What does it mean to be one of the family? Aoife Mannix responding to our online book group discussion
April 28, 2012
Join in the discussion by adding your comments here and/or on facebook http://www.facebook.com/cityreadlondon
Check out Aoife’s guest blog post for Penguin here
Oliver Twist is perhaps the most famous orphan in British literature. His mother, who’s unmarried, dies shortly after his birth in a workhouse and his father is unknown. The state proves to be a very poor parent indeed. All those who are officially responsible for taking care of the young boy are criminally negligent. From the drunken nursemaid who robs his mother before her body’s even cold, to Mrs Mann at the baby farm where he is starved and beaten, to Mr Bumble the Beadle who puts him into slavery working for an undertaker, Oliver is badly let down by his legal guardians.
Oliver’s first experience of ‘family’ is the mafia mentality of Fagin and his gang. Though as Fagin later explains to his all too eager new recruit, Noah Claypole, this is loyalty based on neither blood nor fellow feeling. It is based on the philosophy of looking out for number one. The thieves don’t betray each other out of a shared desire for survival and they are utterly without mercy towards any of the group who breaks this code. Something poor Nancy discovers to her cost. Sikes murders her despite the fact that she’s nursed him through a dangerous illness and he probably wouldn’t be alive without her help. It’s a cruel irony that the one member of the criminal underworld who seems capable of love is beaten to death by the man she adores. Sikes is incapable of caring for anyone other than himself. Despite being haunted by the murder, he even attempts to drown his own dog when he thinks the unfortunate animal might help identify him as a killer on the run.
Yet Sikes and Nancy are not the only dysfunctional couple in the book. Dickens doesn’t appear to be a huge fan of the institution of marriage. The undertaker’s wife takes an instant dislike to Oliver purely on the basis that her husband seems to like him. This unhappy marriage is echoed in the comedy of Mr Bumble’s marriage to Mrs Corney.
‘I sold myself,’ said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of reflection, ‘for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirt cheap!’
Too late, Mr Bumble discovers that in marrying for money, he has found a partner even more cruel and selfish than himself. Oliver’s own father was pushed into marrying a woman he didn’t love and was utterly miserable in his respectable married life. He only found real love with Oliver’s mother who becomes pregnant outside of marriage.
We discover this from Mr Brownlow, Oliver’s father’s best friend who is a bachelor. Though no blood relation to Oliver, Mr Brownlow treats the boy as his own son. As Dr. Holly Furneaux points out in our online book group discussion, most contemporary adaptations, including the famous musical, turn Brownlow into Oliver’s grandfather. This gives the story a conventional twist that puts Oliver back with his blood relations. It seems in the 20th and 21st century, we have not let go of Victorian ideals of what the family should be.
Yet Dickens’s purpose in writing Oliver Twist was to critique a society that claimed to be obsessed with ‘morality’ yet treated the poor and vulnerable with such contempt. This was not just on the legal level of pointing out the cruelties of the new Poor Law but also on the deeply personal level of human relations. The young Rose, who is the epitome of all that is kind and good, feels she cannot marry the love of her life because society does not consider her respectable. This is because she is of uncertain birth and thus does not fit with the accepted Victorian definition of ‘the family.’ Though Rose does turn out to be related to Oliver so is Monks, the brother who has betrayed him all his life. What Dickens makes clear is that the official labels society gives to its members are false and hypocritical. What actually matters is the state of your own heart. Mr Brownlow truly loves Oliver as his son and this makes him the perfect father regardless of biology or society. An idea that even in 2012 is radical and challenging.
DIckens Soiree, St John’s Wood Library, Westminster Libraries
April 23, 2012
Thursday 26th April 2012 5-7pm
Professor Matthew Beaumont, UCL
Informal Q&A session
FREE copy of Oliver Twist
Does Dickens glamorise crime in Oliver Twist? – Aoife Mannix responding to our online book group discussion
April 18, 2012
Join in the discussion by adding your comments here and/or on facebook http://www.facebook.com/cityreadlondon
Check out Aoife’s guest post for the Museum of London on their wonderful Dickens’ exhibition http://www.mymuseumoflondon.org.uk/blogs/blog/what-does-dickens-mean-to-london-a-visit-to-the-museum-of-london%E2%80%99s-dickens-and-london-exhibition/
In the musical version, the famous scene where Fagin teaches Oliver how to pick pockets is great fun. ‘You got to pick a pocket or two’ sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument in a world where the rich are so cruel and indifferent to the starving poor. Indeed thieving seems not only a way to fight back but to have a laugh at the expense of those stupid fools who deserve to lose their handkerchiefs. If not exactly glamorous, it’s certainly cleverer than going hungry. The Artful Dodger is presented as a cheeky chappy and if not quite a kindly uncle, Fagin seems to care for his boys considerably more than those who were supposed to be looking after Oliver at the workhouse.
Yet reading the book again, I discover that my rather fond memories of Fagin and his gang have been greatly coloured by the musical and indeed various film and TV versions I’ve seen over the years. For in the origina,l when Oliver first meets Fagin’s gang, they don’t tell him ‘consider yourself one of the family.’ Instead they rob him of the very little he has. Though Oliver in his innocence believes Fagin’s pick pocketing training to be a kind of game, he very quickly wakes up to its dark reality when he goes out on the streets with the boys for the first time. When the old gentleman shouts ‘Stop thief’ mistakenly believing Oliver to be the one whose robbed him, the other two boys join in chasing Oliver. This successfully disguises the fact that they are the true criminals. When Oliver is punched and knocked to the ground, they have long since disappeared. They have no qualms in leaving their new friend to be arrested for their crime. So much for honour amongst thieves.
Far from glamour, I think what Dickens is showing is the inevitable way in which an orphan boy in Victorian London would be sucked into a life of crime. Not unlike the gangs of today, young boys are drawn to Fagin because they are vulnerable and frightened. The gang does offer a kind of family but not one that is particularly loving or supportive. It brutalises those who join it so that their sense of right and wrong is rapidly worn away. Though Dickens has often been accused of sentimentality, there is very little that is sentimental in his description of the Artful Dodger and even the naïve Oliver senses his new mate is less than trustworthy.
Dickens doesn’t glamorise but he does make even the dark criminal underworld funny. Rather like the TV show ‘The Wire’ for modern audiences, he demonstrates that the line between good and evil is not a legal one. His portrayal of the police and the justice system is damning. The kind old gentleman who accuses Oliver of being a thief has in fact accidentally stolen a book himself. Perhaps what Dickens is trying to say is that being on the right side of the law has as much to do with circumstance as it has to do with morality. When his contemporaries accused Dickens of glamorising crime, perhaps what they really meant was that they were deeply uncomfortable with Dickens questioning of who the true criminals are. Fagin is undoubtedly not a good guy but is he any worse than Mr Fang the police magistrate or Mr Bumble the beadle?
Dickens and Dawkins – a guest blog post by writer James Benmore
Nobody would chat up Oliver Twist if they could share a pipe with the Artful Dodger.
-Literary critic Terry Eagleton.
Charles Dickens is one of those novelists who is at his best when writing about people that he disapproves of. His fiction is jammed with glorious monsters, be they misers, bullies, hypocrites or crooks, all jostling for the readers attention and riding roughshod over the more feeble and virtuous characters that they surround. And nowhere is this more apparent than in his second novel, Oliver Twist, where the eponymous character, a pure-hearted and impossibly incorruptible orphan, finds himself upstaged by another young lad of similar age. “A snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy,” who was “as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six.” Jack Dawkins, more commonly known as the Artful Dodger, is the sharpest young pickpocket in the city but wallets and watches are not all that he steals. He also, for this reader at least, manages to make off with the whole book.
When the Dodger first chances upon Oliver, who is shivering and starving on a cold door-step with his feet bleeding after a long walk in from the country, he appears to be the first bit of good fortune that happens to the parish boy. Up until this point in the story Oliver has met with nothing but hardship, cruelty or indifference from all the provincial characters he has encountered but now, in the form of this flashily-dressed and streetwise new friend, it seems his luck is finally turning. No sooner has Dawkins lifted his hat in introduction than he buys Oliver a pub lunch and, before the first pot of beer has been sunk, is offering him a roof to sleep under. “I knows a ’spectable old genelman,” he boasts, “wot’ll give you lodgings for nothink, and never ask for the change.” Jack Dawkins is the very first Londoner that Oliver has spoken to since his arrival and he is solving all of Oliver’s problems without even being asked. Everything is going to be alright in this great city after all, or so it would seem, and Oliver can finally consider himself at home.
Everything is not alright however, as Oliver soon discovers. The Artful Dodger deserves his nickname, he is a false friend who wants only to lead an unsuspecting innocent into trouble. He is, much like the insinuating Fox in Pinocchio, the epitome of a bad influence and the respectable gentleman that he introduces Oliver to turns out to be one of the greatest villains in all literature. But despite being very much sided with the devils against the angel child, it is almost impossible not feel affection for such an incorrigible thief. Whilst Fagin and Bill Sykes are painted as demonic figures, the first a corrupter of children, the second a murderer of women, Jack Dawkins is a much more comical figure. The scene in which he is tried and sentenced for pickpocketing is a light and amusing interlude in an otherwise dark second half. The indignant Dodger is shoved into the dock and proceeds to create as much chaos as possible, calling for imaginary witnesses, announcing that he has a more important appointment in another part of town and telling the magistrate to get on with it. All of this is done more for the amusement of the spectators than for his own liberty and he is promptly given five years transportation to Australia.
We never hear of Jack Dawkins again after that and I have always been mystified as to why Dickens should disregard such a wonderful creation in so casual a manner. Perhaps it was because he knew how murderous things were about to turn for the criminal characters and therefore decided to remove Dawkins (after all only a child) before the blood started spilling.
But I have always wondered whatever became of Dodger, my favourite Dickens character, who was so unceremoniously packed off to the other side of the world before the story had even closed. Did he ever hear that Bill Sykes killed Nancy or that his beloved teacher Fagin was hung for crimes unspecified? How would he feel if he was to return to British shores and learn about how these terrible things took place as a direct consequence of his finding that shivering orphan and introducing him to the gang? And, most interestingly of all, what sort of trouble would he get into next?
In fact, the more I think about it the more I wish someone should write a book about it.
James Benmore has written a book about it. His first novel, Dodger, about the continuing misadventures of Jack Dawkins will be published by Heron books in early 2013. A sequel will shortly follow. Follow him on twitter
“No man knows till the time comes, what depths are within him.” – Dickens, Our Mutual Friend –a guest blog post from Dickens 2012 Young Writer in Residence, Femi Martin
April 16, 2012
My Dad bought me a copy of Oliver Twist when I was seven years old, but my real introduction to Dickens was at the age of thirteen. Our English teacher, Mr Foxhall, had a naughty habit of ‘stealing’ books meant for GCSE students, and using those texts in his lessons with us. I remember reading Great Expectations in a dream-like state. Between Dickens’ story and language, and Mr Foxhall’s excellent teaching, I was mesmerised. Just like Magwitch grabbed Pip in the cemetery, so too was I grabbed by Dickens.
Fast forward 17 years and I am given the fantastic job of Dickens 2012 Young Writer in Residence. Over two months in, and with just over two weeks remaining, I can confidently say that this residency has been a life-changer. It has been full of surprises, fantastic experiences, and wonderful support; from Cityread London, The Charles Dickens Museum, and Spread the Word.
These fantastic experiences include an appearance on BBC London radio, facilitating workshops at the museum, and performing at Dickens-themed events. Now that Cityread London is in full swing I’ll be taking Dickens and Oliver Twist into even more great, and important, spaces. I’ll be running workshops with a young parents group, at an independent bookshop, and in a prison, plus I’ll be performing all my commissioned stories in a bookshop in a borough Dickens lived in. I have especially enjoyed introducing Dickens and his work to people who may have thought it was too difficult, or wasn’t for them.
Dickens wrote some of his earliest works at his house on Doughty Street (now the Dickens Museum), including Oliver Twist. Just like Oliver found his voice and asked for more, this residency has provided me with opportunities that have allowed me to dig even deeper to find not just my voice, but what I really want to say. This is partly because I have found this big job incredibly challenging at times. Most of my stress has been self-inflicted, but I have felt it nonetheless. It’s been very busy, with copious amounts of admin, but it has not deterred me. I have found the darkness to be enlightening; a real taste of what a working writer’s life is like. On balance, it’s a beautiful existence, and one I willingly choose with eyes fully open.
Dickens has a funny way of sticking to your ribs. Rereading Great Expectations during my residency, and Oliver Twist during Cityread month, I have found the words being awakened from the corners of my mind they have slept in for all these years. His work is unforgettable. Still, more than just his writing skill, I continue to be inspired by the kind of writer Dickens was. For me, this residency was not about becoming a Dickens expert, it was about following Dickens’ example. Writers write; we do many other things but the only thing that qualifies a writer is the fact that they write. There are few more prolific than Dickens, and this time has shown me how important it is to fight to write. To carve writing time out of the little time you may have. Through Dickens I have been reminded that I must be brave with my words, know and own my voice, give something to every reader/listener, and share stories that say something about the human condition.
Dickens is embedded in the fibre of London, the landscape of Western literature, and I think all writers should keep him in mind as they map their stories. Beyond this residency, beyond the bicentenary, I know that I will.
Instalment 3 from guest blogger Holly Furneaux – Dickens’s attack on the New Poor Law
3. Dickens’s attack on the New Poor Law
The Poor Law Report of 1834 recommended that all ‘outdoor’ relief (eg. food, fuel, medicine, or money, given outside the workhouse) be abolished. As Dickens puts it in chapter two of Oliver Twist, “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 a rapid one out of it.” “The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.” The Poor Law Report reflected widespread attitudes about the undeserving, idle poor, and exaggerated the supposedly demoralising effects of existing provision. “Let”, it proposed, “the labourer find that the parish is the hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster he can find, and thus induce him to make his application to the parish his last and not his first resource.” “In abandoning punishment we equally abolish reward [. . .] idleness, improvidence or extravagance occasion no loss, and consequently diligence and economy can afford no gain.”
Dickens’s critique of the resulting workhouse system and the attitudes behind it was so powerful that The Times reprinted the early sections of the novel almost as soon as it was published as part of their anti-poor-law campaign. Other anti-poor law publications included G. R. Wythern Baxter’s, The Book of the Bastilles; or, The History of the Working of the New Poor-Law (1841) – its title picking up the frequent comparison made between workhouses and prisons. Baxter drew together an extraordinary range of documents (often difficult to authenticate) which report the poor preferring theft, prostitution, starvation, suicide and even child murder, to entry to the workhouse. Here are just a few, characteristically lurid, examples:
“In the parish of Bourne, in Lincolnshire, a poor man who was out of work applied to the Guardians of the poor for relief. They offered him admission into one of the union workhouses. He declared he would rather die than enter such a place, and refused to accept the offer. Within a week afterward the man was found dead in a field, having absolutely chosen to submit to death by starvation than enter one of the workhouses established under the present system.” [Genl. Johnson at the Crown and Anchor, 9Feb 1838]
“The general feeling of the poor is, that they will rather starve, or commit suicide, than go into these prisons and many are willing to emigrate.” [Extract of a letter from Mr John Percival to Mr Oastler, 18 Feb 1838]
“Here is the appalling fact, that the New Poor-Law is indirectly demoralising a very large proportion of children, whose destitute parents, rather than encounter the persecutions of a Whig workhouse, permit them to become habitual thieves.” [Times, 21 Aug 1840]
“It is not very long ago since an industrious and well-behaved labourer, in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, having become involved in debt and misery during a long illness, was driven into such a state of despondency by the anticipated separation and imprisonment of himself and his family in a Union gaol, that, in a moment of frantic agony, he strangled all his children then in the house, three remarkably fine boys, to whom, as he proved in evidence, he had always been fondly attached.” [Times, 21 Aug 1840].
Discussion points: See the Facebook discussion about how the original illustrations also offer a critique of the workhouse system. What kind of comparison does Cruikshank draw between the ‘care’ and provision that Oliver receives at the workhouse and that he has at Fagin’s?
Elaine Hadley has a great chapter (3) on this in her book, Melodramatic Tactics. You can read part of this via google books: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=q7SeVU477N4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=elaine+hadley+melodramatic&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qraFT87XCofV8QOj4o3iBw&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=elaine%20hadley%20melodramatic&f=false
The Victorian Web, a fantastic free resource, has some interesting material about the social context of this novel: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/olivertwist/index.html
And Phillip Allingham gives a good brief introduction to the working relationship between Dickens and Cruikshank, for those interested in the illustrations: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva55.html
Charles Dickens & the Foundling Hospital – a guest blog post from Gemma Colgan at the Foundling Museum
April 13, 2012
The Foundling Restored to its Mother, 1858 by Emma Brownlow King (1832-1905) © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum
The Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first home for abandoned children opened 73 years before Charles Dickens was born. A fashionable charity in the 18th century the Hospital was set in the leafy Holborn and Bloomsbury district. By the time Dickens became a fan it was a firmly established institute that took in babies from all over England. Unlike the appalling workhouses of the period, the Foundling Hospital, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, was for the “Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children.” Dickens took out a lease on a property in Doughty Street, next to the Foundling Hospital estate between 1837 and 1839 and would have been very familiar with the sights and sounds that echoed beyond the Hospital’s gates, such as the trumpeting that summoned the boys to the playground for military exercises or the young choir singing the Foundling Hospital Anthem, composed for the children a century earlier by George Frideric Handel.
Dickens also rented a pew in the chapel until 1839. Throughout his novels and stories he refers to the Hospital several times, particularly in Little Dorrit, where the character of Tatty Coram is a former Foundling. It is tempting to draw parallels between the Foundling Hospital story and Oliver Twist, which was completed by Dickens whilst living on Doughty Street. The realism that Dickens writes about in Oliver Twist is all too evident in the circumstances that led women to the Foundling Hospital. Not only was a foundling a perceived sin, he or she was also evidence of female promiscuity, destroying a woman’s respectable character. The idealised character of Oliver who is born into poverty and misfortune is eventually saved by Mr Brownlow, a character who shared the same name as the then secretary of the Foundling Hospital, John Brownlow, believed to be the male figure depicted in the painting The Foundling Restored to its Mother.
In The Foundling Restored to its Mother by Emma Brownlow King, a receipt is the focal point of the painting. Such a receipt is also central to Dickens’ most detailed description of the Foundling Hospital in his famous 1853 article Received, a Blank Child published in his journal Household Words. On leaving their babies at the Foundling Hospital, mothers were given a receipt if they were to ever fall on better times and reclaim their child. Dickens focuses on how the anonymity of each child disappeared on entrance to the Hospital and, as a ‘blank child’ was absorbed into the larger social body of the Foundling Hospital.
Dickens continued to support the Hospital after he moved from Doughty Street and he provides a very supportive conclusion in Received, a Blank Child, explaining the hospital to be “rich, and it is likely enough that it has its blemishes… But from what we have seen from this establishment we have derived much satisfaction, and the good that is in it seems to us to have grown with its growth.” Saving over 25,000 children, the Foundling Hospital continued to operate until 1954.
Today the Foundling Museum tells the story of the thousands of children brought up in the Foundling Hospital which was also London’s first public art gallery. Housing significant collections of 18th century art, interiors, social history and music, the Museum continues the work and celebrates the vision of Foundling Hospital founder Thomas Coram, artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel.
The Museum’s very own modern day Dickens is children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson. Jacqueline, awarded a Coram Fellowship in 2008, is currently working on a third story that follows the adventures of a Victorian foundling who grew up in the Foundling Hospital, Hetty Feather. Its recent sequel, Sapphire Battersea, follows the twists and turns of Hetty’s adventures as she leaves the Foundling Hospital. Jacqueline’s stories celebrate the dynamic relationship that can exist between the arts, child welfare and philanthropy.
The Foundling Museum is currently working with the Charles Dickens Museum on a project that will begin at the end of April. As a way of highlighting Dickens’ relationship to the Foundling Hospital, a range of people with a relationship to Dickens have been asked to select items from the Charles Dickens Museum, and place them in dialogue with a work or object in the Foundling Museum. Selectors include actress Gillian Anderson, Camden Councillor Tulip Siddiq, journalist and presenter Jon Snow and Dickens family member, Mark Dickens.
Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress: What kind of book does this title encourage us to expect? What kind of hero does it offer?
April 10, 2012
A response from Aoife Mannix to the first of our online book group discussion points. Please add your own comments here and/or join the discussion on facebook. http://www.facebook.com/cityreadlondon
Check out Aoife’s guest blog post for Foyles here http://www.foyles.co.uk/guest-blog-london-through-the-eyes-of-dickens
I first read Oliver Twist when I was twelve years old. My mother had taken me to see the musical on Broadway as we lived in New York at the time. Mainly I remember being devastated by Nancy’s death. I loved the show so much I thought I’d try the book. Admittedly it didn’t have the catchy songs and there were quite a lot of big words but it seemed to be about a boy around my age struggling to make sense of a strange adult world. Despite our very different circumstances, there was a lot I could relate to.
Coming back to it a quarter of a century later, I realise I’d completely forgotten the full title is ‘Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress.’ It’s a title that introduces Oliver as a young hero who begins in poverty but manages to advance himself. It seems to appeal to a certain Victorian Christian ideal of charity and hard work. The Victorians were rather fond of dividing the poor into those that were deserving of sympathy and those that were lazy and degenerate. The title sets up a certain expectation of this being a moral tale of the triumph of virtue and innocence over corruption. Which on one level the novel almost certainly is.
However from the first pages Dickens undermines the moralising tone with his dark sense of humour. He describes how the newborn Oliver is struggling to draw his first breath in circumstances of shocking neglect.
Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.
Dickens doesn’t of course really believe that a baby should be born with nobody paying any attention as to whether he lives or dies. Yet rather than preaching at his readers about Victorian London’s appalling child mortality rate, he pokes fun at the notion of progress under such inhuman conditions. It seems to me that from the outset, Dickens is questioning his own title and the Victorian morality behind it.
Second blog installment from Holly Furneaux: Oliver the Child Hero
2. A New Kind of Hero
A novel based on a Parish Boy’s Progress was an unusual choice. While readers in 1837 would have been familiar with the idea of the ‘progress’ narrative, from titles like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), they would have found the concept of a boy hero surprising and a pauper boy hero even more so. We now are used to thinking that it is natural for a novel tracing the development of the hero or heroine, to pay lots of attention to childhood experiences. This, however, was a very novel (in the sense of new, pretty much unprecedented) thing in the Victorian period. These new Bildungsroman novels which began in childhood, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1848), and Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), showed an appreciation, way before Freud, of the formative nature of childhood experience on the adult self; an understanding of Wordsworth’s idea that the “child is father of the man”.
Dickens explained his personal understanding of the impact of child experiences on his adult identity to his good friend John Forster. He confided to Forster what is now perhaps the best known detail of Dickens’s biography: his father had been imprisoned for debt when Dickens was around ten years old, and the young Charles had worked in a blacking factory pasting labels onto bottles of boot polish. This came as a shock revelation to the Victorian public when Forster published his ‘Life’ of Dickens two years after the author’s death. Forster urged readers to consider “how far the childish experiences are likely to have given the turn to Dickens’s genius; whether their bitterness had so burnt into his nature, as, in the hatred of oppression, the revolt against the abuse of power, and the war with injustice under every form displayed in his earliest books, to have reproduced itself only; and to what extent mere compassion for his own childhood may account for the strange fascination always exerted over him by child-suffering and sorrow.”
In the introduction which he wrote for the preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist Dickens explained that he “wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” In this Dickens departs, adamantly, from a Calvanistic view of children as innately sinful which was prevalent in the nineteenth century. Hannah More, a widely distributed tract writer, summed up this position in 1799. Children, More said, have a “corrupt nature and evil dispositions”; It is “a fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings.” Clearly Dickens did not agree. He followed a more Romantic view of childhood, inspired by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s 1762 book Emile, or On Education expressed idea that the child possessed natural integrity and moral nobility, but was prey from its earliest days to the corrupting influences of civilization, its restraints and luxuries. This book outlined a system of ‘negative education’ that would allow the child to learn by experience, developing his or her natural curiosity, rather than by formal instruction and indoctrination: “Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart, the how and why of the entrance of every vice can be traced.”
Discussion points: What does Dickens’s choice of hero do? Why do you think Dickens wanted to show innate “Good surviving” against the odds? How does Oliver’s early suffering make us feel? And what are the implications of this for the book’s politics?
You can read more about Dickens’s childhood in his so-called ‘autobiographical fragment’ which he presented to Forster, and which Forster published in chapter two of his biography, available as an e-book from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25851
Dickens continued to campaign for the improvement of children’s lives in his journalism, as well as his fiction. The wonderful Dickens Journals Online project has now digitised every issue of the two weekly magazines that Dickens edited for the final twenty years of his career. Those interested in this aspect of Dickens’s work might like to look at his co-authored articles, ‘Drooping Buds’, which was instrumental in the foundation of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital: http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-v/page-45.html, or ‘Received, A Blank Child’ which campaigned for support for the work of the London Foundling Hospital: http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-vii/page-49.html
First instalment from guest blogger Dr Holly Furneaux, who is leading the online reading group
April 4, 2012
Blog instalment 1: Introduction and getting started – What’s in a name?
Introduction to the online reading group:
Oliver Twist is perhaps Dickens’s most iconic novel, inspiring rip-offs, adaptations, and tributes from the publication of its first instalment in February 1837, to today. The plight of the starving workhouse boys and the famous scene of young Oliver asking for more tug at our heartstrings, while sensation is provided by prostitutes, including the generous hearted Nancy, pickpockets, and two of Dickens’s most memorable villains, Bill Sikes and Fagin. With this cast and plot it is little surprise that the novel continues to move and to fascinate. In this online reading group we’ll share our responses to the novel, and look at the debates it provokes in Dickens’s time and our own. We’ll think about the politics of Dickens’s presentation of the position of the poor, at the controversy surrounding his alleged glamorisation of criminality, and at his problematic presentation of Fagin’s Jewishness. We’ll look more closely at the original illustrations, and at film and TV adaptations, thinking about how these reshape our experience of the book. We’ll also think about Dickens’s treatment of the family, the various ‘guardians’ to Oliver, and many more aspects of this endlessly re-readable novel. The main discussion will be through Facebook posts, and as we go I’ll link to some longer blog posts with some additional background to an aspect of the novel, and a set of related discussion points. For the particularly enthused I’ll include links to some hand-picked further material – freely available online resources wherever possible. Happy reading!
Charles Dickens was already a household name when he began publishing Oliver Twist at the age of 25. Most readers knew him as ‘Boz’ the pen-name he used for his early novels. He’d shot to fame “like a skyrocket”, as one review described it, with The Pickwick Papers, his first novel. Pickwick was only just over half way through its 20 monthly instalments, when the first chapters of Oliver Twist, also published serially, appeared in the monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany. In his choice of title Dickens signalled that this would be a new kind of novel:
Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress
Discussion points: What kind of book does this title encourage us to expect? What kind of hero does it offer?
The first monthly instalment was made up of the first two chapters. How would the experience of reading this novel be different for Dickens’s first readers, who read it in monthly parts?
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Visit the home where Dickens wrote Oliver Twist: http://www.dickensmuseum.com/
Those especially interested in Bentley’s Miscellany and the effects of the serialisation of Oliver Twist might like to work through Professor Robert Pattern’s fantastic online course, ‘When is a Book Not a Book? Oliver Twist In Context’, for the New York Public Library: http://www.fathom.com/course/21701754/index.html