When the first instalment of Oliver Twist was published in February 1837, Charles Dickens was still only 25; but had already been celebrated for his hugely popular first novel, The Pickwick Papers. And yet for all the buzz that would have surrounded a new story by this rising literary star, it was not just his name alone which would have attracted the public. Because for a great many readers of Bentley’s Miscellany – the magazine that serialised Twist – the real draw would have been its illustrator George Cruikshank.
Source: fineartamerica.com Two decades older than Dickens, Cruikshank was at that time the more famous man. It attests to how much faith the publishers must have had in young Dickens that they should have been so keen to couple his words with the images of the “illustrious George.” Certainly the subject matter of Oliver Twist – with its depictions of poorhouses, pickpockets and prison cells, would have attracted Cruikshank who had a Hogarthian eye for squalor. Like Hogarth, he was also renowned for cartoonish and sequential storytelling, grotesque characterisations and anti-authoritarian attitudes. Cruikshank had a vibrant, busy style that set him apart from other artists and he was notorious for dangerous satire. His drawings were were populated with figures such as his piggish and ludicrous Napoleon Bonaparte and he was not afraid to employ monstrous imagery if the subject demanded it. His scathing response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, for example, imagined the soldiers wielding meat cleavers rather than swords to underline the barbarism of the authorities. His cruel caricatures of George IV were so merciless that the then king was forced to pay Cruikshank £100 if he would just desist in insulting him. This demonstrates how much influence his work had and so for Dickens, who was still building his reputation as a dynamic and socially conscious new voice, to have Cruikshank providing scenes for his novel was a huge distinction.
Cruikshank’s depiction of the Peterloo Massacre.
Source: en.wikipedia.org The pair had worked together before on Sketches by Boz, a collection of journalistic pieces, and they created such a perfect marriage of text and imagery that at times its hard to tell whether or not Dickens was writing like Cruikshank drew or whether Cruikshank was drawing like Dickens wrote. It is interesting to view the Oliver Twist illustrations separately from the novel though as Victorian readers would likely have looked at them before reading the words. In many ways it was Cruikshank who would have introduced these characters to the public before Dickens. For example, one illustration is entitled Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman which contains the first sight of Fagin’s kitchen. It is a typically striking example of Cruikshank’s work and the scene is heightened to look as though Oliver has been led to the devil himself. Fagin, who occupies the left-hand side of the image, is stood frying some sausages with a symbolic three-pronged fork in his hand and his children appear like creatures from hell with their goblin ears, fiendish faces and exaggerated shadows. Oliver meanwhile is on the opposite side from Fagin and seems as pale and as innocent as ever. So Cruikshank makes the scene is clear even without the words. Fagin is a man who turns boys bad and Oliver is in big trouble.
A selection of illustrations from Oliver Twist.
Source: en.wikipedia.org, charlesdickenspage.com Making the introduction between innocence and evil – and standing between the two – is another figure who the reader has only just met. The Artful Dodger is presenting Oliver to his master with some ceremony and he looks exactly how Dickens describes. He has his cocky stance with one hand in his pocket, his over-sized clothes and the hat that is about to fall off his head. Cruikshank features Dodger in four more illustrations and we see his mean scowl as he picks Brownlow’s pocket, his casual arrogance as he forces Oliver to polish his boots and his amused smirk as he handles Oliver after his recapture by the gang. The Dodger is a villain and Cruikshank’s illustrations leave us in no doubt about that. Unfortunately Oliver Twist turned out to be the last collaboration between Dickens and Cruikshank as relations soon soured between them. Cruikshank wrote that things had taken “an unpleasant turn” when Dickens saw fit to hurry him and gave many blunt notes. This led to a breakdown in communication and years later Cruikshank even claimed that the original idea for Oliver Twist was his. He remarked that “when I and Mr Dickens meet on the same side of the way, either Mr Dickens crosses over or I do.” Nevertheless, Cruikshank remains an important part in the story of Oliver Twist and he helped to shape the way we think of its characters. During the writing of my novel Dodger I displayed the five Cruikshank illustrations of Jack Dawkins above my desk and I referred to them as often as I reread passages from the novel. I honestly believe that the young Dickens must have found them just as inspiring and it is conceivable that he would have worked hard to get his prose to match the vibrancy of those images. Whether or not Cruikshank was the true originator of the story doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Oliver Twist is an even better book due to his invaluable contributions.
James Benmore is the author of Dodger, which continues the story of Jack Dawkins from Oliver Twist. It is available to buy now in either paperback of ebook. The sequel, Dodger of the Dials, will be released in June. They are both published by Heron Books.