In an afterword, Terry Pratchett describes Dodger, his good-natured reworking of Oliver Twist and--despite the title--Great Expectations as "historical fantasy" (359), and certainly the avid Victorianists amongst my readers would be well-advised to relax any expectations they possess for historical accuracy. There's no other way to explain how Dickens, Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Joseph Bazalgette, Henry Mayhew, Sir Robert Peel, John Tenniel, Queen Victoria, and others I'm no doubt forgetting wind up rubbing shoulders in reasonably convivial fashion. (Obviously, some of these people--e.g., Dickens and Burdett-Coutts--were well-acquainted; others, not so much, and not all at the same time.) The anachronism extends to the literary references, which is why alert readers will spot references not only to Oliver! (as one might expect), but also Shakespeare and James Joyce's "The Dead" (as one might not). Moreover, readers conditioned by, say, Louis Bayard (Mr. Timothy) or Peter Carey (Jack Maggs) to expect Dickens Revisited to be Dickens Darkened should also put their preconceptions aside: despite the requisite neo-Victorian visits to slums and sewers, this is by and large an upbeat concoction.
Pratchett's "Dodger" (no Artful) is a tosher, someone who trawls the sewers looking for money, jewelry, and other goodies, whilst avoiding the less...pleasant...objects one might expect to find in a sewer. Of course, as he admits, he has also been known to do the odd robbery from time to time, but that's just because "he was good at finding things" (15). Despite predating Sherlock Holmes, he has a remarkably Sherlockian talent for reading people, and, although possessing a somewhat lax moral code, he instinctively protects the weak (women, children, the elderly) against the strong; he even works up sympathy for (a chronologically misplaced) Sweeney Todd, suffering from severe trauma, with whom he has a close, er, shave. In other words, our Dodger is a bit of a diamond in the rough. He rooms with the appropriately wise Solomon Cohen, Pratchett's answer to Fagin, a Swiss Army Knife of a Jewish character who speaks just about every language known to man (well, except Welsh--you can't expect too much), is a skilled metalworker and locksmith, has been known to hobnob with royalty, is up on the latest in culture and clothing, is a gifted financier, and has spent his entire life on the run from antisemitic persecution in one way or another. Oh, and had a mysterious chum named Karl, wild hair, interested in the proletariat... Whew. Despite being an inverted Fagin, Solomon is actually a far more chipper rendition of Benjamin Disraeli's Sidonia, although Dizzy himself does not fare particularly well at Pratchett's hands. Last but not least, there's the object of Dodger's growing devotion, a young lady known only as "Simplicity" (she changes her name later), a mysterious escapee from a terrifying marriage with an equally mysterious German nobleman. Far from being a standard Dickensian angel, either in or out of the house, let alone a "damsel in distress" (87), Simplicity can hold her own in a fistfight and has a decided mind of her own.
At one point, Simplicity comments that "I had thought I was in a fairy tale when I first met my husband" (162), and at first glance, the novel appears committed to undermining fairy-tale logic. Simplicity, as I said, is hardly a passive Disney princess (or any other sort), and Pratchett doesn't stint on the more lurid sense of early-Victorian poverty and sexuality. But, as the stereotypically plump cook jokes, it's a shock that Dodger hasn't been named "Lord Mayor" (79), like Dick Whittington, and his rags-to-sort-of-riches transformation combines Oliver Twist's (re)turn to genteel respectability (well, sort of) with a far less conflicted variant of Pip's transformation into a gentleman. "Seem to be a hero, seem to be a clever young man, seem to be trustworthy" (194), Dodger thinks to himself, and this seeming eventually turns into being. In that sense, Solomon is as much benevolent Magwitch as he is sanctified Fagin, his primary gift to Dodger being not money (although he certainly helps Dodger invest it) but the recognition that he might, after all, have a "soul" (42). The quasi-magic of the orphaned and impoverished Dodger's upward rise, in which he can best any opponent, call up yet another of Solomon's astonishing tricks, and get the (wife of German royalty!) girl in the end, remains very much in the realm of fairy-tale heroics. Which is to say that the novel does not, after all, disown Oliver Twist, although it certainly swaps out its annoying protagonist for someone considerably more engaging. (The novel's conclusion, though it lands Dodger in France, is perhaps more Kipling's Kim than it is anything by Dickens, though.)
Even though Pratchett doesn't hold back on the muck, as I've said, Dodger offers up a modest celebration of England and Englishness. Solomon quips that "it seems to me that in the pinch most governments settle for shooting their people, but in England they have to ask permission first," and, more seriously, "people don't mind much what you're doing as long as you're not making too much noise" (118); Simplicity reminds Disraeli and Dickens that "My mother [...] said that in England everybody is free" (163). Despite the potential irony in Simplicity's remark, the novel really does gently celebrate the idea of England as a safe haven for those endangered abroad, even though it also notes the prejudice, the brutality (Dodger's initial encounter with Solomon involved rescuing him from a beating), and the corruption. Everyone's a Dodger, as Dodger notes more than once. But they're Dodgers in a nation where, perhaps, a tosher can become a gentleman, and a gentleman with a soul, at that.