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Dickens hated Oliver Twist The Victorians virtue-signalled their way out of caring about poverty

Please sir, could I read a good state of the nation novel? Credit: IMDB

Please sir, could I read a good state of the nation novel? Credit: IMDB


December 24, 2021   5 mins

Charles Dickens hated Oliver Twist. Rarely in English letters do we find a case of an author so embarrassed, so fundamentally ill at ease with his own creation. Oliver spends the first half of the novel crying, begging, whining, and being stooped over by lachrymose teenage girls. And then he disappears for the second half, like a naughty child sent away by a disappointed parent.

Once he’s gone, Dickens can focus on what really pops his toast — sexy, scarred, vicious murderers like Bill Sykes. Dickens can enter Sykes’s thoughts with ease. But when Oliver is around, pointlessly whimpering, Dickens can’t scale the orphan’s goodness. Dickens can never decide whether to torture him, or tease him, or have him chased through the streets of London by a mob. So he does it all.

The tone in the novel’s famous gruel begging scene is a masterpiece of cruelly vindictive comedy. When Dickens describes the suffering of the workhouse children, he is flippant, educated, and knowing. The mealtime soup is a “festive composition” of which the boys are given no more than one “porringer” except on “on occasions of great public rejoicing”. Boys, writes a winking Dickens, “have generally excellent appetites”. One of the lads is so hungry that he warns the others he will eat them, unless he has “another basin of gruel per diem”.

When Oliver rises from the table to get the “please sir, I want some more” over with, he is described as “somewhat alarmed at his own temerity”. This is amoral writing, ironically ornamental, a low moment given high treatment. These boys were the victims of a monstrously utilitarian system, of which Dickens was supposedly a savage critic. But any concern we might have for Oliver and his tiny starving colleagues is blotted out by Dickens’ sarcastic laughter — which is all the more infectious for being inappropriate.

Charles Dickens did not aim to disgust his audience. He wanted them lightly appalled, chuckling with him, and thoroughly entertained. That’s a far more lucrative emotional mix for an author to create in a reader.

Yet Oliver Twist is remembered either for the pious little boy who triumphed over adversity, or as a hit musical. And Dickens is, in popular culture, defanged, desexed and without a crackle of danger. Or he is, in Hollywood terms, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” I would guess that most subscribe to George Orwell’s reckless judgment that Dickens was a man full of jolly, slightly angry laughter; a “free intelligence” who represented the best of 19th-century British.

Remove the gooey sentiment and false perceptions though, and who was Charles Dickens? For over 150 years we have received nothing but terrible news about him. It began in 1874, the year John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens appeared. Forster was a close intimate of his subject, and his biography was the 19th century’s answer to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Yet Boswell’s Johnson is a moral hero you’d happily swim in a vat of brandy with; Boswell’s goal was to make indestructible myths from their friendship, and he succeeded. Forster’s Dickens is not the man you might expect; not the generous paterfamilias, not the jovial inventor of Christmas, not the sentimental comic with a twinkle in his eye.

He is not heroic. Forster’s Dickens is typically, helplessly Victorian: hard-charging and aggressive, impetuous, overbearing, dynamic and absurdly productive, with enormous desire for activity. And like almost every Victorian I can think of, Forster’s Dickens is haunted. Full of overwhelming, difficultly buried fears. What shadowed him until the end was a childhood stint in a blacking warehouse, where he covered pots of boot polish “first with a piece of oil paper, and then with a piece of blue paper” for 10 hours a day, six shillings a week, while his father was in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. The people closest to Dickens — his wife and children — first learned of this essential trauma in Forster’s pages. They had no idea who he was.

Oliver, like all Dickens’s child heroes, is a chip off the block of these memories. A self stuck in amber, that he can take off the shelf and dwell on. And if Twist is pathetic, it’s because Dickens felt he was pathetic too. If Dickens can’t hide his contempt for Oliver, it’s partly a reflection of his own deep self-loathing.

There were more leaking pipes, stagnant ponds, and open sewers to be discovered under the national monument. Thomas Wright’s 1935 Life gave us Dickens’s queasily neurotic affair with the actress Ellen Ternan, a secret for decades. One 1952 biography has Dickens sanding down Ternan’s reluctance to sleep with him with all the grinding persistence of a competent professional novelist; “Dickens had won Ellen against her will, wearing down her resistance by sheer force of desperate determination.” Fred Kaplan’s 1988 Life opens with Dickens suspiciously bonfiring “every letter he owned not on a business matter” in his country house garden. What secrets were turned to ashes? Worst of all was Claire Tomalin’s speculation that Dickens slept with the ‘fallen women’ who were cared for at Urania Cottage, Angela Burdett Coutt’s home for reformed prostitutes. The evidence for this is thin (one letter; one cryptic remark) but the thought is so irresistible — another Victorian hypocrite caught with his pants down! — that I’ve never been able to shake it off.

According to taste, those of Dickens’s generation either shame us by being better than us, or shame us by being worse than us. We take a ladder up into the historical attic, and poke around the broken furniture and damp old papers, looking for clues in the rot. How could they be so prudish? So rigid, so dogmatic, so racist, so hypocritical? And why were they all so obsessed with crinoline?

If you spend any time with them, though, you soon realise that the Victorians exposed every failing of their own minds long before we did. Matthew Arnold described his contemporaries as “shutting their eyes and professing to believe what they do not
 rushing blindly together in herds”. Dickens put revolting specimens on paper — Pecksniff, Bounderby, Squeers, Mrs Gamp — and his audience confirmed the truth of these satirical drive-bys when they made him the most famous author in the world. The Victorians knew they were hypocrites, just as I suspect Dickens knew, down in the gut, that the hollow plaster purity of characters like Oliver was the weakest expression of his talent.

Why did Dickens contaminate his art with moral earnestness then? Simply: he was praised from it, right from the start. The anxieties of educated Victorians — generated by economic boom and bust; their grating fears of violent revolution from below; their slow realisation that Christianity was not literally true — demanded a procession of Oliver Twists to salve their jittery consciousnesses. Dickens (sensibly) put commerce ahead of art. Like every great showman he gave them what they wanted. The Edinburgh Review praised Oliver Twist in 1838 for its “comprehensive spirit of humanity”, and the tendency of Dickens’ writings “to make us practically benevolent”. They could not detect the other side of Dickens; the grey ambivalence born of his misanthropy, the black edge to his clownish humour.

Once Dickens’s combination of scornful merriment and soppy earnestness made him wealthy, he bought a big country house just off the old Dover Road. As a sad child, Dickens had walked past it and reflected that such wealth would be forever out of his reach. Now it was his. The road was still travelled by small tramping boys, little beggars, all as desperate as David Copperfield, all as famished as Oliver Twist.

Dickens did not have time for them. They were far too close to the bone, far too reminiscent of the bleakest chapters of his own youth. He had two large hounds chained to each of the entrance gates. He hated Oliver Twists, whether they were imagined or real. When they trudged up the road to his home, with hope in their hearts, they were not about to meet the creator of Little Nell and the father of Christmas. They were headed for the jaws of his dogs.


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Dylan Regan
Dylan Regan
2 years ago

Can we as a nation stop defaming our national heroes?

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
2 years ago
Reply to  Dylan Regan

Iconoclasm is the instinctive impulse of leftists whose only urge is to destroy.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Dylan Regan

Hear hear!

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Dylan Regan

But is this really about Dickens? The author’s point seems to me to be about the context in which Dickens was embedded – Dickens being used as a lens with which to glimpse the Victorian moral and ethical milieu. Thus How could they be so prudish? So rigid, so dogmatic, so racist, so hypocritical? Instead, why not ask what were the beliefs and attitudes grounding the ethical norms motivating Victorian society, rather than reading present day ethical concerns into that era?

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Dylan Regan
  1. The answer is no. Everything must be torn down to make way for a bare new world where no trace of religion or traditions apart from what is found in Marxist dogma can be found. Force eventually will be required on those whose wills have not been broken.
Benjamin Turner
Benjamin Turner
2 years ago

I can’t tell; are you having a Dickensian sardonic laugh at yourself? You hate Dickens chiefly for belonging to a generation that makes you uneasy, and then complain that he doesn’t much care for them himself.
This has got to be first review I’ve read that takes personal experience of suffering as a point AGAINST an author writing on suffering! And the first that complains about jokes. Can the man not apply some gallows humour to his own childhood?
And what, pray, does his illicit affair have to do with his feelings for the poor?
No, the title mentions Dickens, but the article is about the Victorians. And your complaint about the Victorians is that they had moral standards. Some lived according to them, and make us aware of our own failures, some didn’t, and give us a good opportunity to write morally superior screed about hypocrisy.
If you make me choose a society en masse, give me the Victorians any day over the 21st century Anglosphere. Hypocrisy is far preferable to our present day’s sneering abandonment of every moral standard.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

The writer seems unaware of the power of sardonic humour.

Zoë Colvin
Zoë Colvin
2 years ago

What is the point of this piece? The works of Charles Dickens do not appeal to Will Lloyd, it appears, but does he mount an argument against them beyond the fact that “gooey sentiment”is not to his personal taste? Surely demanding a Dickens novel be less Victorian and more like a Martin Amis novel or a George Orwell novel isn’t a criticism so much as evidence that the reader wanted a book by someone else, which isn’t that interesting. As to Dickens’s behaviour – or that of any other writer or artist – what has that to do with the work produced?

Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson
2 years ago

The author’s knowing attitude to Dickens-who was we agree very much a fallen man -as well as a very generous one- misses out Dickens the artist who deeply cares about the condition of his country and its poor. Has Will Lloyd ever attempted to read Dombey and son,Great Expectations, Little Dorrit with some kind of thought as to the way the art is made to condemn a country that condemns its rejected. Of course Dickens was mixed upas he shows Pip to be mixed up-but he also shows Pip’s recognition of his feeling for the rejected Magwitch as one that leads to redemption. He, Lloyd should spend Christmas actually reading his later works and then ask himself what it is his article misses.It is the art that matters!

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Jackson

I was thinking something along those lines also: not all of Dickens’ novels read like Oliver Twist.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

Dickens was, as they say, ‘a man of his times’. Nowadays we have TV ads for worthy causes, water aid, NSPCC, Barnardos, the new Olivers, trudging up to our doors with hope for our £2, £3 a month, sent by the new Fagins on their six figure CEO salaries. Bill Sykes is now a High St charity-mugger on commission. No wonder Dickens kept guard dogs.

Last edited 2 years ago by Zorro Tomorrow
Edward Hocknell
Edward Hocknell
2 years ago

I’ve always found him indigestible: sickly sweet young women; dismal ‘amusing’ characters; overblown descriptions, and endless moral messages nudging us in the ribs. Thackeray is miles better, and not just in ‘Vanity Fair’. Try ‘Pendennis’ and ‘The Newcomes’.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Blankety blank

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Much truth. There are some better ones though – be kind – and though he was Hollywood on the page people lap it up, then as now, and so he has an assured place: Daily Dostoyevsky or deeper dives on human nature are not for everyone. So, ‘More the Merrier!’ Ho-Ho! (Oops). Dollop of Trollope anyone, with G K Chestnuts?

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

I very much like all Dickens’s novels except for Oliver Twist which I think is genuinely inferior, and Hard Times about which I feel ambivalent. The only Thackerays I’ve read are Vanity Fair and Pendenn1s, both of which I enjoyed immensely. I’m also a huge fan of Trollope, both the Barsetshire Chronicles and the Palliser series.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

I think dickens was as good as Dostoyevsky, on human nature. And a better writer in English too, although that might be the translations. Dickens could be mawkish but his understanding of hypocrisy was spot on. The hypocrites were the moralists in his society, the owners and managers of the orphanage, the workhouses, the schools, the courts, and the poor houses. Had we a writer like dickens today he would skewer the woke.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I very much like all Dickens’s novels except for Oliver Twist which I think is genuinely inferior, and Hard Times about which I feel ambivalent. The only Thackerays I’ve read are Vanity Fair and Pendennis, both of which I enjoyed immensely. I’m also a huge fan of Trollope, both the Barsetshire Chronicles and the Palliser series.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

The author fires off his grand standing phrase – ‘their slow realisation that Christianity is not literally true..’ – ignoring the nuances of the age. Many Christians stood firm against secularism’s twin idols of technology and science which held out such hypnotic darwinian promises, in order to offer God’s truth to the spiritually lost, and this is still true today. It is compromising social and economic christians – Victorian or contemporary – twisting the truth of the Bible, who claim it inconvenient for sophisticated latter day tastes. And was it ever thus.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

I’m cheered by your remarks, Martha. Merry Christmas to you from the U.S.A.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

He shares traits with Disraeli and Ruskin – Tory arrivistes who felt guilty enough to denounce other social climbers who took advantage of Victorian industrialisation and the possibilities it opened but not enough to think of ever giving up the privileges they had earnt for themselves or their descendents.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

Hum. True Dickens used railways when they were around, but each day he walked some 25 miles to Westminster and back, and wrote an amazing amount each day,using a quill pen and ink. He was a meritocrat, so not at all how you are painting him. The essay’s summary of George Orwell’s essay is pretty poor, too. He was seen as a social reformer in his day. I see this comment is waiting for approval. I would prefer Unherd to let me know if they refuse to publish something I wrote. And maybe tell me why.

Last edited 2 years ago by Anna Bramwell
michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Indeed. Mine is still awaiting approval.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago

How the hell does a brain injured pretender like me get my stuff posted immediately? I can understand why you are not unhurt.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

They released mine eventually. What triggered their moderation is unclear but there it is, above.

Terry Davis
Terry Davis
2 years ago

Why wasn’t Dickens able to find all the poor black kids from those times, that the BBC so readily unearths?

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Davis

They hadn’t been sold into slavery by their chieftains until the Caribbean was at full quota.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

Dickens was, as they say, ‘a man of his times’.

Last edited 2 years ago by Zorro Tomorrow
medwayview
medwayview
2 years ago

‘Matthew Arnold described his contemporaries as “shutting their eyes and professing to believe what they do not
 rushing blindly together in herds”.’
Plus ça change, etc…

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

This column is more a reflection of the writer’s mind than that of Dickens.
Few authors have given me more pleasure than Dickens.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Blank

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

Then there was the time that Dickens was sick at work at the blacking factory and the kid next to him, D*** Fagin, laid him down on the straw, and took him home after work.
Yeah, thanks Chuck, D*** Fagin might have said, for making me into a monstrous villain, Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods.
But hey, nobody’s perfect, right, Boris?

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Chantrill
N T
N T
2 years ago

I’ll say it: Dickens is presumptively-imposed sadistic punishment on undeserving children.