Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor

Sketches of a street where Boz grew up - and a place that scarred him - captivate Valerie Sanders

March 1, 2012

The opening ceremonies of the jolly Dickens Bicentenary-Diamond-Jubilee-Olympics are over: the crucial adjacent anniversaries of 6 and 7 February have been duly marked, with months of partying and flag-waving still to come. If anything, we know less about the living monarch than we do about the nation's favourite dead author bar Shakespeare, but Ruth Richardson's widely publicised study of Dickens' experience of living nine doors away from a workhouse in central London reopens the story of his early life, and with it the mysteriousness of his formative years. Richardson freely admits that the book was rushed out for the bicentenary, but its conception dates back to 2010, when she was invited to help save the Cleveland Street workhouse from threatened demolition. As she explains, one thing led to another - chiefly the discovery that Dickens twice lived nearby at 10 Norfolk Street - and the result is a detailed reconstruction of the intertwined stories of author, street and neighbourhood culture from 1815 to 1838.

The strangest thing about Norfolk Street is that Dickens was so secretive about having lived there. His two (admittedly brief) sojourns, in 1815-16 and again from 1829 to 1831, arose from his father's habit of moving from one place to another fairly rapidly for reasons of debt as well as employment. Given that Dickens was similarly silent about his "blacking warehouse" experience when the family home was the Marshalsea debtors' prison, was his reticence about Norfolk Street motivated by a similar kind of shame about origins? Or, speculates Richardson, had it to do with a shady transaction involving a thieving nurse, a dead pauper and a jewellery theft like the one from Oliver Twist's mother?

Richardson's approach in this meticulously exact evocation of the district, fully illustrated with her own photographs of street corners, stairways and windowpanes, is to imagine what it must have felt like being Dickens living above Mr Dodd's the cheesemonger's, first as a small child and then as an ambitious young reporter. Where facts are lacking, Richardson conjectures that "Little Charles was probably taken for walks in all directions from Norfolk Street, but probably avoiding St Giles"; or he might have "run round to get a loaf, a hot pie for supper, or a treat of gingerbread". By extension she wonders whether Mr Dodd had his own personalised paper for wrapping butter and cheese. Above all, she wonders what the impressionable young Dickens thought of the great looming workhouse with its pauper funerals and infamous "new-modelled diet table", with gruel through the week and cheese on Saturdays (perhaps from Mr Dodd's shop?).

This, of course, is where the book is heading. Did Dickens' uncomfortably close proximity to the Cleveland Street workhouse help shape Oliver Twist's pitiful request for more? And not just this, but all those other episodes in Dickens' novels where a young boy squirms at the remembrance of his inferior origins, his too-close familiarity with the blacksmith's forge, the thieves' den, the low streets, the blacking warehouse and the corner shop owned by someone with a homely name?

If the first half of this book seems at times too fixated on street names and sightlines, the second makes a powerful case for Richardson's workhouse being the workhouse - the clincher coming with the revelation that the local oilman's shop was owned by one Mr William Sykes. How could Dickens not be outraged by the starvation diet and the bodysnatching of pauper corpses for medical dissection? "The street and its vicinity held his life in its grasp," claims Richardson, which seems doubtful at first until the evidence stacks up. At the very least it makes the reader want to wander through Marylebone, as Richardson did, seeing what she saw, and marvelling that we knew nothing of any of this until now.

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor

By Ruth Richardson

Oxford University Press

408pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780199645886

Published 2 February 2012

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