk the consequences of alerting Monks to it, knowing the man to be a scoundrel!
Incredible Coincidence 13: While staying in the country Oliver is sent with an express letter into the nearby market town. Even if he loitered, he would hardly be on the street five minutes; yet during that time Monks, who just happens to be in the same remote country town, recognizes him and, after shrieking several curses and foaming at the mouth, falls in a fainting fit (33). Incidentally, you have already used the send-Oliver-on-an-errand device to put him in jeopardy; it was dubious once ... but twice?
Unanswered Question 7: What was Monks doing there? (For the second time of asking.)
Incredible Coincidence 14: Later Monks brings Fagin to the cottage and points out Oliver, who is cat-napping by an open window; nobody else is around to witness it although when Oliver cries out for help, they are instantly at his side, while the two intruders vanish (34) (I gather that your engraver. Mr Cruikshank, had been commissioned to draw this scene a month or so before you wrote it; and that when the time to write it came along, you had already changed the story to make your original intentions impossible to follow. So, as a last resort, you have turned the events into “just a dream, after all!” Can that really be what has happened here?)
Unanswered Question 8: The cottage is some miles from the town; Monks saw Oliver for a few seconds, which he spends shouting foul oaths at the boy before fainting, so how does he know where the cottage is? The natural inference would be that the boy is lodged somewhere in the town itself.
Unanswered Question 9: Why did nobody for miles around see Fagin and Monks, although, as strangers, they must have stopped at least once to ask the way?
Unanswered Question 10: How did they manage to creep in and then run out in a panic through long grass without leaving the slightest trace?
Plain Impossibility 2: In the cottage, Harry Maylie, who loves Rose to distraction, is never around when she is up and about but is always present when she returns to her sickbed (34-36) (He nonetheless finds time to go on endless wildflower-gathering expeditions with Oliver.)
Incredible Coincidence 15: Mr Bumble, humiliated by his new wife, wanders the streets disconsolately and strolls into an inn he has never before frequented; you go out of your way to stress that fact. Yet Monks, desperate to interview him about Oliver’s origins, is there, ready and waiting for him. He must have inquired about Bumble’s habits, so why pick an alehouse the man never frequents? (37).
Unanswered Question 11: How did Monks know where to go for information about Oliver’s birth, in the first place? Who told him and when?
Unanswered Question 12: Monks also hints at having seen Bumble on a previous occasion. He never approached him at that time and never alludes to it again. When did it happen and what bearing does it have on the story, anyway?
Unanswered Question 13: Mrs Bumble has meanwhile redeemed the items that Old Sal pawned – which prove Oliver’s lineage. The beadle and his wife arrange to hand them over to Monks – at a price, of course. Monks has somehow already rented a hovel built on stilts over a raging torrent ‘in the criminal part of the town’. This provides a splendidly dramatic background for the handover – but why did he go to such trouble before he knew it would be worth it (38)?
Unanswered Question 14: What is the significance of the boy who has been hiding beneath the hovel during Monks’s meeting with the Bumbles? We never hear of him before this chapter and he never appears again.
Incredible Coincidence 16: Nancy, who has hardly left Sikes’s bedside for weeks, makes a brief visit to Fagin’s den to collect money. Monks just happens to turn up while she is there, giving her the chance to eavesdrop yet again. (39).
Unanswered Question 15: She conveniently overhears him giving Rose Maylie’s temporary address at a West End hôtel to Fagin – why would he do that (39)? He cannot possibly know that Rose is Agnes’s sister and, therefore, Oliver’s aunt.
Incredible Coincidence 17: Just when Rose is at her wit’s end, not knowing where to turn for help, Oliver comes rushing in saying that Brownlow is back in London and he even has the man’s new address written down on a piece of paper (41).
Incredible Coincidence 18: Noah Claypole and Charlotte, running away to London, just happen to enter the Three Cripples and ...
Incredible Coincidence 19: ... Fagin just happens to be there at the time (42).
Incredible Coincidence 20: Sikes complains of the rarity of Fagin’s visits yet Fagin just happens to be at Sikes’s one Sunday night when Nancy makes it clumsily obvious that she wants to go out [to meet Rose and Brownlow clandestinely on London Bridge] (44).
Incredible Coincidence 21: The following Sunday night, despite the men’s suspicions about her loyalty, Nancy is as free as a lark to go where she likes. She goes to the Three Cripples but only long enough for Fagin to point her out to Claypole, who is to dodge her (34).
Incredible Coincidence 22: Nancy meets Rose and Brownlow on London Bridge and leads them to a dark parapet – the only place from which Claypole would have the slightest chance of eavesdropping (47).
Plain Impossibility 3: Brownlow tells Monks he knows there was a will, which Monks’s mother destroyed; but that information can only have come from the mother herself – and the only time she met Brownlow was to enlist his help in finding Monks; she was hardly likely to tell him in the same breath that she had destroyed his best friend’s will! (49).
Unanswered Question 16: Why would Brownlow go to such enormous pains to assist her in finding Monks? He never had anything but contempt for the pair of them.
Plain Impossibility 4: Edwin Leeford’s will barred any male child of Agnes’s from inheriting if he turned out to be a scoundrel; in which case he left that portion to Monks, whom he already knew to be a scoundrel! (51).
Incredible Coincidence 23: When it comes to unmasking the Bumbles, Brownlow and Grimwig have somehow managed to track down not only the two old hags who were nearby when Old Sal died but also the pawnbroker to whom she pawned the locket and rings; not only that, they have these witnesses standing by in an adjoining room in case they're needed (51).
Unanswered Question 17: Since the meeting was arranged from far-off London at only 36hrs notice (Ch. 49), how did they manage it? It takes more than 30hrs to get to Yorkshire by coach.
Plain Impossibility 5: The only person who knew the two hags were present and that Old Sal gave up a pawn-ticket was Mrs Bumble herself; even Bumble knew nothing of it. So Brownlow and Grimwig could not have managed to assemble the hags and the pawn-broker, anyway, no matter how much time they had.
Incredible Coincidence 24: Mr Fleming, the father of Agnes Fleming (Oliver’s mother) and her sister Rose, withdrew his family in shame and changed their name to ... we are not told. Brownlow failed to trace them under this new name but Monks’s mother (a woman ‘given over wholly to Continental frivolities’) manages it somehow and blackens Rose’s character with the cottagers who have adopted her (51).
Incredible Coincidence 25: But Mrs Maylie just happens to see little Rose and adopts her on the spur of the moment, not knowing that her real name is Fleming (51).
Incredible Coincidence 26: Brownlow was assured of Oliver’s parentage by his resemblance to his mother, whom he knows only from her portrait; Monks recognizes Oliver (battered nose, bloodstained face, and all) by his likeness to his father. (51).
Unanswered Question 18: But that same father was Brownlow’s close friend; why did Brownlow not see this amazing likeness, too – especially after the blood was washed away and the bruises healed?
Plain Impossibility 6: You tell us Rose was ‘two or three’ when Agnes ran away to give birth to Oliver; by the time they meet again in Chertsey, he is 11 but she is now 17 or 18 and thinking of marriage; how has she managed to gain six or seven years on her nephew?
Unanswered Question 19: Oliver and Brownlow go to visit Fagin in the condemned cell to retrieve ‘certain papers’. Since everything was cleared up in the previous chapter, what is the significance of these papers? Brownlow tells the warder it is a matter grave enough to warrant bringing a boy of Oliver’s age into such a grim place. We never hear of these papers again. They are not mentioned, much less produced and handed over. So why was it essential for Oliver to be present?
Unanswered Question 20: Brownlow singlehandedly decides how to vary the disposition of Edwin Leeford’s estate. How does he manage it without benefit of Probate or Chancery?
Unanswered Question 21: How can Harry Maylie be a layman destined for Parliament one week (50) and a fully benificed clergyman with his own parish the next (51)? (That is a Plain Impossibility, too.)
Weakness 2: The central character, Oliver himself.
You tell us that twenty-nine out of thirty babies who enter such a baby farm as Mrs Mann’s die; so the one-in-thirty who survive must be tough. To survive a further year in the workhouse calls for resilience. To draw the short straw, as Oliver did, and carry through an agreement to go up and ask for more, requires coolness and courage. To decide to run away and to carry out the plan successfully, by walking two hundred miles or more, requires a steely determination. For one small boy to do all these things, calls for intelligence and quickness of wit, as well.
So: tough, resilient, cool, courageous, determined, intelligent, quick-witted – these characteristics, inferred from your own narrative, define Oliver’s character properly. The perpetually mawkish, sentimental little angel you give us instead would have been high among the twenty-nine-out-of-thirty who fell at the first fence, I’m afraid. If he didn’t die of regular attrition, someone would surely have strangled him – and been congratulated for it rather than hanged.
Besides, the character you give Oliver seems to contradict everything you otherwise stand for! This story is full of the most powerful criticisms of the poor law, of the treatment of children, of the savagery (and criminal indifference) of ‘justice’ ... and so forth; no champion of reform could paint a better picture. But what is the point of reforming anything if goodness and badness are both so utterly innate? Oliver is good-good-good from first to last; no matter what befalls him, he never changes one iota. You are, in effect, saying that he was born immutably noble and good; the evil practices and lack of moral example that surround him from the day of his birth have been powerless to corrupt him. If that really is so, then why try to reform anything? The born-virtuous will never be corrupted and (a necessary corollary) the born-wicked can never be reformed. That is the lesson we must draw from Oliver’s character as presently delineated! And yet, I suggest, it is the very last thought you wish to implant in your readers’ minds.
How much more absorbing it would be if, instead, we saw this tough, resilient, cool, courageous, et cetera young lad put on the knife-edge between virtue and corruption – not once but as often as you can contrive it! How we should sit on the edge of our seats as we willed him onward toward virtue! The plot need not change but our interest in the story would increase an hundredfold. There is little drama in following a story in which we already know that, no matter what may happen, the principal character is never going to change or develop. Indeed, he will always yield to whatever you may require in the way of a plot.
Weakness 3. The need to explain and explain and explain ...
You have two long chapters – 49 and 51 – in which a number of people tell each other facts they already know and have known, in some cases, all their lives. One wonders what reason they have for this odd behaviour. You might argue that the less reason they have for telling each other these things, the more grateful we ought to be to them for taking the trouble to do so, nonetheless, for our benefit – otherwise we should never understand the dozens of mysteries surrounding the tale.
Or, instead, you might look again at your story and see if little clues could not be sprinkled here and there throughout the narrative. To supply but one sole example: Could you not relocate that country cottage to somewhere near Hatfield, on the Great North Road? And could not Monks, travelling back from his interview with the Bumbles, happen to catch sight of Oliver from the stage coach, when it goes into the Salisbury Arms to change horses? Oliver, of course, would have been sent into the town to post that express letter to Dr Losberne. You see – all the elements are already there in your story; they just need linking! Then we do not need that absurd coincidence you contrive in the unnamed market town in Ch. 34. A little thought along these lines will show you how to eliminate almost every Incredible Coincidence in a similar fashion.
The astute reader’s eyes will light up at each new snippet and he will follow you as avidly as any bloodhound ever chased a runaway and hunted him down at last; one less astute will shake his head in amazement when the final piece of the mystery is unravelled and say, ‘Now why did not I see that at the time? Dashed clever fellow, this Dickens!’ Surely both prospects are pleasing to you, Sir?
Also, if your characters begin to learn a little of what’s going on they can begin to move the story forward by their own deliberate and purposeful actions. The more they nudge your story onward, the less reliance you need place on the dead hand of endless and fantastical coincidences.
Naturally there must be a chapter near the end in which all is explained; but, instead of having people stand up and speak in turn, telling each other what they already know, may I suggest putting it in the form of a written confession which Monks must read aloud to an assembled company before he signs it?
* * *
Here are some miscellaneous suggestions, derived from jottings I made in the course of reading the book.
You make Fagin a Jew and an object of hatred. Your reputation may suffer for that in more enlightened future times – and I learn that several friends of yours have already expressed disquiet to you on reading the tale in serial form. Perhaps you could think about the Jews as a dispossessed, disinherited people and treat Fagin more from that viewpoint. The irony in a situation in which Monks asks a Jew to assist him in dispossessing and disinheriting Oliver would then be rendered poignant, indeed. (But I would still prefer you to change him into a dispossessed aristocrat – Lord Fagan, say, in the Irish peerage; the ironies would be even more compelling, for the Irish have been dispossessed of their lands far more recently. And no one would berate you for disparaging an Irish peer, or any class of Irishman.)
Make situations less monotonous
When Oliver is apprenticed at Sowerberry’s, for example, everyone is against him, which is monotonous. The situation when he’s at Brownlow’s is made more interesting by having Brownlow and Mrs Bedwin for Oliver and Grimwig against him. Similarly, when Oliver is kidnapped back into Fagin’s gang, everyone is against him but Nancy – and those pages stand out in their vividness. I'd like to see Charlotte turned into a good character in the Sowerberry household – secretly on Oliver’s side when all other hands are raised against him. You could use her interventions later to reduce your over-reliance on coincidence.
The arrest, trial, and disappearance of the Dodger (from the story) is entirely purposeless. It forces you to bring in the appalling Claypole, whom Fagin would surely never employ, except as a sop to throw to the Cerberus of Bow Street. To let such a lazy, greedy, mendacious, and untrustworthy lad into his innermost sanctum, to see all his secrets so that he can immediately turn king’s evidence and peach on them all, is something your Fagin would never have done. I'd suggest eliminating Claypole’s reappearance and keeping the Dodger to dodge Nancy to her meeting with the ‘enemy.’ Then Fagin, beside himself with fury, should put words into the Dodger’s mouth when he repeats the tale of her treachery to Sikes. If ‘yer wants to make our flesh creep’ here (and I'm sure you do), Claypole is not the man to do it.
You describe Clerkenwell and Jacob’s Island by name so superbly that a hundred years from now a reader would still be able to find his way around them, blindfolded and by night. Similarly with the walk to Chertsey. Why, then, be so coy about the other locations? I wish you'd name every place, whether the name be imaginary or real.
Similarly, I'd like to see each character named as soon as he or she appears. To get used to somebody as ‘the red-faced gentleman’ only to have him turn into ‘Mr Limbkins’ after several pages is most annoying. You do it all the time.
The fulcrum moment – Oliver’s escape from the dens of iniquity – descends into farce, which ill serves your underlying purpose. After the failed burglary, Oliver, bleeding from gunshot wounds, is abandoned by Sikes and rescued by a comic trio of the Maylie household – Giles, the pompous butler, Brittles, a halfwit lad-of-all-work, and a nameless tinker and knife-grinder who happens to be spending the night in the stables. They regale the cook and the housemaid (two more comic characters) with a highly coloured account of their bravery. Further plot twists are provided by Dr Losberne, who also turns out to be something of a comic character. That evening two Bow Street Runners arrive to investigate the crime. At this point the reader (this reader, anyway), having been surfeited with a comic butler, a comic boy, a comic tinker, a comic cook, a comic maid, and a serio-comic doctor, is hoping for two investigators who are mean in spirit and sharp-eyed with their suspicions. It is needed in order to offer some sort of genuine threat to Oliver’s remaining in the household with his new benefactresses. We look forward to meeting two of the sharpest, cleverest, quick-wittedest Bow Street Runners who ever ran – sleuths who will come three or four times within an ace of uncovering the truth about Oliver and carrying him off to the gallows. Instead we get two more clowns, named Blathers and Duff. So now we have eight comedians assembled beneath one roof (two more and they may play comic five-a-side football to cheer him up in his convalescence). Almost the entire following chapter is taken up by Blathers and Duff, who consume quantities of ale and tell a long and mostly unfunny story about their ‘clever’ and heroic capture of a swindler called Conkey Chickweed. Their ‘cleverness’ consisted in walking up to the man and saying, “Corney [sic] Chickweed, you are a swindler!” They then decide the Sikes burglary is also the work of this Chickweed and go away to find and arrest him. The story shines no light on the present tale and is a pure diversion into feeble nonsense at a point where some tension, menace, and drive are sorely needed.
Harry and Rose
You are ambiguous here as to whether you think society is correct or cruel in damning Rose just because her sister stained the family name by conceiving Oliver in anticipation of an imminent wedding. You appear to censure society right up until the end; but you fall at this last fence. You make Harry cave in and bow to public prejudice: Rose is a Fallen Angel because, when she was but two years old, her sister Agnes conceived out of wedlock; and, for this crime, Harry cannot marry her and remain an M.P. Your solution? He resigns. But hey-nonny-no! – all is well, because he has found some trick of becoming, immediately, a beneficed parson in the Church of England!
But is it necessary, anyway? Try this instead:
Edwin Leeford, father by his first marriage of ‘Monks’ (who changed his name from Leeford at some time) and of Oliver by his liaison with Agnes (whose surname we never know), goes to Rome to annul his marriage (assume it to be Roman Catholic to suit the wife’s faith), succeeds, and then goes through a proxy marriage to Agnes in the British Embassy there and makes a new will. Then, alas, he dies before he can get back to England and tell Agnes she and he are already legally married.
The first Mrs Leeford destroys the church certificate of annulment and the proxy marriage certificate clutched in Leeford’s dead fingers. But she is unable to get her hands on the records in the British Embassy. There they lie like a time-bomb ready to explode at the dénouement of Oliver’s tale: poor Agnes did not know she was legally married and that Oliver would be born within wedlock! And now you can poke double fun at society’s cruel prejudice by permitting Harry to marry Rose after all and keep his place with the glowing prospects – all because, in the final chapter, a mere scrap of paper is discovered in the Embassy in Rome!
But wait! The threat of Rose’s discovery is itself a chimæra! Consider your story as it already stands, without any changes: Agnes, aged about 18, stains the family name (Prendergast, let us say – since you do not name them at all) in a place you also do not name (but let us say Bedford); in shame, she wanders as far from Bedford as she can manage. Her father changes their name to ... again you omit to tell us (but let us say Smith) and moves to ... (let us say Carlisle). When he dies, Rose Smith, now aged 3, is adopted by cottagers in Carlisle; Edwin Leeford’s first wife tracks these cottagers down and blackens Rose Smith’s name to them; Mrs Maylie from Chester arrives shortly after, adopts Rose Smith, moves to Chertsey, and changes Rose’s name yet again to Maylie. All this from your own telling (except that I have supplied names to what you have left anonymous).
Even supposing that the first Mrs Leeford (Monks's mother) told the cottagers the entire story, and that they passed it on unadorned to Mrs Maylie, how many people in all the world know that Rose Maylie of Chertsey, was formerly Rose Smith of Carlisle, and before that, two-year-old Rose Prendergast of Bedford, where her 18-year-old sister Agnes ran away rather than stain the Prendergast name? The answer is: One! And that one is Mrs Maylie, herself. Could rack and thumbscrews ever drag Rose’s secret from her lips? There is also the first Mrs Leeford, do you say? But you tell us she is dead. The two cottagers, then? But they, even if still alive, cannot possibly know that Rose Maylie of Chertsey is the Rose Smith who went off with a lady of that surname from Chester (and I challenge even the Incredible-Coincidence-prone Mr Dickens to invent a chain of circumstance by which they could acquire that knowledge and use it!). Monks, then? But he learns that Rose Maylie is really a Prendergast (and Oliver’s aunt) only days before he is given his comeuppance, and Mrs Maylie does not know of Monks’s existence, either, until that same moment, so he cannot ever have been considered a threat to Rose’s unmasking. So how does Mrs Maylie – and, through her, Harry and Rose – imagine the Awful Truth about Rose Prendergast is ever going to emerge? She, as I have shown, is its sole guardian now.
For this reason alone the whole of the Rose-Harry alliance should be reconsidered. And whatever Harry becomes, he cannot be an aspiring politician in Westminster one week and a fully ordained parson beneficed living in his own rural parsonage the next! If you merely wish to make the point that the Church of England makes few intellectual or moral demands of its ministers, why, there are a million other ways to do that!
And that is where I intended finishing the fictional ‘John Ross’s’ editorial notes to Mr Dickens; but then I could not help wondering what Messrs Chapman and Hall, the publishers of Oliver Twist in book form – and, of course, the employers of ‘John Ross’ – would have made of his efforts (they being British rather than American publishers). Hence (knowing that breed only too well) I offer the bonne-bouche of this tailpiece:
Note from Mr Edward Chapman of Chapman & Hall to Mr John Ross (undated but obviously several weeks before November 1838 when the first 3-volume “Boz” edition was published. The serialization in Bentley’s Magazine, begun in February 1837, ran until April 1839):
It was good of you to show me your critique of Mr Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’ but I do wish you had consulted with me or Mr Hall before putting yourself to such labour. The fact is that we have bought the standing type from the printers of ‘Bentley’s Magazine’ and, though I have tried not to let that expense influence my decision, it is certainly one of those facts that a new publishing house, struggling to establish itself in a cutthroat market, cannot entirely ignore. Besides, the sort of unsophistical readers of only middling intellect who make up the vast bulk of Mr Dickens’s admirers, do not appear to mind his Inconsistencies and Imposibilities in the slightest – to say nothing of his Frequent Sermons. And so, taking all things into account, my Partner and I have decided to print the existing edition from the standing type – ‘warts and all’!
I fear this will disappoint you but would point out, that the way to avoid such frustration in the future is to consult with one or other of us much earlier.
As to the second matter you raise: I write with undimmed admiration for your editorial skill but fear I must inform you that the time is not propitious in the publishing trade to seek even the smallest increment to your annual salary.
[It is pleasing to note that, in a world altered beyond recognition since Dickens’s day, some features have not changed in the slightest degree. – M. M.]