In the last entry, I mentioned that I was starting to view Sikes & Nancy as a drama in its own right, with a disarmingly clever structure that had previously escaped me. Yet in its Public Readings form, it remains a kind of fragment – an extended quotation from Oliver Twist. Dickens relied heavily on his audience’s prior familiarity with the novel. For example, Dickens expects us to remember that Morris Bolter and Noah Claypole are one and the same; that the unseen Monks is trying to extort Oliver Twist of his inheritance. Incidentally, Oliver Twist isn’t even mentioned in the Reading. I thought this was a bit much, so I’ve added a few references into my adaptation.
I suppose that my performance also relies on quotation. I trust that my spectators are familiar with the basic plot and principal characters, even if it’s from the Lionel Bart musical instead of the novel. I also get a thrill from shattering the Disneyesque template of that particular musical. The impact of quotation runs down to individual words. Certainly, there are snippets of dialogue – most particularly Fagin’s cloying ‘my dear!’ – that get an instantaneous response from an audience. It can be argued (rightly, in my view) that Dickens pioneered the comedy catchphrase. A hearty ‘prunes and prism!’ to those who say otherwise.
Bearing all this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to return to the novel and see what Dickens missed out in his judicious quotation. I discovered a few interesting fragments, which I’ll share with you now. If you missed the first run of Sikes & Nancy, they might well whet your appetite for that rip-roaring prose style.
Here’s the first bit, rounding out Nancy’s encounter with Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow under London Bridge:
‘What,’ cried the young lady, ‘can be the end of this poor creature’s life!’
‘What!’ repeated the girl. ‘Look before you, lady. Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing, to care for, or bewail them. It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last.’
Shuddery stuff. It extends marvellously on Dickens’s evocations of water as a dank and uninviting pit. One of my favourite descriptions in ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is when Brownlow encapsulates the London docks as ‘this dark and dismal hole’. But decay, as in Poe, is all-encompassing. In her later pleadings for mercy, Nancy speaks of the criminal life as ‘this dreadful place’. Water expresses Dickens’s view of criminality as contagion – and Fagin is always lurking at its centre. So why did Dickens delete this section? Very often, Dickens would prune from his Readings anything that was likely to cause his middle-class audiences offence. The provocative spectres of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol were two other casualties. As far as I remember, Dickens also toned down the implication of suicide – another death by drowning – in his Public Reading of The Chimes. But in ‘Sikes and Nancy’, I believe there’s another reason: quotation. No audience approaches the Reading without an awareness that Nancy will come to a horrible end. I’ve certainly made no effort to disguise it in publicising my show. Dickens made no effort to disguise it in his text either. In the Reading, Nancy is granted the near-comic fatalism of ‘I am drawn back to him through everything, and I should be, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand!’ The fleeting comedy is a more than fair trade-off for what’s gained in singularity. Nancy’s life is being drawn, inexorably, to a fixed point. Nothing funny in that.
Next fragment, a sentence this time:
As they disappeared, the girl sunk down nearly at her full length upon one of the stone stairs, and vented the anguish of her heart in bitter tears.
I find this very affecting. I can certainly picture it. Why the cut? Well, perhaps it doesn’t sit well with the notion of a ‘Public’ Reading. Nancy’s breakdown is a remarkably private thing, a glimpse into a human soul. But when you’re trying to get inside a character, glimpses into the soul are entirely welcome. Eliminating this sentence also helps to create singularity. Rather than diffusing Nancy’s cataclysms across the narrative, Dickens saves everything for a more explosive dramatic climax. The fixed point again; the right decision.
A glimpse into Fagin’s soul next – if the old devil possesses such a thing:
Mortification at the overthrow of his notable scheme; hatred of the girl who had dared to palter with strangers; and utter distrust of the sincerity of her refusal to yield him up; bitter disappointment at the loss of his revenge on Sikes; the fear of detection, and ruin, and death; and a fierce and deadly rage kindled by all; these were the passionate considerations which, following close upon each other with rapid and ceaseless whirl, shot through the brain of Fagin, as every evil thought and blackest purpose lay working at his heart.
Here, the narrator hazards an explanation of why Fagin informs Sikes about Nancy’s ‘betrayal’. Interestingly, it’s a rationalisation that the narrator pulls against. Everything dwindles down to ‘evil thought and blackest purpose’, which implies a quite baseless maliciousness. Fagin as Satan once again. But I also think that terror is key. No character in ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – other than Nancy herself – dares an action stirred by anything other than self-preservation. And terror is the most basic fuel of self-preservation – whether we dub it ‘mortification’, ‘hatred’, ‘distrust’, ‘disappointment’, ‘fear’ or ‘rage’, it amounts to much the same thing. At the bottom of all of us is a tiny, shrivelled, unloved and (most probably) unlovable creature, railing, inconsolable, against a pitiless existence. The greatest dramatic surprise of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is the care with which Dickens explores Sikes’s downfall. It’s no Rake’s Progress or Newgate novel, though: we have very direct access to Sikes’s terrified, sobbing child. This extends to some sizzling description, again deleted from the Reading, during Sikes’s guilt-stricken romp through the country:
For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible as that from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better borne to see them than think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness: light in themselves, but giving light to nothing. There were but two, but they were everywhere. If he shut out the sight, there came the room with every well-known object – some, indeed, that he would have forgotten, if he had gone over its contents from memory – each in its accustomed place. The body was in its place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away. He got up and rushed into the field without. The figure was behind him. He re-entered the shed, and shrunk down once more. The eyes were there, before he had laid himself along.
Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.
This passage fills me with memories of my very worst nightmares – dark figures in hallways, shadows in rocking chairs, screaming corpses reflected in mirrors. Any Daily Mail-pushers still haggling for the death penalty should spend a night with this book. I imagine that both Sikes and Fagin’s mental workings were deleted from the Readings text in deference to its dramatic form. Drama is action, seldom reflection. But the act of reflection – that plunge into dark waters – is an absolute necessity if you’re hoping to do justice to that action. Make no mistake: I’ll be returning to Sikes & Nancy, fresh-stoked with reasons to perform it.
A coda. I’ve been looking at a number of Dickens’s non-Christmas Carol ghost stories recently. They’re yielding up some colourful material; I’m discovering The Haunted Man, Dickens’s final Christmas Book, to be weird beyond my best expectations. Now and again, the best of these texts have shed new light on ‘Sikes and Nancy’.
Here’s some of ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’. It’s the first Dickens piece I have any memory of reading, as part of Wordsworth’s Gothic Short Stories collection (still in print, still available from Amazon). It was long before I got to The Pickwick Papers (serialised 1836-37), where it crops up as an inset narrative. ‘Manuscript’ is a demented dramatic monologue, in the best tradition of Edgar Allan Poe:
Straight and swift I ran, and no one dared to stop me. I heard the noise of feet behind, and redoubled my speed. It grew fainter and fainter in the distance, and at length died away altogether: but on I bounded, through marsh and rivulet, over fence and wall, with a wild shout that was taken up by the strange beings that flocked around me on every side, and swelled the sound, till it pierced the air. I was borne upon the arms of demons who swept along upon the wind, and bore down bank and hedge upon them, and spun me round and round with a rustle and a speed that made my head swim, until at last they threw me from them with a violent shock, and I fell heavily to the earth.
To me, this reads like an alternate universe version of Sikes’s flight through the countryside just outside London. The main difference is that Sikes is chased by his demons (he cannot turn around without the spectre of Nancy turning with him), whilst the Madman romps with his demons in jubilant conspiracy.
Here’s some of ‘A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second’ from Dickens’s editorial Master Humphrey’s Clock (which ran 1840-41). It’s a macabre, claustrophobic story of a man who becomes obsessed with his stepson. The man bumps him off because of his neurosis that the boy despises him (which puts me in mind of the ‘vulture eye’ of the old man in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’). Dickens shows the sensitivity to the twin complexities of blood and light that lifts much of ‘Sikes and Nancy’:
His mother’s ghost was looking from his eyes. The sun burst forth from behind a cloud; it shone in the bright sky, the glistening earth, the clear water, the sparkling drops of rain upon the leaves. There were eyes in everything. The whole great universe of light was there to see the murder done. I know not what he said; he came of bold and manly blood, and, child as he was, he did not crouch or fawn upon me. I heard him cry that he would try to love me, – not that he did, – and then I saw him running back towards the house. The next I saw was my own sword naked in my hand, and he lying at my feet stark dead, – dabbled here and there with blood, but otherwise no different from what I had seen him in his sleep – in the same attitude too, with his cheek resting upon his little hand.
The story improves yet further in the next section. I keep talking dimly about the ‘eye of God’ hanging over ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – and crikey. With a passage like this, I’m starting to think I’m on to something. Until next time, then…
I buried him that night. When I parted the boughs and looked into the dark thicket, there was a glow-worm shining like the visible spirit of God upon the murdered child. I glanced down into his grave when I had placed him there, and still it gleamed upon his breast; an eye of fire looking up to Heaven in supplication to the stars that watched me at my work.