Oliver Twist

Dear Mr. Dickens,

I’ve just turned the last page in the adventures of young Oliver Twist, and quite the adventures they were! Child abuse, theft, kidnapping, betrayal, unrequited love, domestic violence, murder, paranoia, bloodthirsty mobs, execution, and the triumph of good over evil – definitely all the ingredients for a good story. I should mention outright that this letter contains spoilers. Not for you, obviously, since you know how the story ends, but for anyone who has, wittingly or un-, stumbled across these letters.

I admit that I was worried, at the outset of our journey together, that the 175 years between your writing the novel and my reading it would make it difficult for me to understand the context of the story, or that I would find your style of writing too… ornamental. However, apart from your apparent devotion to the comma and semicolon, I’m happy to say that I found your writing very accessible, and I found myself eager to resume the narrative every time I picked up the book. And while some of the vocabulary and references were undoubtedly lost on me, the fact that I often found myself smiling and sometimes laughing out loud at your dry wit and sudden flashes of humor suggests that we will get along very well indeed. (Today we so often find ourselves laughing out loud that we use the abbreviation LOL – perhaps humanity has become much more cheerful now that we are threatened by neither the workhouse nor the gallows.)

Oliver uncharacteristically kicking some ass

Speaking of the workhouse: the fact that Oliver remains a creature of loving temperament and glowing innocence in spite of his abusive upbringing and some pretty slick efforts to turn him into a pickpocket, is something I would like to talk with you about. Is he, like Kipling’s Kim, somehow innately aware of his noble lineage and able to bear the ignominy of his environment in a way Sikes or Nancy are unable? But then, what of Monks, who comes from an even more legitimate background, and who seems to be the real villain of the story? He gets off pretty lightly, even you must admit. While his cohorts meet various grisly ends, Monks merely has to face a few awkward minutes when his evil plot is uncovered, and he still walks away with part of his inheritance! What’s the message here – if you can’t be a good person and of good birth, then you’d best be bad and of good birth, since trying to be good if you’re born poor will only get you clubbed in the head? And, really, was Sikes’ dog so irredeemable that you had to toss him off a roof to his death? Let me tell you, that would never happen in popular entertainment nowadays – when you’re not busy being dead, watch Independence Day.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I very much enjoyed your first novel, and I have developed a firm affection for many of the supporting characters. Mr. Grimwig’s constant avowal that he’ll eat his head, Mr. Bumble’s amorous advances to the future Mrs. Bumble only after he has estimated the worth of her goods, Mr. Grimes’ short-lived moment of glory as defender of the house against thieves, and Mr. Claypole’s attempt to find any employment that doesn’t require actual work all provide welcome levity in such a dramatic tale. And what drama! The last few chapters had me turning pages frantically as the net closed around your motley collection of baddies. I can see why you were so keen to include Nancy’s death scene in your public readings – it’s more than a little heart wrenching in light of all she put herself through.

Lest I bore or offend you with my opinions of Oliver Twist, let me sign off by saying that I have decided to go back to your beginnings and begin Sketches by Boz next. Since they comprise two volumes, we’ll have lots of time to chat about them.

Sincerely yours,


P.S. Independence Day isn’t a very good movie. Please don’t feel obliged to watch it.

An introduction

Dear Mr. Dickens,

Please excuse my presumption in writing to you without a formal introduction, but since all of your friends and acquaintances who could provide that service (and, indeed, you yourself) are dead, I hardly think that one will be forthcoming.

Therefore, let me introduce myself. My name is Melissa and I live in Canada. Today is my 36th birthday, and although I consider myself quite a bibliophile and not unintelligent, I must make the shocking admission that in spite of having an English degree I have never read a single one of your many works. Watching the odd Masterpiece Theater adaptation and The Muppet Christmas Carol every year does not, I fear, cut it (I suspect your original version lacks anthropomorphic singing fruit or an amphibious Tiny Tim, for instance). This situation cannot continue.

I recently acquired a beautiful 36 volume set of your complete writings, published to commemorate the centennial of your death, and since 2012 is the 200th anniversary of your birth (or so says Wikipedia), it seems like an ideal time for me to start reading and for us to get to know each other better.

Beginning today (or possibly tomorrow since today I will be full of cake) I propose to spend the coming year reading each one of these 36 volumes, and writing you to let you know how I’m progressing. I’ll try to read the books in roughly chronological order, with your miscellaneous papers and reprinted works spaced wherever they seem to fit. Most of the time I will have no inkling of the story or themes or anything in the way of prior knowledge—except  when it comes to A Christmas Carol, of course.

That said, I’m going to start with Oliver Twist, since it’s a single volume and I’m not sure yet if we’re going to like each other, although I sincerely hope we do.

Until next week, then, when I’ll write to let you know how I’m faring.

Sincerely Yours,



P.S. Let me reassure you that not everyone is as under-read as I am – your books are still very much admired and read and taught, and they repeatedly appear in lists of books one should read before one dies.