I’ve always envied Dickens’ earliest readers. The ones that discovered him back in the early 1830s when he was still writing journalism and sketches under the pseudonym of Boz. The ones who read The Pickwick Papers in a time when it was first being published in shilling instalments — not because it was written by some grand old man of literature but because it was fresh and funny and someone fashionable had recommended it to them.
Those hip metropolitans who would have been dropping the name of Charles Dickens — the sparkling young author who you simply must read — all over town and quoting his choicest bits to each other while their less literate friends listened on glumly because they weren’t getting any of the references to Sam Weller, Joe the Fat Boy or Dingley Dell. I’m talking about the long-time fans, the ones who were there at the the start and liked him even before he went all mainstream with The Old Curiosity Shop a few years later. Because, lets face it, if you didn’t know who Charles Dickens was back in 1836 then you probably weren’t someone worth talking to. You were, not to point too fine a point upon it, a bit tragic.
For these early readers — the first Dickensians we’ll call them — then the summer of love must have taken place between the February of 1837 through to the November of that same year. This was the magic period when Dickens, still only 25, was serialising his first two novels simultaneously as the final instalments of Pickwick overlapped with the opening chapters of Oliver Twist. These two novels could not be more starkly contrasted, the first being all lightness and comic fizz while the second is an angry, murderous melodrama, and they must have struck the first Dickensians as a stunning one-two punch.
One of the great pleasures of reading early Dickens is the wonderful show-offery on display: it’s as though the new author is even impressing himself with how talented and wide-ranging a storyteller he can be, and by what brilliant things he can make words do. Neither is a perfect book — Pickwick keeps spinning off down random narrative byways and Dickens is clearly making the plot of Twist up as he goes — but there is a joyous free-wheeling energy to both and this is something that fades a little in his subsequent work. Literary scholars may correctly identify later novels such as Bleak House and Great Expectations as more technically accomplished, important and mature but, as any first Dickensian will tell you, there is just something cool about the early stuff.
Which brings me to Jack Dawkins, or the Artful Dodger as the criminal community insist on calling him. For me, Dawkins is the very epitome of everything that is great about early Dickens. He makes his first appearance in chapter eight of Oliver Twist, right in the middle of that golden period, and in just a few short pages he steals the whole scene out from under Oliver’s virtuous nose. He is the very voice and swagger of a young urban London with his cockney slang and streetwise savvy and he is not someone I can imagine the author creating later in his career. Dickens went on to present his readership with an array of criminal grotesques and middle-class bounders but the Dodger represents something not commonly found elsewhere in the Dickens canon: attractive lower-class rebellion.
We aren’t invited to be disgusted by Dawkins in quite the same way that we are with Fagin and Noah Claypole; in fact there are aspects of his character that we even find ourselves drawn to. After all, what reader hasn’t fantasised about how they would fare if Dawkins was to take them out on a pickpocketing spree as he does with Oliver. About how artful we would prove ourselves to be, and whether or not Dodger would like us.
Dickens seems to have been inspired to create the character back when he was working as a court reporter. He had already written a non-fiction scene which can be found in the ‘Criminal Courts’ chapter of Sketches by Boz in which a lad of thirteen is shown being tried at the Old Bailey and proceeds to creates chaos in court with his accusations of police corruption, unlikely alibis and calls for imaginary witnesses. This clearly inspired Dodger’s final scene in Oliver Twist, when he is himself sentenced for stealing a silver snuff box from an unnamed gentleman.
Like his real-life model from ‘Criminal Courts’, Dawkins doesn’t sniffle in the stand and beg to be spared: he’s far too mischievous and unrepentant a character for that. Instead he performs for the benefit of the spectators and grins in the faces of the officers who drag him away for transportation. And it is this irrepressible comic spirit which makes Dawkins such a light relief in an otherwise dark novel. He isn’t punished for his criminality as severely as Fagin, Bill or Nancy are. Neither does he undergo an unconvincing change of heart like his friend Charley Bates does when he suddenly informs on Bill Sikes in the final act. Dodger is just allowed to be Dodger and — by mid-Victorian standards — he pretty much gets away with it.
Except of course he doesn’t, and all because of that sticky snuff box. After his sentence Dodger is removed from the action of Oliver Twist just before things turn really nasty for the criminal contingent. Perhaps this is because Dickens wanted to spare the child from the bloody end he had in store for the rest of them, or maybe it was because he didn’t want Dawkins upstaging Twist any further. Either way, I think most of Dickens’ readers — be they first Dickensians or those of us who have read the book 170 years later — must have felt disappointed that Dawkins is never mentioned again.
There’s a real sense that there was more fun to be had with the boy thief if only Dickens had wanted to have it, and I’ve often wished that the Artful Dodger could have been like Falstaff: a disgraceful yet lovable recurring character. I like to imagine him crossing over from the pages of Oliver Twist and into those of the author’s other novels, especially The Pickwick Papers during that time when they were both still running. Imagine what a surprise it would have been for those first Dickensians if he had suddenly appeared picking Mr Pickwick’s pocket in an installment of that book and then was next seen back in Oliver Twist being tried for that very crime, before continuing to show up at some point in every other Dickens novel that followed. It would have blown their Victorian minds.
And it was this thought that inspired me to write my first novel Dodger, in which Dawkins narrates what happened to him next in his own crooked, unapologetic voice and even interacts with people from other Dickens works. I wanted him to be our guide around the fascinating city to which he returns six years after his transportation, the world we are still calling Dickensian London. I don’t know if literary scholars will like my book; in fact I very much doubt it. But then I don’t think I really wrote it for them. I like to think that I wrote the book for the real fans, the ones who were there at the start. I like to think that I wrote the book for the first Dickensians.
— James Benmore
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. The novels are written in the first person, and in another post on our blog, James talks about reconstructing the voice of Dodger himself.
You can also read James’s award-winning story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ in our anthology All These Little Worlds.