The overwhelming popularity which greeted Dickens’ Oliver Twist in 1838 may elicit the belief that all readers reacted with similar admiration and enthusiasm; however, in light of the ongoing debate surrounding the New Poor Law, nothing could be farther from the truth. Dickens’ shocking representation of the unbearable conditions in the workhouses became both a means to advocate social reform, and a subject of derision to those who opposed the ascent of the lower class, making Oliver Twist an axis for controversy.
Those reviews which applaud Oliver Twist commend Dickens for his realism and honesty in the novel’s reflection of Victorian society, as well as for his incomparable ability to create consistently lifelike characters. John Forster insists, “…the absolute truth and precision of its delineation are not to be disputed. And truly, where the object of a writer is exact description, the characteristics of humanity…Indeed we wish that all history were written in the spirit of Oliver Twist’s history.” (Norton 399) Forster very decidedly uses the term history in discussing Oliver’s tale, even going so far as to claim, “In his writing we find reality,” to emphasize his belief in the absolute truth of Oliver’s experience. (Norton 400)
The Literary Gazette showers Dickens with praise for his morally motivated exposure of the workhouse conditions, “[Dickens] has dug deep into the human mind; and he has nobly directed his energies to the exposure of evils—the workhouse, the starving school, the factory system, and many other things, at which blessed nature shudder and recoiled.” Astonished and gratified by Dickens’ moral contributions, the Gazette goes on to declare, “As a moralist and reformer of cruel abuses…long may he live to increase our debt of gratitude!”(Norton, 402) Many readers, especially those most familiar with the workhouses and the lives of the poor, shared in this fervent sentiment.
But some are not so easily convinced of Dickens’ honesty, or choose not to be. Richard Ford, perhaps one of Dickens’ most vehement critics, adopts the staunch position that Dickens’ representation of the New Poor Law is grossly exaggerated and even dishonestly concocted in order to stir political action. Ford alleges, “The abuses which he ridicules are not only exaggerated, but in nineteen cases out of twenty do not at all exist.” (Norton 407) He asserts that the workhouses and their proprietors are being attacked by Dickens, “and in our opinion with much unfairness.” Ford uses the phrase “our opinion” because he identifies with the upper class, which is arguably responsible for the abuse of the poor, and therefore more than willing to sweep the issue under the rug entirely. Ford’s rebuttal should be interpreted with the knowledge that his position in society was one of considerable status, being the son of a parliament member and son-in-law to the Earl of Essex; his social position would have made it all too tempting to turn a blind eye towards that least appealing section of the social strata.
Dickens was not deterred in the slightest by adverse response; in fact, he chose to turn these reactions to his advantage, using them to validate the importance of the tale. In the preface of the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens responds to his critics, “I am glad to have it doubted, for in that circumstance I find sufficient assurance that it needed to be told.” (Norton 7) Nearly a decade later, Dickens claimed another opportunity to address his opposition directly. In the preface of the 1850 publication, or “cheap edition” of Oliver Twist, he writes, “Eleven or twelve years have elapsed, since the description was first published. I was as convinced then, as I am now, that nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome.” (Preface) This edition was released at a lower cost than previous editions in order to reach a wider audience. Dickens clearly wanted Oliver Twist to be read as a testimony of fact, with the intention of encouraging improvements to the living situation of the poor. These responses show that Dickens had a continuing conversation with his audience, whether they be supporters or critics, and viewed any opportunity to address them as invaluable.
Original manuscript of 1850 edition of Oliver Twist showing Dickens’ handwritten preface
The conversation surrounding the rights of the poor expanded during and following the publishing of Oliver Twist as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany. The mass of loyal readers following Dickens’ writing from the mid 1830’s onward not only created financial security for the author; but also ensured that Dickens’ moral beliefs on the subject of poverty were well known and respected by many for an extended period of time. These same readers in the next few years made up the population which was driving a Victorian political action known as the Chartist Movement. Although it would be nearly impossible to prove a causal link between the publishing of Oliver Twist between 1837 and 1839 and the birth of Chartism in 1838, it is very reasonable to argue that the two are intertwined.
Dickens’ moral beliefs are reflected in the mantra of the Chartists, who in a national protest, fought for suffrage for the common man, as well as equal representation in the House of Commons. The movement began with the publication of “The People’s Charter” in 1838, and continued for roughly twenty years. The charter’s heading included six simple demands for the House of Commons: universal suffrage (for men of course), that no property qualifications would be required to vote, annually elected parliaments, equal representation according to population in each district, payment of the members of parliament (that working men may hold an office), and voting to be conducted by secret ballot in order to eliminate the coercion of voters. (People’s Charter) These goals were intended to give the working and lower classes a voice in the society which seemed so bent on their suppression, an ambition which Dickens no doubt supported.
Despite Dickens’ surging popularity, his commentary and criticism of the New Poor Law drew both praise and derision from his contemporaries, as seen in a number of prominent literary publications such as The Examiner and The Quarterly Review. While Oliver Twist may not have had a tangible, immediate effect on working class living conditions, it provided the impetus for discussion among prominent public figures. Dickens instigated a discussion which would continue for several decades, and eventually lead, however indirectly, to meaningful changes in the everyday lives of the English poor.
Blog Post By: Hannah Glaser
Group Members: Colin Peartree, Michael Stoianoff, Kevin O’Connor, Michael Adams
Dickens, Charles, Fred Kaplan, John Forster, and Richard Ford. Oliver Twist: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Early Reviews, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.
Dickens, Charles. “Preface to the ‘Cheap Edition’ of Oliver Twist.” Preface to the ‘Cheap Edition’ of Oliver Twist. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/dickens/campaigning/manuscript/olivertwist.html
“The People’s Charter.” The People’s Charter. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/struggle/chartists1/historicalsources/source4/peoplescharter.html
What can we say about the moral stance in Oliver Twist based on how the moral situations, decisions, and statements that we see among the characters are presented to the reader?