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Dickens describes Brownlow's first appearance:
It is very possible that he fancied himself there, indeed; for it was plain, from his abstraction, that he saw not the book-stall, nor the street, nor the boys, nor, in short, anything but the book itself: which he was reading straight through: turning over the leaf when he got to the bottom of a page, beginning at the top line of the next one, and going regularly on, with the greatest interest and eagerness.
Mr. Brownlow is introduced when the Artful Dodger and his companion Charley Bates pick his pocket and Oliver Twist is arrested simply for "looking guilty". Later, in court, Brownlow discovers Oliver is completely innocent and, after dealing with the extremely agitated magistrate, Mr. Fang, he takes him home fearing the boy to be very ill, which he is. He calls on a doctor, who after making frequent incorrect guesses to Oliver's condition, simply concludes the boy is recovering from a fever.
Brownlow's maid, Mrs. Bedwin, is a kind old lady who immediately takes to Oliver upon his arrival. Later when Grimwig, an old friend of Brownlow's, evaluates the boy and his condition, a boy arrives from the book shop but fails to take some other books that needed to be returned. Oliver volunteers to return them and takes off, much to the chagrin and doubt of Mr. Grimwig, who is revealed to be cynical in nature, expecting the boy to return to his old life among the lower class and promises to "eat his head" should the boy return in 10 minutes. A watch is set down and the waiting begins. Later, after Oliver is captured by Nancy and Bill Sikes, it is revealed that much later, close to midnight, the two men are still waiting in the dark. (In the 1997 film version of the novel, Mr Brownlow asks Oliver to take a couple of books and some money and asks him to be back in half an hour, although Oliver says he will be back in 20 minutes.)
The next mention of Brownlow occurs when Mr. Bumble rears him after he sees a notice in a newspaper that offers five guineas for any knowledge about Oliver's past or whereabouts it was a sticky encounter. Mr. Bumble at once tells Brownlow that Oliver was born from deplorable lineage and ever since birth, Oliver has done nothing but display ingratitude and malice. He also mentions Oliver had attacked another boy without provocation and shows Brownlow reports to prove it. Brownlow doesn't want to believe it at first, but gradually comes to conclusion that Oliver had been playing him for a fool and requests Oliver's name should not be invoked in his household ever again. His housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin, however, feels that Oliver was truly a good child and not a criminal.
When Oliver is taken in by the Maylies, and asks the kind Dr. Losberne to take him to Brownlow's home in London, only to find the house is "FOR LEASE". The only clue to his whereabouts are from his neighbours mentioning the West Indies, saying he was looking for someone.
When Mr. Brownlow returns to London, Oliver by chance spots him and can clear his name. Mr. Brownlow is very happy about that and takes Oliver in once again, taking part in Rose's plot to save Oliver from Fagin. Later, his true role in the story is revealed: he was the best friend of Oliver's true father, the deceased Edwin Leeford, and has vital information regarding Oliver's origins as well as those of his evil half-brother, Mr. Monks. At the end of the book, Brownlow officially adopts Oliver as his son.
In the stage musical Oliver! Mr. Brownlow is found to be Oliver's grandfather, and after retrieving him from London Bridge, where Nancy is murdered while trying to return the boy to Brownlow, it is assumed that Oliver goes to live with him. However, this may vary between productions as in the latest revival, as in the 1968 film Oliver is taken hostage and subsequently saved when Bill is shot during his escape attempt.
In the film version of Oliver!, Brownlow is made into Oliver's great-uncle, and the boy is saved, not at London Bridge, but from the rooftops of London, where Bill Sikes, who has murdered Nancy and taken Oliver as a hostage, has forced him to crawl out on a wooden hoist in order to loop a rope that Sikes intends to use in his escape. However, Sikes is shot by a member of the crowd below, and Oliver is saved.
The 1948 David Lean film