Wherein we are introduced to the second of Dickens’ serial novels, Oliver Twist (the third read of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-23); with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–with other considerations; Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 12 April through 16 May, 2022; with a look ahead to the coming week.
“As soon as Dickens had hit upon his ‘captial notion’ of the deprived and abused child, the whole conception caught fire in his imagination…and it has been said, rightly, that Oliver Twist is the first novel in the English language which takes a child as a central character or hero…”
~ Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 216
We meet again, friends, on our first day of Oliver Twist! Based on our group’s exploration of Sketches and Pickwick, I’m certain we’ll be in for a deep dive with Oliver, and I’m excited for the perspectives which I know will help many of us appreciate it more, whether you’re rereading it, or reading it for the first time!
I’ve not gone into details about the story, so have no fear of spoilers; but whether you’ve read it or not, if you’d rather not read anything ahead of time, feel free to skip right to the end for the schedule!
But before we dive in…
If you’re counting, today is Day 99 (and Week 15) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week One of Oliver Twist, our third read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us! Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and for keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the overall 2-year reading schedule is in my intro post here. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, I would love to add you! Please feel free to message me here on the site, or on twitter.
“Please, sir, I want some more”: Oliver Twist in Context
Oliver’s very existence, born as he is into the workhouse, is a challenge to a hated system. Is Dickens, too, demanding more from the system?
Like Little Dorrit born into the Marshalsea, Oliver knows little else ~ yet he manages, like her, to maintain an innocence and purity of heart within its walls. The subtitle of Oliver Twist is “the Parish Boy’s Progress,” and it will be interesting to see how or whether it continues the traditions that Lenny has particularly been writing of: the Bildungsroman, or even a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress through these different facets of society: the law, the workhouse, the violent criminal underworld, industrial London versus the quiet country air outside it.
We’ll meet friends and enemies: the kindly Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie, the fearful but ultimately buffoonish Mr. Bumble, Fagin and the Artful Dodger, brutal burglar Bill Sikes and his reluctant accomplice, Nancy.
Here’s a little context on Dickens’ life at the time, and his writing of Oliver:
Dickens’ Life in 1837-38
If you recall from our introduction to The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was having an extraordinarily busy year (1836), a year that really put him “on the map” in a big way, especially since the fourth number of Pickwick and the first appearance of Sam Weller. Besides the enormous success in his writing career, he was editing a periodical and writing works for the stage, too, including a comic opera! He’d married Catherine Hogarth in April of 1836; now, at the opening of 1837, as he still has half of Pickwick yet to write for Chapman and Hall, he and Catherine had their first child in January ~ after which Catherine suffered from postpartum depression. Soon after, Dickens was to begin the first number of Oliver Twist for Bentley’s Miscellany, which would be published in February.
And these were only a few of his projects. From Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Dickens:
“He was now of course an editor, and he estimated that he was reading some sixty or eighty manuscripts a month for possible publication in Bentley’s Miscellany. But that was only one aspect of his editorial work, which also included proofreading as well as the revising and cutting of articles. He arranged the payments for each contributor, and worked upon his own article each month” (214).
Of course, we’ve discussed in our introduction to Pickwick that it was early on in Oliver (and just past half-way through Pickwick) that Dickens experienced the enormous and unexpected loss of his sister-in-law, the seventeen year old Mary Hogarth, a death that would haunt him forever; the memory of Mary was to influence many of his female characters throughout his writing career, and he cancelled the May/June numbers of his two novels, for the first and the last time.
“Thank God she died in my arms, and the very last words she whispered were of me.”
“So perfect a creature never breathed. I knew her inmost heart, and her real worth and values. She had not a fault.”
(On this note: I’m adding a brief section on the theme of Memory to our “Considerations” below, as this seems to be of importance in Oliver Twist, and in Dickens’ own life, and would come ’round again often in his writing.)
Dickens had met his lifelong friend and biographer, John Forster, in late-1836, but their friendship really developed around this time in 1837, as Dickens shared his grief with him.
Around this time, too, Dickens’ earnings were sufficient to enable him to take a three-year lease on the home in Doughty Street, where the beloved Dickens Museum is located. He was truly moving up in the world.
After finishing Pickwick‘s installments in October of 1837, he had a few months without an overlap in serial publications, until he started on Nicholas Nickleby for Chapman and Hall. The first installment of Nickleby would be published in March of 1838. Once the two novels were going simultaneously, “Forster said later that he never knew him work so much after dinner or such late hours” (Tomalin 95).
Though Oliver‘s publication in serial form was not to finish until the Spring of 1839, Dickens exhausted himself trying to get it finished for a publication in book form by September of 1838. He didn’t quite manage this, but he did complete it by October.
Writing and Illustrating Oliver
“Don’t be afraid! We won’t make an author of you, while there’s an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to turn to.”~Oliver Twist
Claire Tomalin writes in Charles Dickens: A Life:
“The two serial numbers [Pickwick and Oliver] would be running simultaneously for ten months, and Dickens would have to work like a juggler to keep them both spinning. He said later that he was warned against serial publications ~ ‘My friends told me it was a low, cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes’ ~ but whoever these friends were he triumphantly proved them wrong, and readers were as pleased with the pathos, horror and grand guignol of Oliver as with the comedy of Pickwick” (74).
As we discussed in our group re: Dickens’ “writing lab,” he was, partway through Pickwick, really beginning to develop a more cohesive plot, and “Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start” (Tomalin 74).
More perspective from Claire Tomalin, for those interested in the nitty-gritty of the writing process of Oliver, and the challenges of serial publication ~ especially of two very different novels at once:
“There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right first time. How different this is from the way most great novelists work, allowing themselves time to reconsider, to change their minds, to go back, to cancel and rewrite. Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time. He wrote in a small hand, with a quill pen and black (iron gall) ink at this stage ~ later he favoured bright blue ~ on rough sheets of grey, white or bluish paper, measuring about 9 x 7 1/2 inches, that he’d fold and then tear in half before starting to write; he called these sheets ‘slips’. For Oliver he spaced the lines quite widely, fitting about twenty-five lines on each sheet where later he would cram forty-five. Something like ninety-five slips made up one monthly number. In the course of a day he might produce eleven or twelve slips, and if pushed up to twenty” (Tomalin 74-75).
Of course, Dickens was also dealing with illustrations. We witnessed the emergence of a great literary collaboration in Pickwick of Dickens with his illustrator, “Phiz”; George Cruikshank, however, was Bentley’s illustrator, but he and Dickens had already worked together on the Sketches.
From Peter Ackroyd:
“It ought to be remembered, too, that [Dickens] was collaborating closely with George Cruikshank, who, as the official illustrator of the magazine, had a position of some significance; they worked together amicably enough, however, despite their recent arguments over the Sketches, the general plan being that Dickens suggested which articles ought to be illustrated and then left it to Cruikshank to decide upon a particular passage or scene. There is no doubt that he enjoyed his work. On one occasion he compares being an editor to that of being a stage manager, and it is clear that he brought the same skills to this editorial venture which he had brought to bear upon his management of amateur theatricals” (Ackroyd 214).
A Personal “Echo Chamber”; the Religious Significance of Memory
“Thus does Dickens seem able to work through his own childhood in disguised form, both in its troubled reality and in its disturbed fantasies of escape. The life of Warren’s, the foul streets of London, the sheer helplessness of the lost child resound through a narrative which becomes the echo chamber of Dickens’s own childhood. In the March number of The Pickwick Papers Tony Weller had mentioned ‘Warrens’s blackin’ and in the following month’s episode of Oliver Twist a ‘blackin’ bottle’ is mentioned by the notorious beadle. The associations come flooding back as Dickens writes.”
~Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 217
Though I don’t have the same clarity about Oliver that I do of Pickwick and some of Dickens’ other works as we venture in, I’d like to put in a word about the importance of the theme of “memory” in Dickens, which perhaps takes a more crucial role here than it has done before. But it will always make its way into his works hereafter, and will play a vital role in such works as A Tale of Two Cities: memory that haunts our characters; memory that heals and strengthens and inspires; Memory as almost a character, a haunting spirit.
“The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls up solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.”~Oliver Twist
Ackroyd has a beautiful passage here about Dickens’ faith in connection to memory and the death of Mary Hogarth:
“It is known that [Dickens] started regularly to attend the chapel of the Foundling Hospital in Great Coram Street nearby…He was consoled ‘above all’ by ‘the thought of one day joining her again where sorrow and separation are unknown’; when we come to consider Dickens’s Christianity it is as well to remember from what private roots of suffering and relief it sprang. And hence, too, the religious significance which he attached to the concept of memory; as soon as [Mary] was dead he was reminiscing about their lives together. ‘I can recall everything we said and did in those happy days,’ he said, and for him the memory became a blessed faculty aligned with fancy and the imagination, linking the living with the dead and thus earth with heaven; it became a way of infusing reality with spiritual grace, and there can be no doubt that it was the death of Mary Hogarth which awakened those elements in his nature which had up to this time been overshadowed by his appetite for fame. Dickens had learned another hard lesson early ~ he was still only twenty-five ~ but in a sense it was his good fortune that the profound experiences which shape a writer’s imagination happened to him sooner rather than later” (228).
The New Poor Law, the Workhouse, and the Parish System
“Just as the insanely sane Modest Proposal resulted from Swift’s rage at the English Government’s policy towards Ireland so the presentation of the workhouse in Oliver Twist results from Dickens’s outrage at Malthusian chatter about the ‘surplus population’ and the Government’s ‘workhouse-as-deterrent’ policy.”
~Michael Slater, “On Reading Oliver Twist“
The New Poor Law of 1834, hated by Dickens and other humanitarians, made the workhouse the be-all, end-all system of relief ~ a dreaded possibility, to be avoided at all costs. A punishment for poverty.
In the passage on “Oliver Twist and the Workhouse,” Ruth Richardson writes:
“The Poor Law (Amendment) Act of 1834, otherwise known as the ‘New’ Poor Law, established the workhouse system. Instead of providing a refuge for the elderly, sick and poor, and instead of providing food or clothing in exchange for work in times of high unemployment, workhouses were to become a sort of prison system. The government’s intention was to slash expenditure on poverty by setting up a cruelly deterrent regime. The old parish poorhouses and almshouses were to be completely changed, no cash support whatever would henceforth be given out – whatever the hardship or the season – and the old gifts in kind (food, shoes, blankets) which could help a family survive together, were now disallowed. The only option would be hard work, forced labour, and only inside the workhouse (which meant entering there to live, full time) in exchange for a thin subsistence. Homes were broken up, belongings sold, families separated.
“Groups of parishes – called Poor Law Unions – were formed under the new system, and a network of workhouses was established across the country. They were run by ‘Guardians’ who were usually local business people. The regime inside these places was deliberately intended to deter everyone but the most desperate. Children were separated and sent away, heads were shaved, clothes boiled, uniforms issued. Although centrally-controlled through the Poor Law Board, each workhouse was administered locally. Dickens shows that the administration was run by self-satisfied and heartless men: the ‘man in the white waistcoat’ personifies the smug viciousness of the guardians in Oliver Twist‘s workhouse.”
~Ruth Richardson, “Oliver Twist and the Workhouse”
“Workhouses were intended to discourage people from applying for poor relief…The infirm and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as gruel (a watery porridge), or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories, with supervised baths were given once a week.”
This is a theme which will come ’round again, as so much in Dickens does, even to his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, in the character of Sloppy, raised in the workhouse, and in Betty Higden, child-minder who risks death by exposure to the elements rather than risk the possibility of the workhouse.
Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Imagery, Narrative Flow/Structure, Depicting Violence
As noted above, Pickwick continued the “writing lab” ~ an image that Lenny first used in relation to Dickens’ Sketches ~ and almost concurrently with the beginning of the more consciously-structured Oliver Twist, Pickwick too began to take form with a more concrete plot and narrative structure. One might say that the deliberation that was brought to bear on Oliver, influenced the plotting of Pickwick.
And yet, what a difference in tone. Is Dickens giving his new fans a sample of his versatility, in embarking on a novel of such a different atmosphere and color? Here, we feel the filth and misery of the London underworld, and see vividly the red blood that comes from a violent bludgeoning. Whereas the lights in Pickwick are stronger than its contrasting shadows, it will be interesting to discuss whether they are so here, based on the language used to depict both.
Explicit and Implied Antisemitism
I am hugely grateful to our wonderful Dickensian, Boze H., for graciously responding to my plea for help in introducing a subject which I don’t feel I have the knowledge to tackle. His thoughtfulness, his extensive reading on antisemitism, his enormous love of Dickens and Victorian literature, make him a perfect person to introduce this subject for discussion and reflection. Thank you, Boze! This will be coming in a separate post.
UPDATE: Boze’s marvelous post can be found here! We’d love to have you join the conversation!
Other Themes that *Might* be Introduced, or Come ‘Round Again…
And these are only a few to add to the conversation, many of which we’ve discussed in Sketches and Pickwick:
1.) Light and Shadow, Comedy and Tragedy
2.) Crime and Violence
3.) Theatricality (The latter related to stage melodrama, perhaps?)
4.) Rich versus Poor; Dickens’ Social Conscience
5.) Dickens’ Women (How are they portrayed here, including in the contrast from one to another?)
6.) The Law/Institutional Shortcomings–or Evils? (The workhouse, the New Poor Law, the police, etc.)
7.) City versus Country
8.) Voice/Language in Creating Character (“Do you know this here voice, Oliver? Ain’t you afraid of it, sir? Ain’t you a trembling while I speak, sir?” ~Chapter VII)
9.) Mutability and Mortality
11.) Change/Redemption in Suffering
12.) Benevolence as the Reconciling Influence
13.) The Child as Hero ~ and Victim of Society
14.) Surrogate or Honorary Parents
I’ll just link a couple of really interesting short-ish videos, on specific issues in Oliver. The first is Professor John Bowen on Depicting Crime and Poverty in the novel:
Another, recommended by Dr. Christian Lehmann, is part of The Dickens Project, and includes a close reading of a passage from a section late in the novel which Dickens was famous for reading aloud to horrified and mesmerized audiences. (Hence, SPOILER ALERT, if you’re not familiar with it!)
Oliver Twist Reading Schedule
Oliver Twist Reading Schedule
|Week One: 12-18 Apr||1-11||Chapters 1-11 constitute the first five monthly “numbers” published Feb, Mar, April, May, and July of 1837.|
|Week Two: 19-25 Apr||12-22||Chapters 12-22 constitute the monthly numbers VI-X, published in Aug, Sept, Nov, and Dec 1837, and Jan of 1838.|
|Week Three: 26 Apr-2 May||23-34||Chapters 23-34 constitute the monthly numbers XI-XV, published Feb-June 1838.|
|Week Four: 3-9 May||35-46||Chapters 35-46 constitute the monthly numbers XVI-XX, which were published July, Aug, Oct, Nov, and Dec of 1838.|
|Week Five: 10-16 May||47-53||Chapters 47-53 constitute the monthly numbers XXI-XXIV, published Jan-April 1839.|
A Look-ahead to Week One of Oliver Twist (12-18 April)
This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 1-11, which constitute the first five monthly “numbers,” published Feb, Mar, April, May, and July of 1837.
You can read the text in full at The Circumlocution Office if you prefer the online format or don’t have a copy. There are also a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.
If you’re an audiophile, there are some wonderful versions available, one of them read by one of my heroines, Miriam Margolyes, and another by the always-brilliant Jonathan Pryce. The recording quality of the latter is better, but you really can’t go wrong with either.
See you in the comments, friends!
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Slater, Michael. “On Reading “Oliver Twist”.” Dickensian 70.373 (1974): 75. ProQuest.
Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.
“WORKHOUSES IN THE VICTORIAN ERA”: Circumlocution Office website. https://www.thecircumlocutionoffice.com/times/poverty/workhouses.