Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist and Victorian London

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

The Victorian Scene

The Victorian period was called so after Victoria of Hanover, who was Queen of Great Britain from 1837 until 1901 and who embodied the success of industrial England (see the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1815) and of its colonial expansion (Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877).

Queen Victoria set the pattern for a life of external conformity and dignified standard of fear of being rejected by society if one broke its strict moral codes.

In the second half of the century the technological an scientific discoveries and the theories on the origin of man (Charles Darwin, The origin of the Species) set a new mode of reasoning that challenged the role of religion and the authority of the Bible, offering a rational explanation for everything. Side by side with people conscious of the new atmosphere were authors who put themselves at the centre of their own world and called it beauty, making of Beauty their Goddess, their faith and their defence from the ugliness of Industrial England.

The Age of Reforms  

Queen Victoria ascended the throne when the age of reforms had just begun, the turning point being the Reform Act of 1834 (regulating lections and constituencies). The industrial policy based on the division of labour and free trade (laissez faire) had not benefited the masses and had often exacerbated social problems such urbanization, the living conditions and exploitation of the workers. From 1833, on the wake of the Reform Act, a series of bills were passed in Parliament, intended to improve the standards of life and work of the majority of the population (Factory Laws, Education Bills, Dwelling and Health Acts). The ideas stated in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and in Das Capital (1867) by Karl Marx contributed to set the rights of the working classes and to see them recognised. Before the end of the century, the trade Unions (organisations of workers) were able to express their own party, the Labour Party, and to elect a representative in Parliament (1893).

The Empire  

In the second half of the century, during the Conservative Ministries (Disraeli), England became the foremost political power in the world and gradually consolidated her empire, which eventually extended from Canada to New Zealand, including South Africa, India, Australia and a number of islands in the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

Involved in the Crimean War (1854-56) in defence of the Ottoman Empire against Russia, England was slightly touched by the American Civil War (1861-65). Fought in India and in Sudan (1863-82), and, at the close of the century, was still engaged in the Boer War, South Africa (1882-1902)

Art And Literature
Prose, both fictional (novels, short stories and serials) and non-fictional (newspapers and magazines) became the most popular instrument to awaken Victorian public opinion to the problems and social necessities of the time. The Victorians, as a whole, were not particularly interested in art or activities that had no utilitarian purpose. However, from the 5os to the 70s, some writers felt the need to return art to simplicity, emotional sincerity and above all beauty. Among them John Ruskin (1819-1900) who believed that the sources of art lie in the moral nature of the artist; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including poets and painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Morris (1834-1894) whose main aim was to reproduce the emotional purity and the precision of detail typical of the Italian paintings of the Middle Ages (e.g. by Giotto and Leonardo Da Vinci); Algernon Swimburne (1837-1909) who expressed in his poems a kind of “paganism” indifferent to the moral issues of love and centred on pleasure and the joys of passion; Walter Pater 81839-1834) who stood for a form of Renaissance “paganism”, claiming that man’s happiness lies in the perfect and complete enjoyment of something beautiful, be it a work of art or any other experience of the senses.

By the 1880s the Aesthetic Movement came into being and Oscar Wilde was its recognised leader. The Motto “Art for Art’s Sake” implied that Art was to be the supreme aspiration, subject to no moral, didactic or practical purpose: is purpose was to exist only for the sake of its own beauty.

Charles Dickens

Life and works

1812: Charles Dickens was born at Landport, Hampshire. His father is a clerk in the Navy Pay Officer at Portsmouth. The family soon moves to live in London. Charles is unusually precocious child.

1821: His father debts become urgent and the family has to economise.

1823-24: Charles is going to school, but when his father is imprisoned the child has to earn his living in a blacking factory working from morning till night.

1824: Charles goes back to school because family affairs seem to improve, but soon he decides to go to work in a lawyer’s office. Then he begins to work as a parliamentary reporter.

1833: He publishes Dinner at poplar Walk and starts writing for the Monthly Magazine

1836: he publishes Sketches by Boz and joins the staff of the Morning Chronicle, a daily newspaper with a high reputation. In the same year the publishers Chapman and Hall commission him a text to be published monthly. Dickens writes the first instalment of Pickwick Papers.He marries Catherine Hoggard, the daughter of his editor.

1838: Oliver Twist appears

1839:  Nicholas Nickleby is published: it is about cruelties on children.

1841:  He publishes Barnaby Rudge, an historical novel on crimes and violence and The Old Curiosity Shop.

1842:  Dickens goes to America. When he returns he publishes American Notes.

1843:  the writer begins a series of Christmas Books with A Christmas Carol (they will last till 1848)

1844:  Martin Chuzzlewit appears. It is about slavery and materialism.

1844-45:  He spends most of his time abroad, in Italy and France.

1846:  he publishes Pictures from Italy

1848:  The novel Dombey and Son appears. He publishes the first instalment of David Copperfield, an autobiographical work.

1853:  Bleak House is published. It is a novel of social criticism. He starts helping the Italian refugees

1850-1865:  the author writes hard Times, A tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. All of these novels are pervaded by a sense of depression and stress.

1850:  Dickens In this same period, in fact, he stars suffering from lameness that is the first sign of the paralysis. His nervous strain becomes excessive and he never recovers from the shock of a railway accident.
However, he goes on travelling to Paris and America, giving lectures on his works.

1869:  Dickens attempts his first mystery story, Edwin Drood, but collapses and does not finish it.

1870:  the writer dies and is buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.



Oliver is born in a pauper home and his mother dies giving him light. When he is at the age of six, he goes to work in a working house. Starving and beaten, he asks for more soup and is sent to work outside, in an undertaker’s. There he is ill-treated by Noah, a young man jealous of him and he escapes to London. There he comes under the eyes of Fagin the Jew, master teacher of pickpockets. He is caught by the police and placed in the home of Mr. Brownlow. But Oliver is found by the gang and forced to accompany Sykes, the housebreaker. On his first assignment, Oliver enters the house and tries to warn the people inside. He is shot while the other burglars run away. Mrs. Maylie and her adopted daughter Rose take care of Oliver.

At the end the situation evolves: Oliver is the son of a girl, sister of Mr. Brownlow’s best friend. Fagin’s gang is caught; Nancy helps the gentleman to get Oliver but is murdered by Sikes who dies while escaping.

Dickens’s world is humble; it is a world of prisons, low officers, and taverns in a dark, foggy atmosphere. He creates unforgettable scenes and caricatural drawings. Social classes are well depicted, in particular the lower-middle class that knows about the situation of poor people, but do not sympathise with them. The upper-middle classes provide virtuous characters, but their charity has not a real impact on the vast problems of the 19th century in London underworld, that frightened and fascinated the Victorians. The various moments of the day seem to be strictly connected with the steps of the protagonist’s life. Many scenes take place during dark and foggy nights or at dawn when people begin to work in market places amid the early midst. London is the place that unifies this novel based on the contrapposition between rich and poor people, between the macabre atmosphere that the characters breath in the underworld and the sweetness of the domestic scenes representative of good society protected by hard work. But people find real tranquillity in the country -side: all the characters settle, at the end, in villages not far fromthe city, nevertheless far from the contradictions that it implies, in a domestic life based on simplicity.
Dickens’s characters are really humorous; sometimes they represent the exaggeration of one human quality. He draws pleasant little caricatures and indulges on children’s descriptions. His ability consists mainly in portraying adults through the children’s eyes and points of view.

Main Characters

Oliver Twist Oliver’s most evident characteristic is a devastating loneliness that prevents him from developing any personality at the beginning. He has no identity: his name is invented (Twist means to distort, to change suddenly and its life is rich in turning points), he has no clothes and is without friends. In his life, Oliver meets two sorts of people: the kin magistrate that takes interest in the boy, the gentleman that takes care of him and the greedy poor that wants to apprentice him. Between these two sorts of types there are the lower middle-class figures, callous and heartless. Oliver possesses a greater sensitivity that in a poor is out of place and he is often punished for this. The boy has not a childhood: Dick is the only friend that reminds him his early years. Oliver’s innocence falls into Fagin’s hands. The old Jew tries to mould him, but the child remains totally innocent, an entirely good boy in a criminal world. Till the end, in fact, Dickens, keeps awake the anguish of the reader about his destiny: Oliver is alone in this band of thieves, far from his natural milieu of good and kind people. Only among them he could develop his personality. In fact he is created by showing his reactions to all experiences and the people he meets: he does not speak and the author does not give out any personal comment.

The Bumbles These figures supply to Dickens the opportunity to give voice to the resentment of the honest working classes against the new tendency of petty officials that tyrannise under the excuse of administrating them.The author stresses the exploitation of the children by corrupted and inefficient officers of the old Poor Law that only manage to keep their jobs in the new workhouses.
He is one of the characters on which Dickens uses his irony heavily. Mr. Bumble is funny: he tries to tyrannise poor defenceless children and is exploited and ill-treated by his wife on his turn. The writer is anyway careful in never permitting the reader to forget how harmful his words and actions are to Oliver.
His wife is even worse: she is the one who moves the threads of poor Oliver’s life keeping contact with Monks and trying to hide the boy’s real identity.
Their name has an onomatopoeic sound: it seems the verse of a humming bee.

The band of thieves The joyful facade of the band of pickpockets covers their loneliness. This band lives in an alienated society, with its own hierarchy, but the main concern of each of them is about themselves.
In some curious ways, Fagin’s court, compared with the workhouse of Mr. Bumble, has a sort of ghastly gayety and liveliness in spite of its squalor and meanness. This makes the genteel characters far less impressing and interesting

Fagin Fagin, the old Jew, reminds us the Gothic villain. He has a foxy relationship with the boys he takes in: he pretends to care for them, but he trains them as thieves and hopes they are quickly hanged if they are caught. A way he uses to exploit and to control them and the prostitutes is alcohol.
This figure is useful to underline one of the most important themes in the novel, the isolation of the evil person. Even Bill and Nancy dislike him because of Fagin’s complete lack of human affection.
Fagin never really acts, he incites and direct the others towards evil actions (his name derives from the verb to fag, that means to make weary).
He is the stereotyped caricature of the red-haired dirty and skinny Jew (and reminds, as to the physical description, Scott’s In Ivanhoe )
At first Fagin, seems to be a theatrical, cartoon-like figure, but gradually his descent to evil and to sin is put more and more in evidence.He often blackmails his victims easily because he feels no passions. His only concern is for himself. At the end, when justice triumph and he is condemned to death, he is frightened by his end almost to be paralysed, and the reader can but feels pity for him and for his sins.

Dodger and Charley Bates. The children do not feel sympathy or pity for poor Oliver or for each other: the ties among thieves are just casual.

Monk He is not a real character, but belongs to those evil figures that appear distortion of human nature. His real name is Edward Leefort, but his nickname cast a sinister light on his actions from the very beginning.

Sikes Sikes is another figure unable to show gratitude or affection. His violent nature leads him to solitude, to an existence without love. Nancy haunts him after he has murdered her, but because of the cruelty of the crime as he never understand her faithfulness and affection for him.

Noah and Charlotte
They are a stupid couple that parallels Nancy and Sikes. But Charlotte has got a great admiration for Noah that ill-treats her and does not seek for redemption, following her lover in his vile activities.

Middle-class people, Oliver’s protectors

Mr. Brownlow He represents the sure respectability and is seen by Oliver like a good teacher. Only gradually he is described with his passions and affects. Mr. Brownlow is kind and generous, but severe when he has to face evil.

Mr. Grmming He is a testy gentleman that does not trust people.

Harry Maylie  He is a functional character, not very realistic. He puts in evidence Rose Maylie’s condition as a woman, victim of the Victorian morality.

Women Women condition is a different chapter in Dicken’s fictional world. Often they are victims because subjected to the middle-class rules and have to suffer from prejudices. They cannot rebel, and have to accept their fate with resignation. Rose and Fanny are two sides of the same warm nature. The difference is that Nancy is a fallen woman, a sinner, and Rose lives in the serenity of her class.

Nancy. The girl really feels pity for Olive’s situation and defends him even if she is frightened by the menaces of the people around her. The sadness of her fate lies not only on her death, but on the lack of love: she struggles to express her maternal feeling to Oliver, but knows she has no hope for children, no hope for redemption.

Rose Maylie She is a virtuous, good-natured woman that suffers as a victim of the rules of the middle-cassias. Her origins are of a wealthy, decent family, but the death of her parents and the fall of her sister have degraded her innocence. Harry can marry her only if he renounces to his political career.

Mrs Maylie  Harry’s mother is a more convincing character: generous, ready to help who needs, without great changes or (slanci)

The dead  Dead people seem to protect and lead the victims of evil with their unknown presence. Oliver perceives his mother’s love, Agnes that is like Nancy: she has suffered the consequences of an unworthy love. The people that keep her secret are haunted by her memory.
Dick’s figure follows and helps Oliver representing his lost childhood.
Brownlow is led to help Oliver because of the resemblance of the boy to the lady of the portrait.
Nancy prosecutes Sikes’s last days.

Sources Dickens’s life deeply influenced his works. In his novels there are references to his years of poverty and to his father’s imprisonment; to his years as a journalist and to his love for the historical works, to his experience as a parliamentary reporter, to his journey in America and to his divorce.
He neither followed Benthams theories that valued things and people only if useful (poor corrupt themselves as often as rich people do) nor the Marxist view of the society.
The Victorian accepted the idea of death without questioning it. Thousand poor children died before the age of nine; the survivor had very brutal lives. Henry Mayhew, a social critic, estimated that only one-third of the poor people were partially employed, another one-third were wholly unemployed.

About 12,000 individuals in London saw crime as a career and children began their career at the age of six or seven helped by adult thieves. Dickens tried to defend these neglected people introducing them into novels. He underlines how children are vulnerable without a real guide and help. This is another autobiographical experience as it is his anger against people charged and awaiting for a trial. The injustice of magistrates offends him and he openly attacks the courts.
Comment The secret of Dickens’s popularity lies in an immense vitality. He was a realist, but in a limited sense. His world is mainly a humble one and all his novels are animated by a sense of injustice: he is concerned with the problems of crime and poverty, but he seems to think that matters can’’ be improved. Essentially he was a creative, humorous and fantastic, a master of grotesque.
Dickens’s imaginative sympathy is for the poor, human, suffering creatures. His idealism tends to remain on the beauty of human pathos and to evolve sentimental types akin in taste.
B. Allen underlines his greatness as a poet: he has an easy command of words, rhythm and images.
The public he wrote for was largely a new public brought to consciousness by the industrial revolution. The readers were augmented thanks to the libraries and the journalism and dickens identified himself with this public.
He had a sense of an audience intimate relation with him. His works published in instalments had to come to a climax of superficiality so that the fluctuations of public demand tended to dictate the course future actions would take.
He attacked the injustices of the Poor Law, the delays in the administration of the justice, the cruelty of schoolmasters.
He gave voice to the public’s doubts and fears and was conscious of the tensions of his time, the gap between middle and working classes.
Nevertheless, he accepted the society in which he lived. And the idea of respectability and honesty in behaviour.
Dickens is often accused of sentimentality, but he never really allows his poor characters a heroic virtue. Only Oliver is given an urge to live that protects and helps him.
The writer was able at creating complex plots: Oliver Twist is a story full of subplots probably because he started writing for magazines. He was not ashamed of being a popular entertainer.
Oliver Twist can be considered a Newgate crime novel, but with a great force, a force due to Dickens’s love for the theatre. His melodramatic ability probably led him to write episodes rich in coincidences.


Dickens’ cities Dickens, because of the childhood trauma caused by his father’s imprisonment for debt and his consignment to the blacking factory to help support his family, was a true champion to the poor. He repeatedly pointed out the atrocities of the system through his novels.
Dickens wrote at a time of intense change in London and this change can be seen in the progress of his novels. His descriptions of nineteenth century London permit the readers to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the old city.
Victorian London was the largest, most spectacular city in the world. While Britain was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, its capital was both collecting the benefits and suffering the consequences. In 1800 the population of London was around a million souls and increased to 4.5 million by 1880. Perhaps the biggest impact on the growth of London was the coming of the railroad in the 1830s which dislocated thousands and accelerated the expansion of the city. The price of this explosive growth and domination of world trade was great squalor and filth.
Homes The homes of the upper and middle class were built near areas of unbelievable poverty and rich and poor lived together in the crowded city streets. The chimney pots were polluting with coal smoke and in many parts of the city raw dirt flowed into the Thames. Pick-pockets, prostitutes, drunks, beggars, and vagabonds of every description add to the colorful multitude.
Sanitary conditions Personal cleanliness was not a big priority. Until the second half of the 19th century London residents were still drinking water from the Thames. Several outbreaks of Cholera in the mid 19th century, along with The Great Stink of 1858, when the disgusting odor of the Thames caused Parliament to stop, brought a cry for action. The link between drinking water and the incidence of disease slowly oppressed the Victorians.
The law The Metropolitan Police, London’s first police force, was created by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (hence the name Peelers and, eventually, Bobbies) in 1829 with headquarters in what would become known as Scotland Yard. The old London watch system, in effect since Elizabethan times, was then abolished.
The Poor In 1834 the parliament enacted the New Poor Law. The new law required parishes to group together and create regional workhouses where assistance could be applied for. The workhouse was little more than a prison for the poor. Civil liberties were denied, families were separated, and human dignity was destroyed.