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Why re-edit Oliver Twist?

Sometime back in prehistory the late, great literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith, speaking on BBC Radio 4, said of one of my novels: “He is every bit as bad as Dickens.” What writer would not be flattered by the comparison! When I mentioned it to my American editor, suggesting it could be used in my publicity, she declined, saying she did not like the double-edged nature of the “compliment”—if, indeed, that is what it was. “But,” she added, “a modern version of, say, Oliver Twist would be exciting, no?” I returned to Ireland, blew the dust off my copy of the novel, and started to re-read words I had left behind in my early teens.

Chapter 1 was a disappointment. Dickens seemed more intent on pamphleteering than on giving us the touch-feel-taste-smell-hear of a birthing scene with a dying woman in a workhouse. Chapter 2 was worse. Starved infants brought up in squalor, without education, without religion, were all little angels, cruelly put upon by uncaring overseers. Worse still, Dickens could not decide whether those overseers were more comical than vicious or more vicious than comical; they whizzed between the two states like shuttlecocks, ending up as nothing more harmful than baddies in a novel by Dickens.

Now I had worked for some years as an editor in a London subsidiary of Doubleday; better still, I was taught the trade there by the great Donald Berwick, who, in turn had learned it on the New Yorker under its legendary founder-editor Harold Ross. If Donald hadn’t picked one particular short story from the New Yorker slush-pile you might never have heard of JD Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. Pedigrees don’t come higher. More—my early novels were edited by Bob Gottlieb at Knopf (who later went on, himself, to edit the New Yorker). I was also edited by Michael Korda, top man at Simon & Schuster. If I had any doubt about how to construct a good novel, these three giants had taken care of that. So it was only natural for me to wonder what such editors would have made of Oliver Twist if they, living back then, had plucked its manuscript out of the slush-pile.

To find the answer I donated my two middle names, “John Ross,” to an imaginary editor in Dickens's own publishing house of Chapman and Hall, and set about compiling the sort of line-by-line report that I was used to receiving from Berwick, Gottlieb, and Korda. Here I shall say only that “John Ross” discovered that the plot relied on 26 incredible coincidences, provoked 20 unanswered questions, and contained five plain impossibilities. The full report is published as an appendix in the ebook; you can also read it online here.

It all begged the question: How could a writer of Dickens’s skill and stature have allowed such a thing?

The answer is that he could scarcely have avoided it. Each chapter was snatched from his hand when the ink was barely dry and was immediately published, instalment after twice-monthly instalment, in Bentley’s Magazine. It took more than two years before Chapter 54 revealed all. Dickens clearly had good reason not to tie himself down in plot and structure before he even began to write. This is clear from the very first chapter, where an unnamed and undescribed woman, having tramped an unspecified distance from an unnamed origin, finds shelter in an unnamed workhouse in an unnamed town. Here is his opening paragraph:


Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small:  to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.


Nothing to constrain him or trip him up later, then. The coyness continues. The unnamed woman, assisted by an unnamed old crone and an unnamed surgeon, is delivered of an as-yet unnamed baby (though Dickens then anticipates his own joke and names him, prematurely, Oliver Twist).

Dickens had good cause for such parsimony with hard and fast details, for, on those few occasions where he was actually forced to create plot in advance of writing the story, things tended to come unstuck—badly unstuck in the case of Chapter 34. Each instalment was embellished with a woodblock illustration by one of the greatest contemporary artists—George Cruikshank. But such illustrations need time to design, draw, get outline approval, transfer to wood, engrave, proof, get final approval, and deliver; so authors were obliged to give a detailed description of scenes that still lay some way in the future. Cruikshank’s illustration to Chapter 34 is a case in point. It shows Monks and Fagin staring at a sleeping Oliver through the window of Mrs Maylie’s country cottage.


Oliver Fagin Monks at Maylies.gif


By the time the woodblock was delivered Dickens had changed the plot (if it can still be called that) in such a way as to make this scene impossible. Rather than waste it, however, he decided to turn it into a dream: Oliver is simply having a nightmare. Alas, Dickens himself seems to have forgotten this by the time he reached Chapter 39, in which Fagin confirms that he was away from London, “out in the country,” at precisely that time—a confession suddenly necessary to the ever-swerving plot.

Indeed, the entire story is shot through and through with inconsistencies and false clues, laid down in case they might be of use in the still-unplotted future; and they are all simply abandoned when the story no longer requires them—supernumerary nipples that never gave suck.

Such defects show us that Dickens had started writing what must have seemed to him a simple, straightforward tale whose pity and horror would be enough to carry it inexorably forward: Oliver, an illegitimate orphan, is to be cheated of his inheritance by his evil half-brother Monks. That’s it! That’s the kernel of the entire story. But the first problem, for Monks, is right there in the first chapter: Where is Oliver? Monks must find him, or her, and make sure the child’s lineage is never traced. That is the threat which hangs over Oliver throughout the book, providing the tension that drives the story forward.

But now put yourself in Monks’s place, which is what any author must do when constructing his plot. Where did Oliver’s mother live? (All England to choose from.) Which direction did she take when her “shame” began to show? (There are 360 degrees to choose among). How far did she tramp? (How long is a piece of string?) Where did she give birth? (Every parish union in the land had a workhouse.) Was the baby born alive?  In the intervening years did it survive? (Most didn’t.) Was it a boy or a girl? A cautious writer would have answers to all such questions before writing “Chapter One” at the top of a clean sheet. So how does Dickens answer each question?

He simply doesn’t! We wait until Chapter 37 before Monks admits that he had no idea of Oliver’s existence or whereabouts (or gender, indeed) before he saw the boy, then aged about 10, being carried unconscious and bleeding into a London magistrate’s court. That incident was described in great detail in Chapter 11 but of Monks’s presence there is not the faintest whisper. Monks adds that he recognised the unconscious 10-year-old Oliver (face all covered in blood) “by his extraordinary resemblance to our father”.

This explanation by Monks in Ch37 has already been liberally contradicted by several references to Oliver’s uncanny likeness to a woman in a portrait belonging to Mr Brownlow, the benefactor who rescues him from the magistrate’s clutches; and no wonder—for the portrait turns out to be of Oliver’s mother!

The impossibilities, inconsistencies, laughable coincidences, and second thoughts that litter this main thread of the story infect all the others, too; but I doubt it bothered Dickens at all. By the time he had published the first dozen instalments it must have been clear to him that they didn’t bother his readers in the slightest. He made their flesh creep, brought tears to their eyes, warmed the cockles of their hearts, astonished them with his invention, wallowed in a Victorian sort of magical realism, and that was all that mattered to them.

So my New York editor’s challenge to me, in rewriting Oliver Twist, was to accept the story but rearrange the events to make it entirely plausible. I know, of course, that she meant me to bring it up to date, at least to Edwardian times, or even the inter-war years, but the challenge to keep the story back in the 1830s, accept all Dickens’s characters (except the Jew—whom I replaced with a disinherited Irish peer I called Lord Fagan, because it made the disinheritance theme more poignant), and use all the events and locations of the original, was one I could not refuse. (Which, alas, is what my New York—and British—editors did about six months later. So this ebook is its first edition.)

I must leave it to you to judge its success or failure. I treated it as if the original Oliver Twist had merely been Dickens’s first draft. My rewrite is what I imagine he would have written if he had been favoured with the sort of editorial criticism I was privileged to have from my three great editors. For that reason, many hundreds of lines from the original have survived in this new version (as they certainly would have done). If you want to see which is me and which is the Old Charlie, you can click on the cover below to download a PDF of the entire text where Dickens's original text is underlined and his imagined revisions are added in plain text.

(Adapted from the preface to the ebook.)

A comparison of the two opening chapters gives the flavour
Dickens’s “first draft” After the edit



Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.

As Oliver gave this first proof of the free and proper action of his lungs, the patchwork coverlet which was carelessly flung over the iron bedstead, rustled; the pale face of a young woman was raised feebly from the pillow; and a faint voice imperfectly articulated the words, “Let me see the child, and die.”

The surgeon had been sitting with his face turned towards the fire: giving the palms of his hands a warm and a rub alternately. As the young woman spoke, he rose, and advancing to the bed’s head, said, with more kindness than might have been expected of him:

“Oh, you must not talk about dying yet.”

“Lor bless her dear heart, no!” interposed the nurse, hastily depositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents of which she had been tasting in a corner with evident satisfaction.

“Lor bless her dear heart, when she has lived as long as I have, sir, and had thirteen children of her own, and all on ’em dead except two, and them in the wurkus with me, she’ll know better than to take on in that way, bless her dear heart! Think what it is to be a mother, there’s a dear young lamb do.”

Apparently this consolatory perspective of a mother’s prospects failed in producing its due effect. The patient shook her head, and stretched out her hand towards the child.

The surgeon deposited it in her arms. She imprinted her cold white lips passionately on its forehead; passed her hands over her face; gazed wildly round; shuddered; fell back—and died. They chafed her breast, hands, and temples; but the blood had stopped forever. They talked of hope and comfort. They had been strangers too long.

“It’s all over, Mrs. Thingummy!” said the surgeon at last.

“Ah, poor dear, so it is!” said the nurse, picking up the cork of the green bottle, which had fallen out on the pillow, as she stooped to take up the child. “Poor dear!”

“You needn’t mind sending up to me, if the child cries, nurse,” said the surgeon, putting on his gloves with great deliberation. “It’s very likely it will be troublesome. Give it a little gruel if it is.” He put on his hat, and, pausing by the bed-side on his way to the door, added, “She was a good-looking girl, too; where did she come from?”

“She was brought here last night,” replied the old woman, “by the overseer’s order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.”

The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. “The old story,” he said, shaking his head: “no wedding-ring, I see. Ah! Good-night!”

The medical gentleman walked away to dinner; and the nurse, having once more applied herself to the green bottle, sat down on a low chair before the fire, and proceeded to dress the infant.

What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.

Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.

Treats of the place where a male child was born; and of the circumstances surrounding his birth

A thorn tree arched over the path across Fellgate Moor. The pitiless north wind keened through its bare branches, shaking them across the face of a gibbous moon. Its gnarled trunk afforded neither landmark nor shelter to the poor woman who laboured up that path, tricing her swollen but enfeebled body into the wind and keeping her leeward eye fixed on the light ahead—the only sign of human habitation in all that vast moorland waste.

Nine months earlier that solitary thorn would have burst into blossom; then it would have made a cheerful bridal arch for that same woman. Indeed, it was not unlike the arch under which she had, at that very time, hoped to walk on her way into church and up to the very altar, there to seal in sacred vows the love she bore for one whose death had robbed her of that pledge. Your stern moralist would therefore say that its present deflowered state was most apt to her present condition—to which I reply that such a moralist had better hold his or her tongue, for an even sterner lesson is in store.

When her feet wanted a good half-mile of the tall iron gates before which that solitary lantern swung in the wind, a bank of clouds scudded southward, extinguishing the moon and sprinkling a few tentative pellets of sleet among the heather and the dry, yellow sedge. The young woman had nothing for a coat beyond a half-rotten corn sack, which, with one corner folded into the other, she had draped over her head like a monk’s cowl. She bent even lower than the pains of her labour had already brought her, but the boisterous wind could lift the sleet as nimbly as if it were so much goosedown—a double cruelty when the melting of it on her skin was chill beyond bearing.

Moments later, as the skies darkened to the black of pitch, the sleet turned to hail and rain. Then hailstones, as big as pebbles, tumbled down with a ferocity that compelled her to link her fingers above and behind her head, where they accepted a bruising that would surely have stunned her and left her to die where she dropped. The rain, which now fell in gouts as thick as six-inch nails, soaked through the sacking in no time at all. She felt it run in icy rilles between her fingers, down her neck, into her clothing, seeking any flesh where some insignificant warmth yet lingered, chilling it to the point where death at last seemed easeful.

Two things, and two alone, kept one foot in front of the other over the last furlong of her three-hundred-mile trudge from autumn into winter: the lantern, with its promise of shelter, food, and warmth, and the child she might deliver there if only she reached the place in time. The dainty shoes that had brought her all that way disintegrated at last over those final yards. But her bare feet were by then too numb to feel the sharp chippings of millstone grit that shredded her soles beneath her. The Recording Angel himself could not have told you how she covered the final twenty paces.

The lantern, swinging wildly in the gale and flaring up with each new gust, picked out the name above the gate in gleaming wet letters of iron: Fellgate District Union Workhouse—at the sight of which she let out an eldritch cry: “Mercy! Have pity!” and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the massive gatepost. If she had not accidentally clutched at the bell-pull as she fell, they would have found her there the following dawn, as cold as the stone of which the institution itself was built—colder than which it is not given to many stones to be.

But the jangling of the bell was heard above the howling of the storm and so she was discovered, and brought at length into the room where such unfortunates were delivered. There an old crone in twelfth-hand clothes, her brain somewhat misty from an unexpected allowance of ale, alternately stretched her hands toward the hearth (where a minute glow of twigs and slack brown coal understudied a fire), and rubbed her knuckles in its feeble warmth. Every now and then she sipped from a handy green bottle, to keep alive the spirit engendered by the ale. In the rest of that gaunt stone chamber the air was distinguishable from that on the moor outside only by the moderation of its blast and its almost total lack of hail, sleet, or rain.

As the porters stretched the unconscious woman upon the bed, this pauper female rose wearily to fetch Doctor Lydd, the parish surgeon. It was no heroic chore for the man lived in the workhouse, where he doled out physic and delivered babies by contract.

He came at once, examined the poor woman, and rolled up his sleeves, saying, “So she wants to beat us to it!”—for the crown of the baby’s head was already born.

The rest of it followed in a bag-o’-bones welter of tumbled red jelly.

“Am I?” moaned the young woman as she surfaced briefly into consciousness.

“You’re safely delivered of a fine young boy, my dear,” the good doctor replied.

The woman breathed in short, shallow gasps but did not otherwise move, much less respond.

“Bathe him.” Doctor Fell tied off the cord and handed the baby to the old crone.

“ ’Tis nobbut cold watter,” she warned.

“The sooner he gets used to it the better,” the doctor replied mildly. “Kill or cure is our motto here.”

At the kiss of the icy water the baby gave out a howl that was enough to warn all hundred and sixty-three inmates of the house that their number had just been augmented by one. It also roused the young woman once more. Her eyes rolled this way and that, seeming to focus on nothing until at last they settled on the gaunt, tired face of the surgeon. “Am I?” she asked again.

“Are you what, my dear?” he replied.


He smiled bravely rather than confirm her fears. “You wouldn’t be the first new mother to believe that. Let’s have no talk of dying with such a fine young man to call you mother! What’ll you call him, eh?”

“Bless us!” the old woman put in as she laid the baby, still howling lustily, on the bed and swaddled him in a calico robe, now yellow with age and long service. Then, having fortified herself with a swig from the green bottle, she added, “When she’s seen as many winters as what I have, seetha, and dropped as many bairns as what I have ...”

“And how many, pray, is that, Old Sal?” the doctor asked as he felt the baby’s pulse and examined its form for signs of abnormality.

“Thirteen,” she replied complacently.

“All reared?”

“All dead, sir, ’cepting two as bides ’ere along of me in the workus ... why then she’ll know better than to talk of dying.”

Uncomforted, the young woman raised her head an exhausting inch or two above the mattress and stretched a feeble arm toward her child.

The surgeon laid the baby boy tenderly on her breast and covered them both with what had once been a blanket; in the same movement of his hand he pulled a louse from her neck and flung it toward the hearth.

The woman planted a passionate kiss on her baby’s forehead and fell back in a swoon. Seconds later her breathing was forever stilled.

For a moment neither onlooker moved. The anguish of death was, briefly, enough to overtop its commonplace, even in that grimmest of dwellings, whose inmates—even the most robust among them—are scarcely more substantial than the vapours of despair they daily breathe.

“It’s over and done with her, Old Sal,” the doctor said. “Find a crib for the baby and lay her out before she grows stiff. If the little man cries, try him with a teaspoon or two of thin gruel. If he persists, do not hesitate but send for me.”

As he was on the point of leaving he paused by the bed. “She was a good-looking girl,” he said. “She never told us what she wanted him called.”

“Maister Bumble will do that for him, sir.” She cackled. “According to his famous system.”

“Ah, yes! What was the last one called?”

“Swubble. Nathan Swubble, poor mite.”

“An N and an S. Then it’ll be something beginning with an O and a T. Obidiah Tomkins? Ormerod Trelawney? Well, well! We shall see.” He smiled at his flight of fancy and gazed again at the dead woman. A strange reluctance to leave her touched him. “Have you any idea where she came from?”

“Nay, maister. She fell at the gate not an hour since. As to what they called her, I know not, but she was bound hither from a great way off by the look of her shoes. That I can vouchsafe.”

“The old story!” The surgeon nodded and put on his hat. “No wedding ring, I see. Ah me! Goodnight, Old Sal.”

The crone bade him goodnight without taking her eyes off the corpse, for a stray breeze had just twitched at what had once been a fine silk blouse. The movement had revealed the glint of a filigree gold chain and she feared that if she but took her eyes off it, the bauble would vanish of its own accord—that is, before she had the opportunity to assist it in performing that selfsame trick.

Behind her, the little baby cried lustily on. He would have cried a great deal louder still had he known what manner of existence (for none could call it life) now lay in store for him.

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