WHEN CHARLES DICKENS WAS A BOY OF ABOUT TWELVE, HIS PARENTS left him hanging. He dangled between the vulnerabilities of boyhood and the responsibilities of life on his own in a rooming house in rough-and-tumble London. He traveled between his room and the Marshalsea prison, where his father had been locked away for debt and where all the family except Charles—in order that he earn his salary of about six shillings a week—had gone to live with him. Charles walked through teeming London to reach his place of work, Warren’s Blacking at 30 Hungerford Stairs. The factory was in an old house beside the Thames, and there he covered with paper the pots of stove blacking on which he then tied labels. A boy named Bob Fagin, also employed there, showed him how to do his work.
It was a “tumbledown old house,” he later wrote, “... literally overrun with rats.” He recalled them “swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times....” Oliver Twist will be imprisoned by a man named Fagin in a house quite like this one. Dickens never forgot this several months’ nightmare and in his maturity he would write: “My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man: and wander desolately back to that time of my life.”
So Charles Dickens was suspended by circumstance and sensibility between grown-up realities and a child’s fantasies, between security and the fairy-tale fear of abandonment that we find throughout his work and, surely, in Oliver Twist. He wrote about aspects of his life, and the realities conveyed by his fiction were matters to him, and to his readers, of life and death.
When he was in his twenties, Dickens was a reporter covering Parliamentary debates and important elections, but also writing columns about the parish officers called beadles whom he lampooned in his Bumble, and about slum Neighborhoods such as Seven Dials: “streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels”—neighborhoods such as Bill Sikes might have lived in, and such as young Charles Dickens might have walked through, frightened, on his way to work. These sketches were signed by Boz (Dickens’ boyhood family nickname), whose imagination was kindled by such grim, sorry scenes, and who used his journalistic experience to make his fiction burn bright.
In 1837, when he was twenty-five, he assumed the editorship of a new monthly magazine called Bentley’s Miscellany and his responsibilities included writing sixteen pages for each issue—which became the monthly parts of The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, published under his own name. He undertook this work while writing Sketches by Boz and the ongoing serial novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Containing A Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures, and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members, Edited by “Boz.” He was married to Catherine Hogarth, and they lived with her sister, Mary, at Doughty Street in London—and here, for the moment, we must leave them suspended.
In his preface to the 1841 Third Edition, one of many editions in book form published after the novel’s monthly serialization, Dickens says of it: “I confess I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil.” He also tells his readers that “I wished to show in little Oliver the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance and triumphing at last....” So we know that Dickens was working with opposing elements—“the vilest evil” as contrasted to “the purest good,” “the principle of Good.” He moves between these abstractions by juxtaposing Oliver with Bumble, then Oliver with Fagin, then Oliver with Brownlow or Rose, with Nancy or Sikes. He tests the absolute good, the innocent child, but he also tests Nancy and Fagin and Sikes to see what good there is in them. And he writes the “progress,” the life‘s-adventure of a flesh-and-blood child, someone who begins his existence in the first paragraph of the first chapter as an “item of mortality.”
The small boy, Dick, whose death Oliver mourns, is one of many dying and dead children whom Dickens employs as a source of purity and a