Second blog installment from Holly Furneaux: Oliver the Child Hero
April 10, 2012
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