Authors: G. M. Best
Â© G.M. Best 2010
First published in Great Britain 2010
Robert Hale Limited
London EC1R 0HT
The right of G.M. Best to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
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Typeset in 11Â½/16pt Palatino by Derek Doyle & Associates, Shaw Heath Printed in Great Britain by the MPG Books Group, Bodmin and King's Lynn
The manuscript from which this book is drawn was discovered entirely by accident buried amid a trunkful of other Victorian documents which were purchased at auction on the off-chance that they might contain something of interest. I have no way of verifying its authenticity or that of the attached letter, which I have incorporated and which purports to have been written by Fagin. All I have done is to amend some of the faulty spelling and punctuation and create headings for the chapters into which I have chosen to divide the manuscript. I cannot account for how the manuscript ended up within the trunk I purchased, or why the documents were not originally published (other than that there is a reference within the manuscript itself to delaying publication until no participant could be damaged by what the manuscript reveals). I therefore leave it to the reader to judge whether this is just a clever Victorian forgery or whether Oliver Twist was not just a fictional character invented by Charles Dickens but, rather, a real boy, who, in his adult life, wrote this true account of who really murdered the prostitute Nancy and why.
For my part I think the manuscript is true. Charles Dickens was renowned for using his personal life and experiences within his novels and it seems to me not unreasonable to believe that
, written when he was still essentially a journalist rather than a famous novelist, was perhaps more personal than anyone has previously supposed. The manuscript certainly gives interesting and plausible reasons for some of Dickens' unusual personal behaviour and even hints at where his inspiration came from for another of his great novels,
. True or false, this book certainly delivers a totally new twist on the tale of the boy who dared to ask for more by providing more from the boy himself.
G.M. Best (editor)
Nightmares about Nancy dominated my troubled childhood years. I could not shake from my mind an image of her battered and bruised body in that blood-spattered room of betrayal. But that is not surprising. As a child I had been repeatedly told how she had faced such a vicious beating that it had rendered her fair face virtually featureless. You may recall that, in describing the events of her brutal murder, Charles Dickens wrote how the following morning the bright sunlight caused a reflection from the horrifying pool of gore to quiver and dance on the ceiling of the room and so frightenly emphasize her utter destruction. It was not just Bill Sikes who found this intolerable. So did I in my imagination. And the passage of time did nothing to silence the sound of her frantic screams reverberating ever louder within my mind, pleading for assistance which neither I nor anyone else could provide. I could not forget that this nightmare scene of utter brutality stemmed entirely from her efforts to protect me from Fagin and Sikes. Her dull and lifeless eyes reproached me for the destruction I had brought
upon her. Awake or asleep, I struggled under their gaze, knowing I was totally unworthy of her sacrifice and suffering.
Put bluntly, I never felt my miserable life was one worth saving. If you have read the great novelist's version of my early years, you will know I was born an unwanted bastard and named Oliver Twist thanks to the whim of the resentful local authorities, into whose reluctant hands I was placed following the death of my mother in childbirth. I survived the manifold minor cruelties of the parish workhouse only to be sold like a slave because, driven by sheer starvation, I had the temerity to dare to ask for more gruel to eat. The good men of the parish judged me to be an ungrateful wretch destined for the hangman's rope and Mr Bumble, the fat and choleric parochial beadle, handed me over for my impious and profane offence to one of his friends. This was the local undertaker, a gaunt, large-jointed man called Sowerberry, who paid the princely sum of five pounds for me. For a few months I acted as a deaf mute, walking in silent procession in front of the corpses of children and wishing I could change places with them. Sowerberry believed my sickly, white, tormented face, which bore all the signs of years of suffering, ideal for this purpose.
I believe Mr Sowerberry, despite his trade in death, was kindly disposed towards me but his foul-tempered wife took an instant dislike to me and made my life a living hell. As far as she was concerned, any workhouse brat was not worth keeping. She only fed me on the foul scraps judged unsuitable for their dog and she made me sleep in a coffin for my bed. The nightly horror of sleeping amid the stench of the dead was only matched by the brutal treatment that I received at the hands of Sowerbery's simpering daughter,
Charlotte, and her lascivious lover, Noah Claypole. They delighted in tormenting me, knowing I was friendless and unprotected. Noah called me âa regular right-down bad 'un' and so I believed myself to be. When I eventually responded to my cruel persecution by assaulting him, I was locked up and beaten by Bumble, who, bully that he was, took a perverse delight in savagely punishing me.
Although I was just a child, I was filled with sufficient fear and loathing to flee my persecutors. I managed to escape from the undertaker's house and walked about seventy-five miles over the next seven days, determined to reach London and escape any pursuit. My shoeless feet became blistered and bloody, and my legs trembled beneath me for lack of food. All I had to eat was the occasional crust of bread and draught of water donated at the cottage doors at which I begged. I slept where I could in wet hedges and roadside ditches and not all those I met were kind to a vagrant, even if he was but a pitifully weak child of nine years old. There were too many roaming beggars prepared to steal from the unsuspecting for me to be welcomed. Some set their vicious dogs on me and others offered me only a hellish curse or the threat of prison. Exhausted and malnourished by the time I got as far as Barnet, it is not surprising that I fell easy victim to the charms of a common-faced boy pickpocket called Jack Dawkins, who appeared to offer me genuine friendly assistance by agreeing to take me to his lodgings in the great city.
Though only a few years older than I, Jack had all the airs and manners of a man. Indeed he wore a man's coat, even though it reached nearly to his heels. He was, as Dickens later described him, an âArtful Dodger', a roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or
something less. Unfortunately, he did not have âthief' branded on his forehead or âpickpocket' inscribed on his clothes, and so, born trickster that he was, he had only to exert a tiny fraction of his natural charm to entrap me. I didn't realize that he was befriending me in order that I could become a member of the same thieving gang for whom he worked and which was run by a fence named Fagin, a man who was to treat me worse than all those who had gone before.
My senses were overwhelmed with my first taste of London â its buildings garbed with soot, its thoroughfares jam-packed with a jostling humanity, and its streets filled with rotting and stinking debris. The sheer volume and variety of sounds that pounded my brain were terrifying as iron-clad wheels rattled over cobbled streets and an endless succession of hawkers and sellers yelled out their wares. No conversation was possible unless we shouted to each other. All around us were people who seemed to care only for themselves â slipping and sliding, pushing and bumping, cursing and swearing. Worst of all, my lungs were filled for the first time with that horrific stench which stems not only from hundreds of thousands of unwashed people but also from the city's countless smoking and reeking chimneys, its dung-pits and sewage-filled alleyways, and its endless succession of breweries, tanneries, foundries and other industrial buildings.
At first we passed through busy broad streets lined with pleasantly proportioned buildings and attractive shops, but soon we entered narrow and overcrowded alleys where drunken men and women wallowed in filth and where every conceivable crime was in evidence. When we reached our destination, it was a disgustingly dirty building off a
tiny courtyard that was filled with the charnel stench of a nearby overfilled graveyard. The Dodger gave a whistle to signal our presence and we were soon admitted. At one time it must have been a grand place because the rooms upstairs had great high wooden chimneypieces and large doors, with panelled walls and cornices to the ceilings. However, everything was now worm-eaten and black with neglect and dust. All the mouldering shutters were fast closed and the bars that held them were screwed tight into the wood, so the only light admitted was that which stole its way through round holes at the top. Generations of spiders had built their webs in the angles of its walls and ceilings and, as we walked, I could hear the sound of rats or mice scampering back to their holes over the straw-filled billets and mounds of filthy rags which seemed to account for the house's main furniture.
When we entered the main room of the house it was lit by a candle stuck in a ginger-beer bottle. I found myself in the midst of a crowd of boys of varying ages with nothing natural to youth about them. Though they appeared at first to be friendly, I soon found that they were low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked creatures, utterly ignorant and speeding down to their own destruction. Throughout my life I had been ill used, but it did not prepare me for the hellhole that was Fagin's lair or for the cruelties I would experience at the hands of their master, the old Jew himself. At night I had to struggle with the other boys to find body space on the filthy floor and I shall never eradicate from my mind Fagin's repulsive and villainous face, his dirty, matted hair, and his shrivelled, grasping hands.
Believe me when I say that Charles Dickens's account was a sanitized version of what happened next. Fagin soon had
me trained to join his team of pickpockets and his fiendish depravity made my life even more worthless. No one, let alone Nancy, should have died to save my sin-ridden skin. And such a sacrifice was unnecessary. Those of you who have read Dickens's account of my life will know that for a brief time I was rescued from a potential life of crime by the blessed benevolence of a gentleman named Mr Brownlow. This kind soul saw that I was an unwilling thief on my first attempt at picking the pockets of his bottle-green coat as he browsed at a bookstall. When he rescued me from the stiff-necked magistrate who would have consigned me to prison, it was the first act of genuine goodness I had ever experienced. It still brings tears to my eyes when I recall my wonderment at this gold-spectacled benefactor, who was prepared to take a wretch like me into his home and offer such lavish care and attention. And I was doubly blessed because his housekeeper, Mrs Bedwin, was equally kind to me, lovely woman that she was. Only her generous heart matched her ample girth. In many respects she became the mother I had never had.
My brief period of happiness in Mr Brownlow's home ended when Fagin ensured my recapture by using the prostitute Nancy to pose as my sister. She thought Fagin's motive in regaining control of me was his fear of what I might say about his activities to the police, but he had other reasons. Unbeknown to her, I had a half-brother called Edward Leeford, who had claimed an inheritance that should have been mine and who, under the assumed name of Monks, had instigated an investigation into my whereabouts. Fagin had met Monks and been handsomely paid to ensure that I rejoined his gang. Monks wanted me to become a thief and so end my life on the gallows. Nancy
dressed for the occasion and, always the consummate actress, seized me in the street whilst I was on an errand returning some books for Mr Brownlow. Nancy claimed that I had run away from home and that I needed rescuing from my criminal associates. She played her part so well that not one passer-by heeded my protests or cries for help. I was thus easily reconsigned to Hell.
Yet it was also this same Nancy who then became my champion, preventing Fagin inflicting some of his worst excesses on me and bearing the blows of her lover, Bill Sikes, rather than permit him to beat me. I can hear her voice now, courageously telling them she could not bear to see me become a thing of the streets like her. Is it any wonder that I soon forgave her for her role in my capture and came to adore her? Who could not love Nancy? She was the one blossom in our dung heap, the one constant source of light in our darkness. If I were asked to define the word âbeautiful' I would simply utter her name. She was strikingly attractive in shape and character. Her vivacious smile, her sparkling eyes, and her infectious good humour made her unforgettable. Though she had little cause to celebrate and much to be sorrowful about, she was so full of fun that she lightened the darkest mood of those around her. The day's events appeared brighter to all Fagin's gang when viewed through her eyes, and, amid the brutal nature of much of our existence, it was her innumerable little acts of kindness that made our broken lives bearable. In a society where few trusted anyone, all trusted her and I hung on her every word and gesture.
Don't mistake my meaning. Nancy was no angel. Her language could be unbelievably coarse, her humour vulgar and lewd. When crossed, her temper was sometimes foul if
usually short-lived. However, these few failings never detracted from her ability to rise above the harshness that surrounded us. She was especially adept at poking fun at the pompous and the proud, and her uncanny ability to mimic the characteristics of the people she had met during the course of the day was unfailingly comical. Above everything else, Nancy was loyal to her friends, even when, like me, they least deserved it. Afterwards I assumed she especially sought to protect me because she was outraged at overhearing the plans of Monks and Fagin to destroy me. She rescued me from what he and Fagin intended by betraying vital information to Mr Brownlow who, as it later became clear, had been the closest friend of my and Monks's father.
Thus it came about that, when Sikes forced me to assist in a burglary, I was rescued and given refuge in the very home he and Fagin had wanted me to rob. There I first met Rose Maylie, whom Monks later revealed to be my aunt. Rose was a very different character from Nancy. She was gentler and sweeter and infinitely more innocent, but she shared Nancy's passion for justice. Many a fine lady would have despised and scorned any contact with a prostitute, but Rose's innate courage enabled her to override the dictates of propriety and her natural sensitivity enabled her to discern Nancy's qualities. I have been blessed to know two such strong-minded if widely different women. Curiously, it was Nancy rather than Rose who found their meetings difficult. I think that when she saw Rose, Nancy was reminded of how different her own life might have been and that frightened her. Corrupted as her life had become, she feared that she could not live the reformed life that Rose offered her. Her uncharacteristic lack of confidence and her
undoubted, if misplaced, love for the villainous Bill Sikes made Nancy refuse to accept Mr Brownlow's proffered protection following my rescue.
My last contact with Nancy was the farewell kiss she gave me before she returned to Fagin's gang. It was the last time any of us saw her alive. The discovery of her battered and bludgeoned body seemed to point to only one conclusion. Her lover, Bill Sikes, who had led the abortive burglary attempt, had murdered her for her treachery, egged on by a furious Fagin. As news of the brutal manner of her death became widely known, I recognized that everyone bar Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie cared far more about Nancy's death than they did about my escape from Fagin's embrace. The subsequent accident in which Sikes hanged himself whilst trying to escape capture did not change that, nor did Fagin's imprisonment and subsequent condemnation and execution. If it had not been for me, Nancy would have lived. I had deprived the dregs of society of one of their few joys.
For a number of years after Nancy's martyrdom I dared aspire to justify the expenditure of her blood by helping those unfortunate children who live â if it can be called living â amid the same kind of depravity and destitution from which she rescued me. I encouraged Mr Brownlow, who became my guardian, to use the little wealth he had to offer refuge to those who had experienced little love in their lives and for whom neglect, cruelty and crushing poverty were the norm of their existence. If my efforts made a difference to a few, I am glad, but such satisfaction as it gave did not ease my conscience or salve my sense of guilt. In my mind neither my good deeds nor my improved station in society made up one jot for the crushing of Nancy's skull
and the silencing of her laughter.