Monday, June 5, 2017

A Dickens Detour - Oliver Twist

“Please, sir, I want some more.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 

Little Oliver Twist has remained a unique character for literature and was particularly uncommon for a Dickens character.  In Charles Dickens’ second published novel, Oliver Twist, he took a poor, helpless and friendless young orphan and through his experiences, revealed the desperate and impoverished criminal underworld of his day through the vivid characters who abused and exploited the most vulnerable in humanity.  Dickens painted the characters in Oliver Twist with an unsentimental hand for his day and time.

“The sun,--the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man--burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Oliver’s inherent innocence that continues to survive throughout his trials is a small light of hope within the darkness surrounding him.  As onlookers we become alternately anxious, then relieved, then on tenterhooks once more with his moments of comfort and his subsequent recapture within the elements of crime and want.  But somehow Oliver’s tender heart prevails through everything.  With little Oliver, Charles Dickens had the intention of showing “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last”.  What companions would try him best?

“The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up for ever on my best affections. Deep affliction has only made them stronger; it ought, I think, for it should refine our nature.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

The Adventures of Oliver Twist was first published under the title of  Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy’s Progress, By Boz as a serial in the pages of Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839 and then in three volumes in 1838.  The publication of this novel overlapped with Dicken’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers for nine months and overlapped Dickens’ third work Nicholas Nickleby by a similar nine months.

It was a momentous time for the young man, Charles Dickens.  The publication of Oliver Twist began just one month after Dickens’ first child was born, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, which was sadly soon followed by an untimely loss in May of 1837 when Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth suddenly passed away after a night at the theatre. Mary was 17 years old, lived with Charles and Catherine Dickens and was a favorite in their household. The family was devastated and Dickens missed the June installment of Oliver Twist as well as The Pickwick Papers.  This was the only time in Dickens’ career that he ever missed a publication installment.
“It is because I think so much of warm and sensitive hearts, that I would spare them from being wounded.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Dickens fought for many of his social concerns through his writing.  He greatly opposed the New Poor Law of 1834 with the middle-class Victorian attitudes that empowered it, and clearly voiced his views through Oliver’s experiences. Oliver Twist originally began as one of Dicken’s “Mudfog” sketches, published in Bentley’s Miscellany depicting Oliver’s birth and upbringing in a poorhouse.  It was an effort by Dickens to speak out against the New Poor Law.  As he wrote Oliver Twist into a novel, he chose the coarse, the criminal, the low and the degraded of London’s population and Dickens knew that when Oliver Twist was published, readers of his time would be shocked and most likely disapproving of the type of characters that he highlighted in his book.

“Some people are nobody's enemies but their own” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

When the New Poor Law of 1834 was introduced, it was originally welcomed by some as a way to reduce the gradually building cost of looking after the poor.  It was an Act of Parliament that replaced earlier legislation that had come to be deemed inefficient  and purposed to take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves. This system intended to change the poverty relief system in England and Wales by only providing relief within workhouse settings. These workhouse systems were ultimately aimed to deter people who would prefer to receive some form of assistance instead of working to provide a living for themselves and their families.  Workhouse conditions were purposefully designed to be such that only the truly destitute could bear to face them.  Even at the time, many Victorians saw workhouses as merely prisons for the poor.

The poor would consent to be housed in workhouses where they were clothed and fed under the responsibility of a Board of Guardians.  Children received some schooling and all able-bodied workhouse paupers were required to work for several hours a day. Workhouses varied in size but were often a self-contained and often self-supporting system.  They could include basic living areas such as dormitories for sleeping with men and women separated, a dining hall and possibly dayroom for the elderly, but they might also have their own laundry, bakery, vegetable gardens, infirmaries and schoolrooms for the children.

When a person’s circumstances resulted in entering a workhouse, their possessions were severely limited and might only include their uniform and bed. Uniforms  were generally made of coarse materials designed to be sturdy and long-lasting.  Comfort was not a part of the design. Men wore jackets of strong “Fernought” cloth, trousers, striped cotton shirts, a cloth cap and shoes.  Women and girls wore gowns made from a coarse fabric made of silk, often combined with mohair or wool and stiffened with gum, calico shifts, petticoats of Linsey-Woolsey material, gingham dresses, day caps, worsted stockings and woven slippers.

“What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once - a parish child - the orphan of a workhouse - the humble, half-starved drudge - to be cuffed and buffeted through the world - despised by all, and pitied by none.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

A workhouse diet was formulated with minute detail. The Poor Law Commissioners issued sample dietary tables for use in union workhouses itemizing food, drink and amounts of each with very limited inclusions of meat. The main food staple was bread and it had often had various foods added with each meal such as gruel or porridge at breakfast. Water used for boiling any dinner meat became “broth” and could have such items added as onions or turnips to make a mid-day soup.  But ingredients and food variations were strictly and universally limited.

One of the more difficult results of being sent to the workhouse was that you were ultimately separated from your husband, wife or children.  The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act routinely split up families - deliberately keeping husband and wives apart so that there was no possibility of more children coming to the family.  In addition, children were often kept separately from their parents to try to “improve” them and turn them into “better people”.

“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

In his novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens carried the major classic Victorian themes of injustice, bleak & brutal poverty and sinister characters. But the often-followed tendency of the time was to paint robbers and thieves as romantic characters and their lives as filled with adventure; living in picturesque caverns and winning the beautiful heroine.  In Oliver Twist, Dickens endeavored to paint a raw reality of the day by creating characters that more accurately  represented the desperate lives that teemed in the back alleys of London.  He aimed to uncover the misery and suffering that pushed so many into lives of crime and fostered the abuse of the innocent.  In short - Dickens meant to convey through his writing, his belief that poverty ultimately leads to crime.

In Dickens’ Preface To The Third Edition, 1841 of Oliver Twist, he said:
“It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as the really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospects, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this, would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society.”

“People like us don't go out at night cause people like them see us for what we are” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is the second read in our new Dickens Detour reading plan. This is a fairly long read so you might pick up a copy and get started. We will be discussing this great book during our Summer Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, July 29th, 2017.

“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” 
~ Charles Dickens


April 2017
The Pickwick Papers 
Published as a Monthly serial
April 1836 to November 1837

July 2017
The Adventures of Oliver Twist
Published as a Monthly serial 
in Bentley’s Miscellany
February 1837 to April 1839

October 2017
The Old Curiosity Shop
Published as a Weekly serial 
in Master Humphrey’s Clock
April 1840 to November 1841

January 2018
Little Dorrit
Published as a Monthly serial
December 1855 to June 1857