The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

X. Dickens

§ 4. Oliver Twist

The Pickwick Papers, as everybody knows, were issued in monthly numbers, a revival of an old, if not exactly time-honoured, fashion which was coming in at the moment, and which was maintained in popularity through the adoption of it by Dickens, by Thackeray and by others for a full generation. All his books, indeed, appeared either in this manner or as contributions to periodicals, the monthly Miscellany already mentioned, and the famous weekly papers, Household Words and All the Year Round, which he edited later. He never, on any occasion, issued a work as a whole. It is doubtful, however, whether this piecemeal method of publication exercised on his writing either the mischievous influence with which it has been credited and which it certainly seems to have had in some cases, or, indeed, any particular influence at all. For, whatever else Dickens was, he was certainly a man of business, and not likely to neglect his business in whatever form it presented itself, especially when that form was of his own choice. Oliver Twist, which succeeded Pickwick as a book, came out in Bentley’s Miscellany. It has been more differently valued at different times than, perhaps, any other of the whole list; and the revival, some twenty years ago, of a fancy for grime-novels should have been in its favour. But it is doubtful whether, in good judgments, it has ever been, or ever will be, put in the first class of Dickens’s work. The author’s general quarrel with society as it is or was; and that particular and personal sympathy with neglected or persecuted childhood which was to leave such striking marks on almost all his books, here first lay a distinct, and, to some tastes, a rather cramping, hand on his creative powers. Sentiment and melodrama both have the reins flung on their backs; and, though the comic power refuses to be suppressed altogether, the book is too short and too little varied to give it fair play. Oliver himself, save in the one sublime, but early and never repeated, moment of his demand for “more,” is totally uninteresting except from the point of view of sheer compassion; the other good characters lack even that virtue and are, therefore, uninteresting simpliciter. But, whether the high-flavoured crimes of the goats have interest enough to make us forget the insipid virtues of the sheep is, of course, the point of difference. The tragedy of Nancy is a real tragedy, for it springs partly, at least, from a human and forgivable frailty; but it is awkwardly introduced at first and it is some time before Nancy herself becomes, in any way, a sympathetic character. Moreover, the unbroken sordidness of the whole scene and setting makes one apt to revise unfavourable opinions of certain once orthodox critical notions as to “dignity” of subject. Charley Bates and the Dodger, with Bumble (in the middle division), do what they can to temper disgust; but it is not quite enough. The progress of Sikes from the murder to his self-execution is, indeed, fine (Dickens had a singular mastery of travel, in all its phases, tragic, comic and neutral), nor can he, even earlier, be said to be an impossible ruffian. Fagin is some way further from reality; and a pithy observation attributed to the late G.S. Venables, that “Dickens hanged Fagin for being the villain of a novel,” might be extended over the Jew’s earlier history. Noah Claypole is merely, and his Charlotte is much too frequently, disgusting. But the greatest blot on the book is Monks, the first of the scarecrow scoundrels whom Dickens was always too fond of putting on the stage, to be followed—in more or less detail, and with more or less inclination towards the partly verisimilar and the wholly incredible—by Ralph Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge’s father and Jonas Chuzzlewit, and to leave traces of himself even on the Carker of Dombey and the Rigaud of Little Dorrit.