James Benmore’s first novel, Dodger, features the return of the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. Last month, he wrote for us about the appeal of the Dodger and why he chose to bring him back. This month, he talks about creating the voice of Dodger, and how the character might have come to write a book in the first place.
Whenever Charles Dickens wrote in the first-person, he tended to employ a particular type of narrator. These are often virtuous, seemingly middle-class voices who begin their own stories with an account of an impoverished upbringing blighted by some atrocious adult. This can be a cruel step-father perhaps, or a bullying older sister, and this dark parent-figure makes their very childhood, and often the first few chapters of the book, a bit of a misery.
Such hard luck stories — or what Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye bluntly described as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — invariably mark the start of a rags-to-riches plot. The narrator describes how, through hearty Victorian resilience, honest labour and a few well-timed coincidences, they manage to escape from this unfortunate start in life and enter into a higher, more genteel social spectrum form which they are now writing their own history.
Often the narrator will be a stand-in for Dickens himself, like the semi-autobiographical Copperfield who shares many of his author’s life experiences as well as his reversed initials, or Pip from Great Expectations whose descriptions of his own youthful snobbery and self-centeredness can sometimes be read as though Dickens is taking himself to task.
Occasionally Dickens may adopt the voice of someone very different from himself, such as the modest, female perspective of Esther Summerson in Bleak House. But all his major narrators have something in common: they are all, at their hearts, morally pure. They possess flaws certainly but it is impossible to conceive of Dickens handing the bulk of any novel over to a scheming, unrepentant rotter to narrate. He may give a rough criminal like Magwitch a few pages of contained narration nested within Great Expectations but even Magwitch doesn’t seem so bad by that point in the story.
No, if we want to read a novel narrated by a classic Dickensian villain then we just have to write it ourselves.
This is the main idea behind my novel Dodger. I tried to write the book that I wanted to read: one in which Jack Dawkins, a very different type of character from the Dickens canon, is allowed to put pen to paper and tell the story of his own life with as much freedom as David, Pip or Esther would. I was interested in what such a book would sound like, in what dialect would be employed and what different moral perspective Dawkins could bring to the familiar Victorian surroundings.
I did not want Dodger to spend much time relating his own account of the events of Oliver Twist and this was largely because as a character he is present at too few of its key scenes. Instead I wanted him to tell us about what happened to him next, after he was transported to Australia, and to describe his discovery at what fate befell Fagin and company upon his return six years later. Unlike those other narrators I did not imagine that Dawkins would be inclined to present his early childhood as a sob story. In fact, I suspected that he would look back upon his old life with Fagin and his large gang of boy pickpockets as having been a very happy time, a perversely idyllic childhood, and one that was rudely interrupted by the cruelty of the law.
The principal challenge in writing any first-person novel lies in getting the voice right, and casting Dawkins in such a role presented immediate difficulties. How literate would someone from his background even be? Dickens shows that the criminal contingent of Oliver Twist are all avid readers of The Newgate Calendar, a cheap periodical that detailed the arrests and executions of various villains throughout the capital, so we can safely assume that Dawkins possesses a decent enough level of literacy to build upon. He then spends six years in an Australian penal colony where, I like to imagine, he would have been given access to a large enough library that could have inspired a love of words and storytelling within him. Dawkins is a thief in all things and he is someone who, when he encounters the possessions of rich men, itches to take them for his own. This compulsion would extend itself to reading — or so I reasoned — to the books, stories and words of wealthy society as much as to their valuables.
This of course does not mean that he would speak in the same pure-bred English that Pip masters after his years of education away from the forge. Nor do I truly think that Dodger would want to speak like that. Instead the voice that I developed when I began writing the first chapter is a mixture of the sort of literary language that I feel he would have met in fashionable novels, the archaic slang of Victorian London and a persistent bad grammar that he would wear as a badge of his class.
Dawkins the narrator is perfectly capable of mimicking the language of the middle-class when writing their dialogue so it follows that his own use of cockney could be a deliberate choice he is making. I have always known that the Artful Dodger is someone who covets the comforts, possessions and privileges of the high-born Englishman, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to be one himself. He does not aspire to be accepted into their world in the same way that David Copperfield or Pip do. Dodger just wants to steal what rich people have and keep it for himself, and I needed him to speak in a voice that communicates that difference.
Another aspect of writing this first-person novel that concerned me was the question of why exactly the Artful Dodger would be scribbling all this down in the first place. Throughout my book and its upcoming sequel he admits to all sorts of pickpocketing, burgling and other shameful behaviour and there is hardly any of the usual contrition in his narrative voice that you might associate with a reformed sinner like Moll Flanders. Dodger isn’t sorry for his crimes at all, in fact he’s boasting about them.
I often imagined when writing the book that Dawkins the narrator wasn’t much older than the Dawkins in the story, as if he’s composing his autobiography just a few short years later in his mid-twenties and not wanting to apologise for any of it. I never have Dawkins explain in the novel why he would be writing a book that could incriminate himself so disastrously because I want the reader to wonder about that themselves. But one thing is certain; this is not a work he can ever publish within his own lifetime.
But why should that stop him? Sometimes people write just for the joy of it or because they have a story in them that needs to come out. And just because Dawkins is barred from enjoying any real literary success while alive does not mean he isn’t subject to that same storytelling impulse that we find in those other Dickens creations like David Copperfield or Pip. Perhaps Dawkins, despite occupying a very different moral space from those other characters, has as much as in common with his creator as they do.
— James Benmore
Read James’s first post about writing Dodger here.
Dodger is out now, published by Heron Books and available in hardback from all good bookshops, as well as the usual range of ebook formats. (Read the first chapter on Amazon.) James Benmore is already working on a sequel.
You can also read James’s award-winning story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ in our anthology All These Little Worlds.