It’s the second Victorian-inspired blog this month in celebration of the launch of Mr Dilly’s A Very Victorian Christmas, the festive treat for primary schools that the whole school community can enjoy! I’m really excited to welcome Catherine Bruton to the blog, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria and most recently, the Oliver-Twist inspired Another Twist in the Tale. Today, I share my review of this wonderful tale and Catherine is sharing some wonderful insight into creating Dickensian characters.
You have heard, no doubt, the tale of Master Oliver Twist – that rags-to-riches boy; the parish orphan who became heir to the Brownlow fortune. But what few know is that was a second Twist – a girl, brought into this world moments ahead of her brother. This is the story of Twill Twist – and her journey through the gambling dens and workhouses of London, as she attempts to make a life for herself, rescue her friends, and uncover the mystery of her past – while meeting some familiar faces along the way…
For me, Oliver Twist always brings back memories of Christmas – the musical version was always on at Christmas time and who can fail to recall Ron Moody’s fantastic performance as Fagin?! And now, author Catherine has brought to life Dickens’ Victorian London again, with the most wonderful twist, as the title suggests. Meet Twill, none other than Oliver Twist’s twin sister, rescued from death by Baggage Jones, herself a young girl fighting for survival in Victorian London. Intertwining characters from the original story – including the wonderful Artful Dodger- with utterly delightful new faces, Catherine weaves a world fraught with danger for Twill as she navigates her way through the backstreets of Victorian London, trying to discover the truth about her past. Another Twist in the Tale is one of the most authentic, engaging and downright enjoyable books I’ve read in recent times and I am really pleased to welcome Catherine to the blog with a brilliant post about creating Dickensian characters. Welcome to the blog Catherine!
Creating Incredible Characters – the Dickensian way! By Catherine Bruton
“What was the best thing about writing ‘Another Twist in the Tale’, my sequel to Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ set in Victorian London and featuring Oliver’s long lost twin sister? That’s easy – it was the characters! Rediscovering familiar old faces from Dickens – the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver Twist himself – and creating a host of exciting new heroes and villains of my own – Baggage Jones, the Monstrous Madame Manzoni and Miss Twill Twist – was just so much fun! So what did I learn from Dickens about how to create incredible characters?
From Mr Pumblechook, Martin Chuzzlewit, Ebenezer Scrooge, Pip Pirrip, The Aged P, the Artful Dodger, Mr Jaggers, Abel Magwitch and The Barnacles to Creake, Crumple, Cripples and Cruncher, Dickens’ character names are as weird and wonderful, glorious and grotesque, sad and funny and moving and brilliant as Dickens’ incredible cast of characters themselves. So how did he do it?
Well, Dickens knew how to play with sounds, from the assonantal Scrooge and Drood, the plosive Pip Pirrip, the alliterative Newman Noggs and Nicholas Nickleby, to the onomatopoeic Creakle and Jingle and Crimple. And he loved using homophones and puns too – Micawbre/Macabre, Jaggers/Jagged, Uriah/Urine, Claypole/Maypole, Krooks/Crook, to name but a few. Sometimes the word association goes further – from McChoakumchild, choking all the joy out of children, to the deadly Lady Dedlock and the heartless Harthouse. Dickens also enjoyed using everyday objects in his names – Bucket, Pocket, Guppy, Slime and Honeythunder – and he was the absolute master of the pithy epithet: who can forget The Artful Dodger, The Avenger and The Aged P?
So I gave myself licence to have fun with names in ‘Another Twist in the Tale’. I have my own alliterative heroes and villains – from Tommy Tickle, Madame Manzoni, Bob the Butcher’s Boy to Twill Twist herself (not that she becomes a Twist right away!) as well as my own associative names – Mrs Spanks who is famous for her beatings, Fleet who is fast and stinky as the river she takes her name from, and the cherubic Angel.
Names in ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ are particularly important because many of my characters’ names have been lost – or found! ‘Baggage Jones was quite sure she’d had another name once but it had been lost like a penny down the floorboards or an odd sock in the laundry … she had spent her fourteen years on this earth being addressed thus ‘Get over ‘ere, you baggage … Fetch this, you useless baggage …. Get on, you baggage you’ – that she had come to believe Baggage was indeed her name.’ Similarly, all of the members of the Sassy Sisterhood of Saffon Hill are named after the places where they were found, shivering and starving on the streets – ‘There was Sloane whose half-closed eye and scarred cheek had been gained in an encounter with the Old Bill on the King’s Road, Chelsea who has slept a whole winter in the snow on Eaton Terrace and little Angel who has been found starving on a street corner in Islington.’ Poor Piccadilly and Trafalgar – the asymmetrical twins – come off rather worse in this particular naming strategy! Meanwhile, many of the urchins who find themselves prey to the exploitative Blacking Factory sweatshop are nameless – ‘the latest arrival had no idea what his name was so the boys called him Nemo (which means nobody)’ Oh, and there’s the one known simply as Boy Number 12 (my nod to ‘Hard Times’!)
Meanwhile some of my names are riddles. The mysterious Mr Barrabas (not his real name!) takes his pseudonym from another literary baddie who poisoned his own daughter and a houseful of nuns with porridge (can you name the author and the play?) Oh, and this evil gentleman’s name also links him to another famous Dickensian villain to whom he bears a striking resemblance. ‘Mother Earth’ and the mysterious Mrs C also have names that prove to be riddles to be solved before our heroine can save the day. Meanwhile, Madame Manzoni is a tribute to one of my favourite characters from a classic novel NOT by Dickens! I shall leave the literary sleuths amongst you to figure out who (look out for the clue later on in the blog!)
As for Miss Twill (Twist/Brownlow) Jones – also known as Camberwell, Will Camberwell or just South o’ th’ River to her friends – well, our plucky heroine loses a name, gains a name, changes her name, throws off a name and gets a brand new one at the end! Yes, names are a big part of this story!
Dickens’ character descriptions are famously gloriously visual, almost cartoon-like at times. His characters come in different shapes (the ‘square’ Mr Gradgrind), sizes (Tiny Tim) and colours (just think of Miss Havisham’s wedding attire faded to sere yellow, like her hopes!) and his descriptions are peppered with wonderful metaphors and similes – who can forget the letterbox mouth of Mr Wopsle?
So, you can just imagine how much fun I had creating my own character descriptions, drawing on Dickens’ techniques and allowing myself licence to exaggerate as much as I liked. There’s the monstrous Madame Manzoni ‘who had once been a diminutive bird-like woman of singular beauty. But over the years a monstrous accumulation of flesh had descended upon her tiny body like lava upon a doomed city, burying the fairy-like girl in waves and waves of undulating white flesh’. Or Baggage Jones, ‘a scrawny scrap of a creature who bore a squashed appearance as of clothing hastily scrumpled.’ Or Twill Jones who ‘shared all her brother’s angelic beauty, but her big blue eyes shone with a fierce light and there was a determined tilt to her chin and firm set to her rose-petal mouth which reflected her fearless temper.’
And I had the most brilliant fun inventing suitably Dickensian metaphors and similes: ‘wobbling like a colossal blancmange’, ‘a tall hot, poker of a woman’, ‘tiny beady eyes that glimmered like currants in the swelling pudding of her doughy face’, ‘an eyebrow raised like a slug wriggling on a vast mountain of lard’, ‘he had the soft, plump features of a newborn and not much more hair on his head than a babe-in-arms neither’, ‘a squat looking girl with the appearance of a pugilistic pug’. Yes, when it comes to creating Dickensian characters it’s all about the imagery – the more weird, wonderful and grotesque the better!
During a trip to the Dickens’ Museum in London I learned that the great man would ‘act out’ his characters in front of a mirror to get the voices right (I even got to stand in front of the actual looking glass and mutter a few of the Artful Dodger’s choicest phrases!) Dickens uses dialogue almost like a play-write to evoke his characters’ idiosyncrasies. From Mr Sleary’s lisp and Harthouse’s lazy drawl, to the catchphrases for which so many of his characters are famous – Fagin’s obsequious ‘my dear!’, Scrooge’s ‘Bah Humbug!’, Uriah Heep’s ‘Umble’ to Jo the Crossing Sweeper’s ‘I don’t know nothink’ and Stephen Blackpool’s ‘Tis all a muddle!’ not forgetting my personal favourite, Joe Gargery’s ‘Ever the best of friends!’
Dickens researched the idiolect of his characters carefully, studying a book of Lancashire dialect before writing ‘Hard Times’ and introducing into his London novels the earthy Cockney slang associated with the working class, the theatre, or the criminal underworld, such terms as butter-fingers (a clumsy person), flummox (bewilder), sawbones (surgeon), and whizz-bang (sound of a gunshot). He also made up plenty of words of his own – comfoozled meaning exhausted is my particular favourite. He turned nouns into verbs (and vice versa) ‘I won’t submit to be mother-in-lawed’ declares Fanny – adding prefixes and suffixes, and creating compound words, many of which have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (manslaughter and corkscrew apparently!). This playfulness with language lends a richness and variety to his novels and particularly to his dialogue, bringing characters vividly and memorably to life.
So, as a writer who spends a (possibly worrying!) amount of time ‘acting out’ characters in my head – and sometimes out loud, too (I frequently find myself talking in role as I potter round the supermarket or on the school run!), this was music to my ears. I loved going back to my well-thumbed copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ and studying the dialect of Fagin, Bumble, Dodger and other characters. This allowed me to mimic the cadences and rhythm of their speech, as well as echoing the syntax, peculiar idiosyncrasies of grammar, lexical sets and other idiolect features (yes, my English teacher geekhood quivering with delight!)
Oh, and I rather fell in love with Philip Thorne’s appendix in the Penguin Classics edition with its glorious list of Dickensian slang which I devoured hungrily, allowing me to pepper the Sassy Sisters’ dialogue with some of the choicest Victorian vernacular. I gave my characters their own catchphrases – ‘Spare the spoon and spoil the child,’ ‘Beauty is your duty’ – and allowed myself to go fully to town on accents, phonetic spelling – and even the occasional made up word of my own!
Yes, Dickens’ characters inspired many children’s authors, from Roald Dahl to J K Rowling, and his methods of characterisation are so distinctive that his creations live long in the memory. Following in his footsteps was the most incredible fun as a writer and when young readers close the covers of ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ I hope it might inspire them to check out one of Dickens’ stories for themselves. I love the idea that Twill Twist might introduce readers to her long lost brother Oliver and Nancy and Bill Sykes, to Pip and Magwitch and Miss Havisham, to Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim, to Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield and many more of the glorious characters and unforgettable adventures created by the inimitable Charles Dickens!”
Another Twist in the Tale by Catherine Bruton is published by Nosy Crow (5th November 2020, £7.99 paperback). With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me this book to review.