Dodger by Terry Pratchett (Fencers, Snakesmen, and Toshers)


“This is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

Reminds me of Pickwick Papers

It is the very first book I read by Terry Pratchett. I might be ashamed of myself having started Dodger rather than Discworld series, but perambulating Victorian London through Dodger’s eyes, it opens my doors of curiosity to embrace the fantastic Discworld. To be frank, I was already deep in thought soon after I read the first line of the dedication page to Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) , “To Henry Mayhew for writing his book” – London Labour and the London Poor – a book which I have longed to read from the first to the last page. “What Dickens did surreptitiously, showing the reality of things via the medium of the novel, Henry Mayhew and his confederates did simply by facts, lots and lots of facts, piling statistics on statistics.” I remember there is a chapter where Mayhew confronts and interviews a little street sweeper, which is indeed overwhelming upon my first glance. In Dodger, Mayhew also appears on pages as one of the major historical characters of Victorian England alongside Mister Charlie Dickens (1812-1870).

Author’s acknowledgements

“You are so sharp that you might cut yourself.”

Inspired by Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist, this book focuses on an eponymous character, Dodger, a youthful, prismatic and adventurous seventeen-year-old tosher (sewer scavenger) living near Seven Dials under the rookeries world and the attic roof of Solomon’s, a Jewish watchmaker with a dog of a funny name called “Onan” (Footnote from Pratchett: the name of “Onan”, if not familiarised with The Bible, get some help from Google, or any priest – possibly a slightly embarrassed one – will help you). Dodger’s former careers before coming to a fabulous tosher is better not to be revealed here, but one day something incredulous incident happens which changes his life forever – the act of saving a damsel in distress could be no big deal and re-enacted all the time in Victorian London; however it is the damsel’s identity,  his resourcefulness and swiftness of grating drain covers which add up together and clash into consecutive heroic acts involving skulduggery and dark plots forthwith. The story is adequately seasoned with the help of bountiful famous accomplices, the fateful fog of London, as well as some playful disguise and camouflage.

“Once upon a time, Marie Jo had told him that with his skills, he should be on the stage, as she had been, but since he knew that actors didn’t get paid very much he had always reckoned that the only reason to be on a stage would be to rob it.”

Punch-Judy-Puppet-631.jpg__800x600_q85_cropConcerning those bountiful famous accomplices who work in concert with Dodger, apart from Henry Mayhew as is mentioned above, there is Mister Charlie Dickens, a writer of Morning Chronicle, headquartered in Fleet Street. He acts as a journalist and parliamentary reporter, befriending with spikes on the desks and foggy London.

  • The only monsters in Fleet Street, he had been told, were the printing presses whose thumping made the pavement shake, and which demanded to be fed every day with a diet of politics, ‘orrible murders and death.
  • My answer to you would be that the truth is a fog, in which one man sees the heavenly host and the other one sees a flying elephant. (Dickens)
Angela Burdett-Coutts

Alongside Dickens, there is the notable philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), whose roles on charitable acts of supporting Ragged Schools,  encourages Dodger to enroll in it, as well as being a courageous pillar to Dodger’s contrived plots against the enemies, plays an important part of the story. It is amusing that she proposes to Duke of Wellington, and later marries to a 29-year-old secretary, who is 38 years her junior. In her party organised by Lady Coutts, where Dodger and Solomon have the honour to be invited, it is star-studded with George Cayley (1773-1857), Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) (daughter of Lord Byron), Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) (whose keen interests lead him to a guided tour of the sewer world), and Sir Robert Peel with the peelers. I could not elaborate more on their distinctions and achievements, so more research need to be done.

Interestingly, a worthy mentioning of names pin-pricked in the story include Sweeney Todd (whose fate leads him to Bedlam Hospital), Mister Tenniel (1820-1914) (the illustrator), and Dick Turpin the highwayman (1705-1739). Places included Lavender Hill Cemetery and Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark concerning Winchester Geese. Last but not least, with Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace
A place I didn’t visit last time in London!

17998922All in all, entertaining as it might be, the most inspiring idea I get is the faith and belief you have in yourself. The Roman Goddess of Sewers, Cloacina, the Lady, is all that toshers worship in the underbelly of London, as opposed to the one on the upper world. However, it is not about that or what, it’s the reincarnation of the true self, and Dodger has found one. It is an impressive novel packed with blaggard and scallywag, waifs and strays, and many Victorian slang like copper, snakesman and flophouse. A perfect read for me in April. I hope to get my next one by Pratchett!

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Wong Sarah

Making reading the essential part of my life

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