Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist

Frontispiece and title page, first edition, 1838 (illustration by George Cruikshank)

Oliver Twist dates from that remarkable period when Dickens’ career suddenly launched itself into the stratosphere.  The first instalment of Oliver Twist appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in February 1837, the same month that Dickens turned 25.  At this point, Dickens had only one book to his credit – and that to a pseudonym – Sketches by Boz, the collected pieces of his journalism from as early as 1833.  Astonishingly, for the first ten months of its run, Oliver Twist overlapped with his runaway success, Pickwick Papers, while for the last 13 months Nicholas Nickleby was appearing in serialized form.  At times, the young novelist was composing episodes of all three works simultaneously.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Oliver Twist, that I have just finished reading, Philip Horne suggests that there was a productive cross-fertilization of ideas as Dickens fizzed with inspiration: three months after Oliver had escaped from the workhouse but ended up in Fagin’s clutches, Mr Pickwick had left behind the happy world of jolly jaunts and entered the squalid Fleet debtors’ prison.  While, in the opening episode of Nicholas Nickleby, Nicholas passes Newgate prison and is chilled at the thought of the many hangings that had taken place there – foreshadowing the scenes of the trial and execution of Fagin, that Dickens would write a few months later.

If The Pickwick Papers is too episodic to be considered a novel in the modern sense, the story of the ‘Parish Boy’s Progress’ is, therefore, Dickens’ first true novel – a trenchant social satire and a work of great emotional power that achieved phenomenal popularity from the off.

So what impression did the novel leave on second reading?  Of course, the childhood encounter with Oliver’s story was subsequently reinforced by seeing David Lean’s film adaptation (his follow up to the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations) and the 1960s screen version of Lionel Bart’s stage musical Oliver!  It was perhaps not surprising that certain scenes were as fresh in the memory as if I had read the book yesterday – though disentangling where the images in my mind’s eye had originated – from page or screen – would be problematic.  What I can say with some certainty is that the scenes which have resonated through the years – those in the workhouse and with Fagin and his gang – have done so for a reason: they are the passages in which the young novelist’s writing is at its best.

What had slipped from my memory, by contrast, were the scenes involving the scheming Monks and those in which Oliver is embraced by the Maylie family.  Monks is central to the contrived plotting which many critics have regarded as a weakness of the book, perhaps a consequence of Dickens winging it as he hones his skills and rushes to meet deadlines.  The episodes in the cosy worlds of Oliver’s rescuers – first Mr Brownlow and then the Maylies – are, for me, rendered too sentimentally to be wholly convincing.  The world of the ‘good’ characters in the book seems less realistic than that of the villains.

Some have argued that this was part of Dickens’ intent: through jarring contrasts, to grab the reader’s attention. Further, Jane Smiley has commented that it was Dickens’ belief that the worlds of the rich and poor, of crime and bourgeois virtue, were inextricably linked:

Dickens’s outrage at the primitive conditions that the poor of London had to live in was genuine, both on their behalf and as what we might term an ‘ecological understanding’ that there could be no real separation between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the diseased, the dirty and the clean, the educated and the ignorant. Images of the flow of all things abound in his fiction from beginning to end, and in some sense he was always striving in his work to include more and more, to make each novel bigger and broader and also more particular, and to make the links between all things less linear and more netlike, to reproduce on the page the simultaneity and comprehensiveness of the way his mind and the world around him joined.
- Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens

Everything was connected: treating paupers like criminals and reducing them to starvation led to vice and criminality. The central message that Dickens wanted to communicate through the novel was that the world of the workhouse and the world of crime were inextricably linked: one was a cause of the other.

If Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow are a little too good, kind and forgiving, Oliver is perhaps the least interesting figure in the book. After the famous ‘Please, sir, I want some more’ scene, there isn’t another one in which Oliver’s words or character imprint themselves on the reader’s memory.  Humphry House, in The Dickens World (1941) pointed out that if Dickens’ purpose was ‘to show that the starvation and cruel ill-treatment of children in baby farms and workhouses produced ghastly effects on their characters and in society, then Oliver should have turned out a monster’.  Instead, Oliver is a paragon of innocence, a suffering virtuous child, but a bland empty space at the heart of the novel. When he speaks, it is, for the most part, in the language of the most cloying Victorian sentimentality.

Yet Fred Kaplan, in his study of Victorian sentimentality, Sacred Tears: Sentimentalism in Victorian Literature, made the point that Victorian sentimentalism was a conscious rejection of the alienating and dehumanizing pressures of modern industrial society that were ‘more and  more separating human beings from their natural sentiments’, while Philip Davis, Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, has stated:

When people moved from the countryside to the towns and hardly knew where they were any more in that harsher and faster world, at least they still knew the communal heart was in its right place. Is that not what Victorian sentimentality is: a defensive part of urban social history, democratizing inarticulate good feeling, offering family feeling a place in the new world?

The first eight chapters of Oliver Twist are of rather different character to what follows: they are a stern satire on the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a targeted by Dickens for its brutality and stupidity. In his journalism and his novels, he derided its National Commissioners, its Boards of Guardians, and its petty officials, such as Mr Bumble the parish Beadle.

The new law abolished a system of poor relief that had been in place for over 200 years, since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Under the old system, relief was administered at the local parish level and the funding came from local rates. Although there were workhouses, they were primarily for the aged and infirm, and most of the assistance took the form of ‘outdoor relief’, whereby the working poor whose wages fell below subsistence level received a supplement tied to the price of a loaf of bread and the size of their family.

The radical Malthusian and Benthamite reformers sought to impose efficiency and uniformity on the old system, which they saw as encouraging pauperism as a way of life and as doing nothing to check unwanted population growth. They believed that the conditions under which relief was offered should be as unattractive as possible in order to discourage idleness among the ‘undeserving poor’. Outdoor relief was abolished and entering the workhouse now became the only option, deliberately made grimmer than the worst conditions a pauper might experience outside. Husbands were separated from wives, parents from children; the diet was deliberately sparse; inmates were forced to carry out backbreaking, mindless work.  The goal of the new, Utilitarian system was deterrence, not relief.

The ‘experimental philosophers’ – Malthus and Bentham – are lampooned in chapter 2 in his account of the ‘elderly woman of wisdom and experience’ with whom workhouse children are ‘farmed out’:

Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. … She knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.

Marx once lambasted Bentham as a ‘genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity’; here, Dickens twists the knife with his story of another experimental philosopher who

had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.

The New Poor law was fresh in the public mind when Dickens began serializing Oliver Twist in February 1837. During its serialization, a severe winter, a trade depression, and a year of scarce food and high prices all served to inflame popular agitation against the law and increase the novel’s intense topicality. This was a period when the ruling class were fearful of imminent armed revolution, especially following the abortive Chartist uprising in Newport in 1839, during which several thousand armed miners marched on the city in a failed attempt to free political prisoners, in the hope that their action would be a signal for nationwide revolt.

There is a delicious intemperateness in Dickens’ writing in these chapters; they must have electrified his readers at the time:

Oliver Twist’s ninth birth-day found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference. But nature or inheritance had implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver’s breast. It had had plenty of room to expand, thanks to the spare diet of the establishment; and perhaps to this circumstance may be attributed his having any ninth birth-day at all. Be this as it may, however, it was his ninth birth-day; and he was keeping it in the coal-cellar with a select party of two other young gentlemen, who, after participating with him in a sound thrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to be hungry.

Oliver asks for more (Cruikshank)

The new workhouse regime, and the philosophy underpinning it, is savaged in this passage:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered – the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. “Oho!” said the board, looking very knowing; “we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.” So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations . . . kindly undertook to divorce poor married people . . . instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel, and that frightened people.[...]

In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentlemen of that class.

What were Dickens’ politics?  He was certainly no socialist; GK Chesterton probably understood the man best when he wrote:

His revolt is not a revolt of the commercialist against the feudalist, of the Nonconformist against the Churchman, of the Free-trader against the Protectionist, of the Liberal against the Tory. … His revolt was simply and solely the eternal revolt; it was the revolt of the weak against the strong. He did not dislike this or that argument for oppression; he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man. … This is what makes the opening chapters of Oliver Twist so curious and important. The very fact of Dickens’s distance from, and independence of, the elaborate financial arguments of his time, makes more definite and dazzling his sudden assertion that he sees the old human tyranny in front of him as plain as the sun at noon-day. … All the other people of his time are attacking things because they are bad economics or because they are bad politics, or because they are bad science; he alone is attacking things because they are bad.[...]

This is the real power and pathos of that celebrated passage in the book which has passed into a proverb; but which has not lost its terrible humour even in being hackneyed. I mean, of course, the everlasting quotation about Oliver Twist asking for more.  …  A modern realist describing the dreary workhouse would have made all the children utterly crushed, not daring to speak at all, not expecting anything, not hoping anything, past all possibility of affording even an ironical contrast or a protest of despair. A modern, in short, would have made all the boys in the workhouse pathetic by making them all pessimists. But Oliver Twist is not pathetic because he is a pessimist. Oliver Twist is pathetic because he is an optimist. The whole tragedy of that incident is in the fact that he does expect the universe to be kind to him, that he does believe that he is living in a just world. He comes before the Guardians as the ragged peasants of the French Revolution came before the Kings and Parliaments of Europe. That is to say, he comes, indeed, with gloomy experiences, but he comes with a happy philosophy. He knows that there are wrongs of man to be reviled; but he believes also that there are rights of man to be demanded.

- from Appreciations and Criticisms by G.K Chesterton, published 1911

In his biography, Ackroyd is illuminating about the distinctive character of these opening chapters.  On 7 May 1837, his 17 year old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth died suddenly, an event which devastated him.  He did not write for a month; for th first time he missed his deadlines, and forthcoming episodes of Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers were postponed.  When he returned to writing in June, Dickens seems to have decided that Oliver Twist should not simply be a ‘Parish Boy’s Progress’, but a fully-formed novel.  Ackroyd suggests that, following the death of Mary Hogarth, Dickens began to lose interest in the topical and polemical matters of the first few chapters.

Instead, a narrative ‘at once more romantic and more mysterious’ begins to emerge.  Now he introduces the character of Rose Maylie,

So mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful; that earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions. The very intelligence that shone in her deep blue eye, and was stamped upon her noble head, seemed scarcely of her age, or of the world; and yet the changing expression of sweetness and good humour, the thousand lights that played about the face, and left no shadow there; above all, the smile, the cheerful, happy smile, were made for Home, and fireside peace and happiness.

Could this be Mary Hogarth?  It’s almost certain, for Rose Maylie falls ill and comes close to death, before miraculously recovering. Dickens would seem to have drawn upon his own recent anguish when writing this:

How often did Oliver start from his bed that night, and stealing out, with noiseless footsteps, to the staircase, listen for the slightest sound from the sick chamber! How often did a tremble shake his frame, and cold drops of terror start upon his brow, when a sudden trampling of feet caused him to fear that something too dreadful to think of, had even then occurred! And what had been the fervency of all the prayers he had ever uttered, compared with those he poured forth, now, in the agony and passion of his supplication for the life and health of the gentle creature, who was tottering on the deep grave’s verge!

Oh! the suspense, the fearful, acute suspense, of standing idly by while the life of one we dearly love, is trembling in the balance! Oh! the racking thoughts that crowd upon the mind, and make the heart beat violently, and the breath come thick, by the force of the images they conjure up before it; the desperate anxiety to be doing something to relieve the pain, or lessen the danger, which we have no power to alleviate; the sinking of soul and spirit, which the sad remembrance of our helplessness produces; what tortures can equal these; what reflections or endeavours can, in the full tide and fever of the time, allay them!

Bill Sikes by Fred Barnard (Household Edition, 1871)

It is perhaps no accident that the passages that linger longest in the memory are those set in the notorious rookery (or slum) of Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey on the south bank of the Thames where Fagin and his gang are holed up. Dickens had been taken to this unsavory location by the officers of the river police, with whom he would occasionally go on patrol when he was a journalist, once describing the area as ‘the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London’.  It is vividly depicted in the chapter in which Bill Sikes is pursued to his horrific death as a place:

where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect. [...]

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

Dickens was personally familiar with the places and institutions about which he wrote. In his capacity as journalist, he had visited workhouses and prisons, including the infamous Newgate prison, which figures prominently in Oliver Twist. He recounted this experience in ‘A Visit to Newgate’, in Sketches by Boz. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Philip Horne notes that the shadow of the gallows looms over the entire book, from the moment when a workhouse officer predicts of the infant Oliver, ‘that boy will be hung’.

It was, as Horne explains, entirely possible.  Between 1801 and 1835, 103 death sentences were passed on children under the age of 14 for theft.  Twice as many people were hanged in the first 30 years of the 19th century than in the last 50 of the 18th century.  This grim increase can be attributed, Horne suggests, to the social disorder provoked by industrialization and urban growth, and the fear of the lower orders among the propertied classes after the French Revolution.  Two-thirds of the 671 hangings in the 1820s were for property crime, and only one fifth for murder.

After The Pickwick Papers, the brutal reality of sections of Oliver Twist came as a shock to many readers. Dickens refused, like other writers of the period, to romanticise poverty and crime into the picaresque. His aim was to shine the harsh light of reality on the London underclass in order to educate respectable, middle-class, sheltered Victorians who would otherwise ignore or remain blissfully unaware of such things. In the Preface to the novel, Dickens writes:

But as the stern truth … was a part of the purpose of this book, I did not, for these readers, abate one hole in the Dodger’s coat, or one scrap of curl-paper in Nancy’s disheveled hair. I had no faith in the delicacy which could not bear to look upon them.

But there’s something else, too.  Angus Wilson noted that each of the characters in Fagin’s gang  is superb as an individual. What makes these characters so great, especially at conveying Dickens’ social message about poverty and the Poor Law is the sympathy with which they are treated. Dickens’s childhood experiences instilled in him an ability to identify and empathise with those on society’s margins.

Oliver’s Reception by Fagin and the Boys

Dickens’ empathetic skills are at their greatest when describing Fagin’s inner thoughts at his trial. Fagin anxiously scans the faces of the crowd, desperate for a kind look or shred of hope, but ‘in no one face – not even among the women, of whom there were many there – could he read the faintest sympathy for himself, or any feeling but one of all-absorbing interest that he should be condemned’.

He looked up into the gallery again. Some of the people were eating and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs; for the crowded place was very hot. There was one young man sketching his face in a little note-book. He wondered whether it was like, and looked on when the artist broke his pencil-point, and made another with his knife, as any idle spectator might have done.

In the same way, when he turned his eyes towards the judge, his mind began to busy itself with the fashion of his dress, and what it cost, and how he put it on. There was an old fat gentleman on the bench, too, who had gone out, some half an hour before, and now come back. He wondered within himself whether this man had been to get his dinner, what he had had, and where he had had it; and pursued this train of careless thought until some new object caught his eye and roused another.

Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold – and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it – and then went on to think again.

This scene is a considerable achievement, and alleviated some of the discomfort I had felt about Fagin’s portrayal earlier in the novel.  Dickens has long been accused of antisemitism in his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. In 2005, Paul Vallely wrote in the Independent  that Fagin ‘is widely seen as one of the most grotesque Jews in English literature’.  The criticisms go right back to the time of the novel’s publication. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why ‘Jews alone should be excluded from the ‘sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed’.

There is evidence that Dickens regretted the portrayal.  In 1860, Eliza Davis, whose husband had purchased Dickens’s home in Tavistock Street, wrote to Dickens in protest at his portrayal of Fagin, arguing that he had ‘encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew’, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. At first, Dickens reacted defensively to Davis’s criticism, but then he halted the printing of Oliver Twist in book form, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which is why Fagin is called ‘the Jew’ 257 times in the first 38 chapters, but barely at all in the next 179 references to him.  But we are still left with descriptions like this:

The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved, crawling forth by night in search of some rich offal for a meal.

Fagin waits to be hanged (Cruickshank)

Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because ‘it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew’. He also claimed that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, ‘I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them…’.

Bill Sikes’ last chance

So, how to sum up this, perhaps the most familiar of Dickens’ novels?  Scott Boulding in ‘The Social Satire of Oliver Twist’ puts it like this:

Taken as a whole, Oliver Twist is one of the most emotionally potent and devastating social satires in the English language. Even modern readers who have never heard of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 hear Dickens’s message loudly and clearly. After almost 170 years, the story of the neglected parish orphan who plaintively asked for more has lost none of its power to move. Those critics who complain about the highly contrived plot, wherein all the loose ends are neatly tied up by a preposterous series of deus-ex-machina coincidences (all the principal, surviving characters turn out to be related either by birth or by marriage) are missing the point entirely. This is not a plot-driven novel. It is more like a parable in the sense that its driving force is its moral (the lesson Dickens wants society to learn).

For Ackroyd, Dickens gives us a London that few of his contemporaries or predecessors had seen:

He had seen the horror and the filth of London as somehow integral to its being, the shadow which it must necessarily cast, and he had populated that darkness with figures which seemed to emerge and return to it naturally.  His own childhood experiences had been a fall into the centre of the city, and that fall had broken him open – leaving him always vulnerable, always aware, of that ‘suffered experience’ which created London just as surely as its stones and bricks had done.

Finally, Jane Smiley, in Charles Dickens, reminds us of the significance of this novel – for Dickens, and for English Literature:

Between 1 December 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and 9 November 1838,when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist.

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