I have finally read Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012), a novel oddly marketed as young adult fiction and, yes, closely related to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I was going to write a post specifically on it but, when checking Wikipedia for more information (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodger_(novel)), I’ve come across a strange literary phenomenon: the recent resurrection of Jack Dawkins, a.k.a the Artful Dodger.
Dodger has appeared, according to IMDB, on 28 occasions on the big and the small screen, the earliest in 1912. As Wikipedia claims, the first volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), placed the Dodger in 1898 London, as Fagin’s successor in the business of running a gang of boy thieves. He must have been in his late 70s…
There is, though, a considerable time lapse between that glimpse of the Dodger and The Further Adventures and Life of Jack Dawkins, Also Known as the Artful Dodger by Alan Montgomery (2010). This has left no trace among Amazon readers, a sure sign of its low impact. Tony Lee published next Dodge & Twist: A Sequel To Oliver Twist (2011), which, despite being also little noticed is now, as IMDB confirms, in development as a film. In Lee’s story, a ruined Oliver and his former pal Dodger conspire together to steal the Crown Jewels (?). Then came Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) and Jack Dawkins (2013) by Charlton Daines, with a handful of positive comments on Amazon. Also in 2013 James Benmore published another Dodger, which, like Daines’s, imagines an adult Jack returned from Australia. Benmore’s novel has 22 five star reviews on Amazon.uk: either it is truly attractive or the author has 22 very good friends.
Both US and UK Amazon readers award Pratchett’s Dodger a 4,5 star rating (out of 5). The very negative opinions are about one dozen in total and include a terribly cruel voice. Pratchett is suffering from the worst possible form of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes any new book a little miracle. A displeased reader, however, has the bad taste of attributing the novel’s faults (in his view) to the muddled thinking caused by the disease. He even has the gall to call for the author’s retirement…
Dodger is a quite competent piece of ‘historical fantasy’ (the author’s own label). He stretches historical chronology quite a bit by having Queen Victoria already on the throne although Oliver Twist started publication in 1836 when her predecessor William IV still lived. Charlie Dickens, the street-wise journalist, could hardly have got his inspiration for his Dodger from the Dodger he meets in Pratchett’s London. Still, this doesn’t matter. Pratchett concocts a heady, delicious brew which I truly enjoyed. There is a scene when Dodger is measured for a suit by tailor Izzy when I had the funny feeling of believing I was reading a Dickens novel.
Also present in Dodger are Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, Mr. Tenniel and even Sweeny Todd (in a very attractive character rewrite). And two discoveries: philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts and Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer that tidied up London’s sewers. For Dodger, you see?, is a tosher here –a sewer rat, or scavenger. Pratchett explains that he actually got his inspiration from reading Mayhew’s massive London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2, four volumes), where toshers appear. Dickens himself was well-acquainted with Mayhew, both the gentleman and his work.
Even though Pratchett is undoubtedly Dickens’s disciple, if not living reincarnation, he corrects the master’s appalling anti-semitic bias by totally recycling Fagin. His Solomon Cohen is not a criminal but a refugee who has fled not one but many pogroms in Eastern Europe. He makes a living by repairing delicate mechanisms, the clockwork fancies of the very rich. He has good sense and good connections, from which Dodger benefits. Cohen is a more than a heavy hint that Dickens’ needn’t have linked Jewishness and criminality though, of course, if Fagin had been as generous as Cohen, Oliver’s story would have no point.
This leads me back to my own point: why Dodger? Sweet Oliver Twist is found to be too self-righteous, his story too sentimental. We prefer instead the Dodger’s in-your-face cool –who can forget his speech to the judge that condemns him to be transported for life (which Dickens seems to have borrowed from a real-life boy)? In Pratchett’s version there is not even an Oliver and the only focus is the picaresque adventure that Dodger’s life is. Or struggle for survival, probably the same. No rich Mr. Brownlow for him, though Pratchett does rescue, after all, the Dodger, by means of much more powerful gentlemen –maybe this is what has irritated a few readers. And maybe what won my heart is that Pratchett supposes Dodger deserves being rescued from extreme poverty because, practically out of instinct, he does the decent thing: rescue a battered wife from an appalling marriage. Poor Nancy, if only she’d been so lucky.
Sir Terry asks his readers to read Mayhew’s oeuvre –now waiting in my Kindle. What a challenge for a teacher of Victorian Literature.
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