Our Novel: Oliver Twist

Our book for 2022-2023 will be Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress, which was published serially in Bentley's Miscellany between February 1837 and April 1839. The publisher Richard Bentley had founded the monthly periodical in 1836, choosing Dickens to be its first editor. True to its name, the Miscellany published a variety of stories, poems, and essays, but it was the novels it published that gained the widest fame.


The original readers of Oliver Twist identified it as a "Newgate Novel" or novel of crime. Such books were widely popular in the 1830s. They frequently drew upon real-life events and sensational accounts of recent (and sometimes historical) robberies and murders. Many of these books glamorized the lives of criminals, something Dickens tried to avoid in Oliver Twist. Instead, he showed the grim underbelly of society as a way to push for reform.


George Cruikshank, one of the most popular artists of the day, provided the original illustrations for Oliver Twist. Cruikshank had already illustrated Dickens's Sketches by Boz, as well as The Mudfog Papers, a collection of stories that had run in Bentley's Miscellany. In fact, the first chapter of Oliver Twist connected the novel with The Mudfog Papers when Dickens originally opened it with the line: "Among other public buildings in the town of Mudfog, it boasts of one which is common to most towns great or small, to wit, a workhouse…"


Later, when Dickens revised the chapters that had run in Bentley's Miscellany to appear as a stand-alone book, he changed the first line of the novel to: "Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse…"


Though Dickens's revisions later obscured the novel's origins as simply one story of many, the book's history as part of a larger publication explains its numerous "twists" and turns as the author strove to keep his readers' attentions.