An exhibition at the Dickens Museum has opened about Charles Dicken’s second novel as a full-time writer, which was also probably his second most famous novel, after a Christmas Carol.
A Parish Boy’s Progress is also rather better known as Oliver Twist, and even if you’ve never read it, you probably know the story and some of its famous lines as they’ve become part of the wider English culture.
“Please, sir, I want some more”
Society already had plenty of Dickens when Oliver Twist was being serialised though, with other short stories also being published at the same time. There was a flood of Dickens going on, and it’s a sign of how good Oliver Twist was that it managed to rise above this deluge of “Boz” that was flooding the printers.
Oliver Twist was first serialised in monthly parts in Bentley’s Miscellany, which sold an average of 6,000 copies an issue, before going on to be sold as a stand-alone novel.
More than most at the time though, Dickens also wrote with a social conscience, and highlighted the aspects of London life that many people either didn’t know about or prefered to pretend didn’t exist.
“[I read it] in a state of hot horror. It seized me because it was about London and the fears of London streets. There were big boys at school who could grow-up to be the Artful Dodger; many of us could have been Oliver… [in Dickens] I saw myself and my life in London” Victor Pritchard.
A large map of London lets you locate Oliver Twist in the real places that Dickens often adapted for his novels, which only added to the social awareness of poverty and deprivation that he tried to push with his writing.
The book was soon turned into plays, and a bill poster for one of the more popular adaptions is possibly more interesting for the use of a nickname, for Chas. Dickens.
The story is also endlessly adaptable, for stage and screen, and not even just humans – as the exhibition shows a Disney version with Oliver turned into a cat.
And not just for performances, as so colourful are the characters that they became collectable in their own right, with a huge range of toys, models and players cards produced. It seems curious that a story about poverty can become a popular culture rather than the damning indictment on society that it should be, but that’s the cleverness of Dickens, weaving a morality tale into something that then becomes popular.
A controversy that cannot be overlooked is Fagin being shown as a Jew. Even at the time, when “the jew” was a common saying, it was a controversial choice, and the Jewish Chronicle newspaper published an article asking why Jews were excluded from Dickens usually “sympathising heart”.
Dickens did later alter the text slightly to remove references to “the jew”, and stopped using Jewish mannerisms in his public performances, but the image has stuck regardless.
One of the most memorable scenes in the novel, the murder of Nancy by Sikes was not originally included in Dicken’s public performances as he was concerned about how the public might react, but after a private showing in 1868 that he tried it, to popular acclaim.
The exhibition includes an invitation to that first private showing, which is on display for the very first time.
However, acting the scene seriously stressed the ageing Dickens and doctors were on hand to monitor his pulse during what was billed as his farewell tour. The stresses on him saw the tour cancelled, and after he recovered in 1870 he resumed them but was unable to continue beyond May. He died the following month.
There’s long been a debate about whether adding that dramatic murder to his tours killed the author who created it.
The exhibition, Exhibition: More! Oliver Twist, Dickens and Stories of the City is open at the Charles Dickens Museum until 17th October.
Entry to the exhibition and museum costs £9.50 for adults, £7.50 for concessions and £4.50 for children 6-16. Children under 6 years are free.
Tickets need to be booked in advance from here.