Following in Dicken’s Giant Footsteps by Catherine Bruton
Sometimes I wonder what on earth possessed me to think I could write a sequel to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist! What gave me the right? How did I ever have the nerve? Well, the truth is it all sort of happened by accident – and my pupils are to blame!
You see, when I’m not writing books, I am an English teacher and I run a creative writing club at school. One term I came up with the idea of a project telling the stories of ‘unheard voices’ from history and literature: minor figures, characters on the margins, poor relations who never even get a mention, but whose voices demand to be heard (it was entirely inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’ and Imogen Russell Williams’ ‘The Women Left Behind’!) My talented pupils wove incredible tales of Grendel’s mum, Hermione Granger’s baby brother, Shakespeare’s sister, Gatsby’s daughter … they created sequels and prequels and spin-offs, scribbling yarns in the margins of history and literature, bringing to life people who had been hidden or silenced or just written off. (N.B. if this is something you’d like to try yourself at home or school I’ve created a writing resource which you can find on the Nosy Crow Website.)
So that’s where I started writing Another Twist in the Tale – on Tuesday lunchtimes in Q15 surrounded by young people bursting with ideas and so full of stories the room positively buzzing with creativity. Maybe that’s why I had the nerve – because I wasn’t writing for publication, I was just writing for the sheer joy of it, inspired and carried along by their infectious energy!
Even though I only wrote a fragment that term, the idea stayed with me long afterwards. Twill Twist, Oliver’s feisty and fearless twin sister, seemed to nag at me, demanding to have her story told. I found myself dreaming up new twists to her tale, jotting down ideas in random notebooks, dreaming up weird and wonderful new characters… but still with no idea where anything was actually going.
Until a couple of years later I mentioned the idea to Tom Bonnick, my editor at Nosy Crow – and he loved it! Which was great… sort of… because then I actually had to write it! At which point the terror kicked in! I was taking on one of the most famous tales of all time, told by the most consummate of all story-tellers, beloved by readers world-wide, young and old for nearly two hundred years. What was I thinking???
Two things kicked in at this point! One was the teacher in me, the other was the writer. Mrs Bruton, English teacher for 25 years, studying Hard Times with her lovely GCSE class, went into full-on scholarly geek mode! If I was doing this, I was going to do Dickens proud, and my University professors proud, and my GCSE class proud! I was determined no pedantic Dickens scholar would find a single slip-up, no English teacher colleague or former professor would take me to task on any error – no matter how small.
As a student at St Hugh’s College, Oxford in the early 90s, I had the privilege to attend lectures by Professors John Carey and Kathleen Tillotson, and it was my tutor, the brilliant Dr Isobel Rivers, who first said to me, “To understand Dickens, you have to understand the Blacking Factory”. She made me see that the terrified 12 year old Dickens, forced to work in a rat-infested sweatshop when his father was thrown into debtor’s prison, is present in all of Dickens’ fiction. He is also at the very heart of Another Twist in the Tale – and I was determined to do him proud too! Which is why beneath the rip-roaring adventure, the cast of incredible characters (some very familiar – and some new faces) I tried to weave a story which continues Dickens’ reforming legacy by opening readers’ eyes to the poverty that still exists in the world today, even on our own doorsteps.
So I confess that I went full boffin when it came to the research (and I loved every minute of it!). Various academics and institutions helped me along the way, including Philip Thorne, editor of the Penguin Classics edition (whose appendices made me positively swoon!); Dr Paul Schlicke, (who helped me untangle Dicken’s tangled time-lines – sort of!); the staff of the Charles Dickens Museum; and the lovely librarians of the Bodliean Library amongst others.
And yes, there are a few deviations from Dickens’ (I am aware that Mr Bumble was not present at Oliver’s birth in the original) and the timeline is slightly up for debate (turns out that’s partly Dickens’ pickle, not mine!) but I like to think that even Mr Dickens himself would have read my twist on his famous tale with a wry smile of amusement and occasional chuckles at my temerity, because this is very much a homage to his work – a ‘gateway to Dickens’ which I hope may be the first step on a magical reading journey for many young bookworms.
When it came to style and language, I have my GCSE class to thank. I wanted to translate the energy of Dickens’ prose style and the gloriousness of his language for a younger audience. I didn’t want to dumb-down for them, but I did want to make it accessible enough to make them pick up one of the originals. We were studying Hard Times and my super clever students were so brilliant at analysing Dickens’ syntax, his sentence structures, his use of language and literary devices – then I rushed home to try and create my own pale imitation!
Determined to get my historical facts right, I rummaged through my old A Level History notes for information on the Poor Law Amendment Act and the Abolition of Slavery etc. and drew on my (unashamed!) love of Georgette Heyer for my knowledge of gaming hells and gleaming hessians. And when it came to the nitty gritty of life in Victorian London, I was lucky enough to come across the amazing Ben Nolan from http://www.benscitytours.com who runs a walking tour called ‘Twists and Turns: The Places that Inspired Oliver Twist’. Ben took me in the footsteps of young Oliver and brought Dickensian London gloriously and gruesomely to life (as well as helping me to figure out how to save Fagin from the gallows!) If you find yourself in London and looking for a few hours of time-travel back to Victorian England, I cannot recommend this enough!
But in the end the writer in me took over – and I just fell in love with this project! The chance to rediscover some of Dickens’ most beloved characters – the Artful Dodger, Fagin and even Oliver Twist himself – and to create my own host of brilliant new heroes and villains – Baggage Jones, Mrs Spank, the monstrous Madame Manzoni and Miss Twill Twist – was just a joy from start to finish. And once I started writing, I couldn’t stop – the story poured out and I forgot all my ‘anxiety of influence’ – I just had to keep turning the pages, following every twist and turn, desperate to find out what happened next!
So in the end, I stopped worrying what Dickens would think, what the professors and scholars would think – I just got swept up in the story, carried along by the adventure and the sheer joy of writing – just as I had when I first began this crazy project on a rainy Tuesday lunchtime in Creative Writing Club!
When 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 you 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!
But I can honestly say that spinning Another Twist in the Tale has been the most thrilling, exciting, rip-roaring adventure I have ever been on as a writer. I know I can never hope to be even half the writer Dickens was, but it has a been a huge privilege – and the most brilliant adventure – to follow in his footsteps and to provide one last twist in the tale!
Another Twist in the Tale by Catherine Bruton is published by Nosy Crow on 5th November 2020, £6.99 paperback.