Chapter the First: In Which Things Are Introduced

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Charles Dickens was an English novelist, who lived in the nineteenth century. He was born in 1812 and died in 1870, at age of 58. This prolific novelist has been praised, condemned, idolised, and ‘read’. He gained success with the serialized publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836. His next publication, Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, serialized throughout 1837-9, is our focus, right now.

The aim of these posts is to reclaim Dickens as entertaining and fun. In an age without television, Dickens’s texts are drama-filled performances. He crafted his novels to reflect acted entertainment. Indeed, where Dickens wrote Oliver, now the Charles Dickens House Museum, 48 Doughty Street in London, upon the lectern that he designed for his American reading tour stands his novel, scrawled with his own writing. His words hang in the air, a crescendo of emotion that falls, into the abyss, on empathetic ears.

Dickens lived in an age that has been characterised by the surge of modernity and progress. And, although considered a golden age of trade and wealth, poverty and debt were very real crises of the age—as they remain today. Throughout many of Dickens’s novels, but especially in Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, he created a realistic and non-idealized portrait of poverty and crime. As we will see, crime and cruelty are not restricted to the underclasses, but even the (very) rich and landed classes may commit crimes. Such a theme becomes more apparent in Little Dorrit, but we’ll talk about that in another serial edition.

When Oliver was serialized, Victoria became Queen of England, so England was not yet encapsulated under the moniker, Victorian. Brought up under the care of a strict mother, Victoria and her reign have been characterised by propriety and chastity. The perception of Victorians as pure and chaste, is, perhaps, drawn from Victoria’s later obsession with the purity of her children, especially her sons. But we must also remember that Victoria and her husband were madly in love with each other, had many children, and were a very intimate couple. If anything, we learn from this example that the Victorian era is wrought with contradictions and anxieties about those contradictions–much like any age.

Dickens’s depiction of poverty and crime in Oliver Twist toys with those anxieties and contradictions. His cast of characters include crime lords, robbers, prostitutes, bumbling parochial authorities, cruel relatives, and kindhearted guardians. Yet, although these characters are identified by these labels, if Michel Foucault has taught us anything, we know that these characters also defy their labels. Except, perhaps, the kindhearted guardians.

Before I give too much away (and spoilers will be included in these posts), let’s meet our characters:

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(from the left) Charley Bates, Oliver Twist, Artful Dodger, (behind) Bill Sikes, Fagin, and Nancy. [Illustration by Phiz. or Hablot knight Browne]

In this print, we meet the motley crew of London’s crime world: the young boys recruited into Fagin’s service, the resisting Oliver, Bill Sikes–the housebreaker, Fagin–the head of the crew, and Nancy–trained by Fagin to steal, but her gender and association to crime signifies her fall from grace. Nancy, is one of the more complex and beautiful characters.

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(from left) Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Bedwin, Oliver’s Mother (in image), and Oliver. [Illustrated by Phiz.]

Meet Mr Brownlow. His portly figure shows he is well-fed, and has a comfortable income. The room features peacock feathers, reminding the viewer that Empire is not far from the reaches of a man like Mr Brownlow. Indeed, the painting that holds up the feathers, has palm trees, a reclining female figure, and turbaned figures. The print presents us with a claustrophobic scene, in the corner or a kitchen, but the world opens up through the painting on the wall. Additionally, Mr Brownlow appears to be looking at the painting on the wall, extending our gaze beyond the plot, rather than at comparing Oliver and the other painting on the wall, the portrait of Oliver’s mother. Finally, Mrs, Bedwin is Mr. Brownlow’s housekeeper, and she is the type of woman that you could imagine would always have a cup of sweet tea and a hug ready.

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(from left) Oliver (seated), Fagin, and Monks (illustrated by Phiz.)

Such a brilliant illustration. Dickens’s writing at this part is also brilliantly frightening. Monks is a name we’ll want to recall.

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The workhouse women, Mrs. Bumble (neé Corney), and Mr. Bumble (formerly the parochial beadle)

The workhouse women, Mrs Bumble (neé Corney), and Mr Bumble (formerly the parochial beadle)

Mrs Bumble chastising Mr Bumble. Ugh. Just desserts? Yes. Mr Bumble is too innocently named. He is not a bumbling man; he is greedy, lazy, and hypocritical. He treats the orphans under his care with cruelty and contempt. He will feature in an upcoming post, so, let’s look forward to that.

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(from left) Rose Maylie, Mr Brownlow, Nancy, and Noah Claypole (illustrated by Phiz.)

Pictured above, Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow learn of the whereabouts of Monks. Noah eavesdrops on Fagin’s orders. Rose is the adopted child of Mrs Maylie, and her gentle heart and status of orphan makes her the perfect character to care for Oliver. More on that later!

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Next week, I will upload a post about Poverty, Poor laws, and the Virtue of Wealth. I look forward to opening a dialogue about Dickens and his texts.

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay Xx

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8 thoughts on “Chapter the First: In Which Things Are Introduced

  1. Pingback: Coming Soon: Everything Oliver—WHAT THE DICKENS?! | Word Play

  2. Pingback: Alice, you’re doing it wrong! | Word Play

  3. Great post on a great novel. Have you read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens? A very tricky man- entertaining and affable, but he had his dark side…
    If I had a time machine, I’d set it to a thetrical performance of Dickens reading the death of Nancy- it was supposed to be amazing 🙂

    • I haven’t read Claire Tomalin’s book, but I volunteered at the museum, which had an ‘Invisible Woman’ vibe whilst the film was out. His writing is so beautiful. His plots weave and tie up nicely, but he has this musicality of language. There were some passages I was reading aloud to my mom. I can only imagine Dickens reading. Gives me shivers!

      • Tomalin’s book is good, but rather sad in its way- don’t read if you don’t want to see Dicken’s feet of clay! He was brilliant, especially when you consider how quickly some of the books were written because he had to rush out the next magazine installment- no months of mulling and rewriting for Dickens. And volunteering at the museum… that must have been amazing

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