Blog from February, 2010

Hey, Victorianists. Here are some resources that you might find useful in conjunction with Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Some of the links below point to earlier blogposts. (The Alice books are usually on my syllabus for English 170 as well as English 315.)

Boingboing founder Cory Doctorow has posted a podcast of a new steampunk story titled "Clockwork Fagin".

Update (9-2-14): The Fathom website has been discontinued, but Patten's seminar is still available, for now, through the website of the New York Public Library.


Robert L. Patten, a distinguished Dickens scholar and expert on the history of authorship and publishing in the nineteenth century, offers a concise yet comprehensive online "seminar" on the question, "When Is a Book Not a Book?" centered on Oliver Twist.

The seminar is in five parts on the website of Fathom, Columbia University's online archive of learning resources.

The seminar takes up many of the themes we've explored in our discussion of Oliver Twist in English 315: the special relationship to audience created by serial publication; the multiple voices or discourses that speak simultaneously in Dickens's narrative; the relationship of Oliver Twist to traditions of moral story-telling and melodrama; the novel's various dimensions of comedy, thriller, and political tract; and the complexity of Dickens's characterization.

But the special value of Patten's seminar lies in his demonstration that a full understanding of these matters requires us to see the continuity between Oliver Twist and the other content appearing alongside it in Bentley's Miscellany, where it first appeared. Thinking of Oliver Twist as a "book" is misleading, because our concept of the book imposes borders on Dickens's content that simply didn't exist for his readers.

For precisely this reason, Patten's analysis is of equal importance for our discussion, in English 170, of the New Criticism. New Criticism theorizes the work of literary art as a free-standing, self-sufficient verbal object; under Patten's inspection, Dickens's Oliver Twist looks very different from that description.

It's not long at all, and it's highly illuminating. Have a look.

Resources for Oliver Twist

Here are some sites that can help enrich your reading of Dickens's Oliver Twist:

  • Judaism in Nineteenth-Century England: A Chronology — a brief but useful chronology from the excellent Victorian Web
  • Newgate novel — Wikipedia entry on a genre of novel popular at the time Dickens published Oliver Twist, a genre with which Dickens's novel has some interesting similarities but also important differences.
  • Plan of the gradual abolition of the Poor Laws proposed — excerpt from the 1823 edition of Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (first published in 1798). Malthus's view of the poor laws was a crucial influence on the creation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, to which Dickens was responding with Oliver Twist.
  • The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (29-37), indirectly invoked by Dickens in his description of a button on Mr. Bumble's coat in chapter 4 (37-38).

Also, here's a connection between the stark opening of David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist and Dickens's novel. As Oliver leaves the baby farm to return, with Bumble, to the parish workhouse, the narrator remarks, "Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank in to the child's heart for the first time" (24). It's the "loneliness" of Oliver's mother "in the great wide world" that Lean chooses to depict in his opening sequence — an interesting choice — and Lean drives the point home not only through the image of a tiny figure dwarfed by the natural landscape (about 1:50 in), but also through the earlier image (just after 1:25 in) of that single leaf dropping from the barren branch. Give it another look:

Feeding stray animals

Oliver Twist was published serially in 1836-37. Just a few years before, in 1834, Parliament had passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, sometimes known simply as the New Poor Law. The law changed the conditions under which the poor could receive public assistance, or "relief." Perhaps the two most noteworthy aspects of the law were these:

  • The law reversed a centuries-old assumption (dating to the time of Queen Elizabeth) that public assistance for individuals in financial distress was a right or (as we would these days say) an "entitlement."
  • The law set about actively to discourage the poor from seeking public assistance through the principle of "less-eligibility"; that is, the principle that the condition of the person receiving relief should be "less eligible" than that of a person earning the lowest possible wage.

One way that the less-eligibility principle was realized was by requiring those receiving relief to do so "indoors" — that is, by entering a workhouse or (in the disparaging terminology of the poor themselves) a "poor law Bastille," where shelter and food, deliberately kept minimal and unappealing, had to be "earned" by labor. Families inside the workhouse were broken up. Inhabitants were required to wear coarse clothing.

It's not our purpose in English 315 to reach political conclusions about the past or present. However, two facts must be noted. First, Charles Dickens found the 1834 poor law abhorrent and set out, in Oliver Twist, to attack it. Second, the thinking behind the poor law remains very much alive today. See, for example, this recent news story about Lt. Governor Andre Bauer of South Carolina, who compares providing government assistance to "feeding stray animals."