Dodger’s Guide To London by Terry Pratchett (book review).

September 11, 2016 | By | Reply More

By way of an accompaniment to Terry Pratchett’s comic novel ‘Dodger’, this little book, ‘Dodger’s Guide To London’, describes the world of the eponymous guttersnipe from the perspective of those inhabiting the lower echelons of Victorian society. As such, it’s part-history book, part-literary guidebook, Pratchett’s fictional interpretation of nineteenth century London freely mixing actual historical personages with characters of his own invention.

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Indeed, there’s a strong meta-fictional flavour to both the novel and the guidebook, because what we’re exploring isn’t so much the cutting edge of historical research but our cultural perceptions of the era and the London that Pratchett describes is perhaps better thought of as Dickensian London rather than Victorian London. We’re meant to accept Dodger himself as the Artful Dodger of ‘Oliver Twist’, even though that connection isn’t overtly stated, and Charles Dickens plays an important role in the novel, too, alongside the real-world reformer Henry Mayhew and the fictional murderer Sweeney Todd.

So while ‘Dodger’s Guide To London’ is a perceptive account of the real London of the age, it’s definitely focused on our modern interest in the seedier, more desperate sections of society where Dickens found his greatest inspiration. Herein are descriptions of those who gathered detritus from the Thames at low tide, the fates of animals taken to Smithfield and the dubious nutritional qualities of the cheaper loaves of bread. Some of the ways Victorian Londoners made ends meet will be familiar enough, like the poor boys sent up chimneys but others, like the mudlarks and the snakesmen, require some explanation, which ‘Dodger’s Guide To London’ is happy to do.

Pratchett is well-known for his love of language and ‘Dodger’ gave him ample opportunity to use words and phrases that would have been understood in Victorian London but not so clear today and ‘Dodger’s Guide To London’ makes great play of this, both in its use of such language and in the translations dotted about the book. In fact, there’s a double-stranded approach at work here, much of the book being written in modern English, but sizeable sections in Dodger’s own vernacular.

In terms of its historical accuracy, though, ‘Dodger’s Guide To London’ is variable. Some bits are simply wrong: Disraeli for example was certainly not a Jewish Prime Minister, despite Pratchett’s assertion that he was. Disraeli was born into a Jewish family, but he was baptised into the Church of England, at the age of twelve, along with his father and siblings, in 1817. Similarly, Pratchett plays fast and loose with the real-world chronology, so we have Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli at work in Victorian government whereas, in fact, there were decades separating their periods of activity and influence.

But such minor historical flaws aside, the biggest problem with ‘Dodger’s Guide To London’ is the unfortunate lack of an index, which makes jumping to specific topics or personages rather difficult. Instead, the reader is left to wade their way through the heterogeneous mass of material, from essays and explanations through to advertisements and contemporary cartoons. Otherwise, though this fun and well-researched little book has much to recommend it, particularly directed, as it is, to younger readers.

Neale Monks

September 2016

(pub: Doubleday/Random House, 2013. 138 page illustrated small hardback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-857-53324-1)

check out websites: www.randomhouse.co.uk and www.terrypatchett.co.uk

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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