IF I WERE CHARLOTTE DICKENS… (HOW I’D REWRITE OLIVER TWIST)

I don’t particularly favour the fashionable type of novel that attempts to update a classic by adding to it (the sequel to Pride and Prejudice by Emma Tennant, Pemberley), by paying homage (Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip), or by radically rewriting it (Ben Winters’s Android Karenina). If you want to tell a story, find your own topic.

However, yesterday, in the middle of lecturing on Oliver Twist, it suddenly occurred to me, and so I told my students, that it would be great to rewrite Dickens’s novel as the story of Rose Maylie’s failed attempt to rescue Nancy from prostitution and from her sick addiction to Sikes. Dickens’s imaginary sister Charlotte – I’m thinking here of Virginia Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare– would be up to this task, I’m sure, possibly following Elizabeth Gaskell rather than her own namesake Charlotte Brontë. Our 21st century Sarah Waters would, no doubt, in view of her spicy pseudo-Victorian fiction, like the sexy Tipping the Velvet, rewrite Rose and Nancy as two passionate, romantic Victorian lesbians. Now, that’s something I’m sure even Dickens would like to read…

As I explained to my students, mostly young women who are receiving my feminist tirades with more eagerness than I’ve met in recent years, Dickens was very deficient at writing female characters. His imagination, in the grip of his misogyny and of his obsession with his dead teen sister-in-law Mary and other women he loved (not his wife Catherine), seemed only capable of creating bland heroines like Rose Maylie. Yet, he did better with the bad girls. With Nancy, this poor thing unable to escape victimisation since the devious Fagin traps her in childhood, Dickens manages to create quite a heroine or, rather, a hero, as I mean not only that she is a main female protagonist but also that the heroic acts in the novel fall completely on her shoulders. Rose does nothing but believe in Oliver’s innocence against all evidence simply because he looks positively angelic; she tries to sacrifice herself and Harry Maylie’s happiness because of her obscure birth, but, essentially, she is just a good girl. Nancy, and this shows Dickens’s boldness, is first just one of Fagin’s gang, even becoming Oliver’s very public, cheeky kidnapper. Yet, seeing how his ill-treatment recalls so harshly her own by Fagin –which led her to prostitute herself possibly just aged 12- she relents and becomes the boy’s only champion in the underworld. As every Dickens fan knows, her moral choice to help Oliver by revealing Fagin’s plotting to the boy’s protector, Rose, costs Nancy her own life, in that famous murder scene that Dickens used to perform with such manic glee.

My favourite moment in this novel, and the inspiration for the rewriting I’ll never produce, is that scene in which Rose, supported by Mr. Brownlow, subtly but firmly offers to help Nancy by retiring her from criminal life. Rose wants Nancy, above all, to abandon Sikes but, like many abused women still today, whether they are prostitutes or not, she is too emotionally dependent to abandon her abuser… and so she tells Rose, in full consciousness of her predicament. Dickens was criticised for this, as he seemed to force the situation and withdraw from poor Nancy the reward she deserved. Yet, to my mind he made a realistic narrative choice, characterising, besides, Nancy as a reluctant (anti)-hero rather than as a full blown heroine like Rose, who does get her Harry. Of course, it is interesting to note that, whereas Rose is generous and open to doomed Nancy, her own adoptive mother, Mrs. Maylie, almost brings total unhappiness to Rose’s life by denying her her son’s love, as Rose is nothing but a nameless orphan until the mystery of her origin is solved together with Oliver’s. That she chooses to welcome and help Nancy must have sounded truly radical in 1837. Still today.

Rose and Nancy, the imaginary novel by the imaginary Charlotte Dickens, might perhaps rank high in a gallery of best unwritten Victorian fiction, together with other ghostly novels like The Angry Child Inside Me, a rewriting of Wuthering Heights in Heathcliff’s own words written by the imaginary Charles Brontë, or Wildness Calls by Oscar Stoker, in which Jonathan leaves Mina for Dracula to become a fulfilled Transylvanian count.

Add your own… !

2 thoughts on “IF I WERE CHARLOTTE DICKENS… (HOW I’D REWRITE OLIVER TWIST)

  1. Well, a very daring and surrealist proposal would be to write Olivia Twist, in which instead of an angelic little darling we would have a demonic little she that manages to take over Fagin’s trade with surprising dexterity. And, of course, one question: is this grotesque approach I’m delineating the only narrative frame left to Olivia Twist??? The Victorian “twist” would be to discover that Olivia is actually Fagin’s little daughter …. or granddaughter ….

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