- Oliver Twist's parents had been legally married and then, when Oliver was still a child, had been murdered in front of his very eyes
- Oliver had joined Fagin's gang immediately afterwards
- Mr Brownlow had, instead of being an old friend of Oliver's father, been an earl and Oliver's grandfather
- the evil Monks had been an uncle rather than a half-brother and had been murdered by the child Oliver
- Oliver had grown up, was now Lucian Langdon, Earl of Claybourne, but wasn't convinced he was truly the old man's grandson because he can't remember his supposed parents?
That's the premise of Lorraine Heath
's In Bed with the Devil
. It can be read for free online until 23 December 2008 as part of Avon's Love Gives Back promotion
. As usual I'm not writing a review (although you can find reviews here
, and here
), but I've tried to avoid giving spoilers about aspects of the plot which don't relate to Dickens's novel. Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist
is also available as a free online read
. You can find a synopsis of its plot here
I tend to find intertextuality of this sort amusing and interesting because it challenges the reader to find the similarities as well as the differences between the two texts and to identify the references to the original which appear in the newer novel. The fact that Heath is drawing on Oliver Twist
wasn't immediately apparent, but it gradually became more so, until eventually inescapable proof of the connection was provided by the novel the heroine (Lady Catherine Mabry) has chosen to read to her dying father: "With a sigh, she sat back and lifted a book from the bedside table. 'Let's see what sort of trouble Oliver and the Artful Dodger are going to get into today, shall we?' " (47). The novel is mentioned again at various points in the novel, including when Catherine also "told her father the tale of the Earl of Claybourne. He'd seemed as entertained by the story as he was by Oliver Twist
" (339). Finally, on her wedding day, Catherine learns that Lucian's full name is Lucian Oliver Langdon:
Holding his gaze as he gave her his vows, she wondered how much of his youth was contained in the words of the story that she'd recently read to her father. It seemed improbable, but not impossible. But it was a puzzle for another day. (365-66)
Within her novel Heath thus toys with the concept of reversing the direction of the source of inspiration. She proposes that the story of her own fictional character (based on Dickens's Oliver) may have been the inspiration for Oliver Twist
. In fact, it is thought that Dickens may have based his Oliver on the real-life Robert Blincoe
In addition to borrowing from Dickens to create her hero's backstory, Heath also pays homage to Dickens's work in the choice of names she gives her characters. Fagin
is transformed into "Feagan, the kidsman who managed our rather notorious den of child thieves" (2) and Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, becomes Jack Dodger:
"Dodger." In their youth, he'd been Dodger more often than Jack. He'd been skilled at dodging the hands that wanted to grab him when the target realized his pockets were being picked. (91)
As mentioned at Wikipedia
In the tradition of Restoration Comedy and Henry Fielding, Dickens fits his characters with appropriate names. Oliver himself, although "badged and ticketed" as a lowly orphan and named according to an alphabetical system is, in fact, "all of a twist."[...] Toby Crackit’s is a reference to his chosen profession–housebreaking.
Other children in the gang Lucian belonged to derived their names from their professions: Dr William Graves spent his "youth as a grave robber" (207), Inspector James Swindler is so-called because "When I was young and in search of a name, it seemed appropriate" (182) and Lucian himself was known as "Luke Locke. I was very skilled at picking locks. Most of us were orphans, didn't know our real names anyway. But even for those who did, Feagan always insisted on changing their names. When they came to him, they started life anew" (262). For her part Frannie is "Frannie Darling because that's how Feagan referred to me. 'Frannie, darling, rub my feet.' 'Frannie, darling, fetch me a cuppa gin.' And so when your grandfather asked me my name, I said Frannie Darling" (52-53).
Lucian, unlike Oliver, never spends any time in the workhouse but Heath does include a reworked version of the famous scene
in which Oliver asks for more food. Here it's Lucian, Earl of Claybourne, who's offering food while another little boy asks for more:
"Did you know they have lemonade, pastries, and lollipops over there? Would you like to buy some for you and your mum?" Claybourne asked.
Whit nodded enthusiastically, his weariness suddenly cured.
"Hold out your hand," Claybourne ordered.
"Fold it up." Claybourne demonstrated, closing his hand into a fist. Then he snapped his fingers. "Open your hand."
The boy did, his eyes growing wide at the ha'penny resting on his palm. [...]
He turned back to Whit. "Close your hand around the coin and say 'Please, sir, may I have more?'"
Whit closed his hand around the coin. "Please, sir, may I have more?"
Claybourne snapped his fingers. Whit opened his hand, his eyes wider than before. The ha'penny was gone. A sixpence rested on his palm. (219-220)1
Dodger's life-story is also altered. Catherine says of Dickens's Dodger that: "My heart did go out to the Artful Dodger, though. I was sorry he was transported. I hear it's a very harsh life, although I suspect there are those who deserve it" (340). Heath's heart seems to have gone out to the Artful Dodger too, and so instead of having him transported, she allows him to become a successful businessman who is the hero of Between the Devil and Desire
, which is the sequel to In Bed with the Devil
Some of the social themes of Dickens's work also reappear, in a somewhat modified form, in Heath's. Here are Catherine and Lucian discussing Dickens's work:
"I've been reading Oliver Twist to my father. It's the story -"
"I've read it."
"Did Dickens have the right of it?"
"He painted a very accurate portrait of life in the rookeries, yes." (162)
Heath continues the social critique
present in Dickens's novel by having Lucian demonstrate concern about the treatment of young criminals. He's written to The Times
: "what I argued in my letter was that children, even if over the age of seven, should not be held accountable for understanding the law and, therefore, shouldn't be punished as though they had the reasoning power of an adult" (163).
Lucian also explains that these children have not been "taught what is right and what is wrong" (163). He then admits that "I knew better. I don't know how I knew, but I did" (164). This is, of course, explicable if he really is the Earl of Claybourne and had been taught right from wrong by his parents before their deaths. Dickens's Oliver also has different moral values from his companions, but the reader was perhaps supposed to ascribe this to some innate genetic qualities:
Oliver [...], who has an air of refinement remarkable for a workhouse boy, proves to be of gentle birth. Although he has been abused and neglected all his life, he recoils, aghast, at the idea of victimizing anyone else.This apparently hereditary gentlemanliness makes Oliver Twist something of a changeling tale, not just an indictment of social injustice. (Wikipedia)
Another issue which is touched on in Dickens's novel is domestic violence. Sikes murders his girlfriend, Nancy. It is this issue rather than that of social justice which provides the driving force of Heath's novel. Interestingly,
The marks of domestic violence were not invisible in one crucial sphere of mid-nineteenth-century discourse. Stories, novels, and essays proliferate that relate incidents of violence against working-class women, prostitutes, and "fallen women," whether publicly in the streets, or domestically in their squalid homes [...]. Locating violence against women in the poor and working classes seems to have been an attempt by bourgeois society to quarantine the pestilence of violence to the "lower orders." (Lawson and Shakinovsky 8)
Descriptions such as "helpless women," and "woefully unwomanly, slatternly, coarse," indicate that the writers expect their bourgeois readers to recognize the victim "type" but not themselves to identify with her misfortune.
This discourse is quite naturally carried over to fictional representations of poor and working-class women's bodies [...]. For instance, Sikes's murder of Nancy in Dickens's Oliver Twist, grotesque and horrific as it is, is true to the "type" bourgeois readers are to expect from such degraded characters. (Lawson and Shakinovsky 9)
Heath, by contrast, locates domestic violence at the heart of a relationship between two people at the very top of the social hierarchy. The Duke of Avendale beats Winnie, his wife and Catherine's friend:
Tears rolled from Winnie's eyes. "Oh, Catherine, sometimes he terrifies me so. They say his first wife was clumsy and fell down the stairs. And his second slipped in the bedchamber and banged her head so hard on the floor that it killed her. I knew these tales, but I didn't doubt the veracity of them, not until after I was wed. He is so charming when he is not angry. Oh, but when he is displeased, he is most frightening." (42-43)
This suggests, correctly, that domestic violence is not solely an issue for the poor and the working classes, but is also one which can affect families from all parts of society. It also ensures that, although London has changed very considerably since Dickens's day, Heath's novel, though set in the same period, highlights an issue which is of relevance today.
The original scene is in Chapter 2
of Oliver Twist
Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.
"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."
The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.
The photo of the cover of Oliver Twist is from Wikimedia Commons. The word "dickens", which I capitalised in my title so that it also referred to the author, is "used to express annoyance or surprise when asking questions: what the dickens is going on?" and was originally "a euphemism for 'devil'" (Compact Oxford English Dictionary).