I was born in Landport, Portsmouth on the seventh of February 1812. My parents are John and Elizabeth and I was christened Charles. I was nine years of age when I first started attending the William Giles School in Chatham. My father, John was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison for debt I was sent to a workhouse called Warren’s Blacking factory. I was twelve years of age. Seeing such poverty after being brought up in the middle class was a shock and memories from those times have haunted me ever since. During my time at the factory I earned very little. “I am not sure whether it was six or seven shillings.
I am inclined to believe, from my uncertainty on this head, that it was six at first and seven afterwards.” 1 When I was old enough I started work as an attorney’s clerk. This was another point in my life when I was exposed to the cruelty of the rich poor divide. These experiences were what inspired me to write my novels informing other middle and upper class of this poverty. I met my wife, Catherine in the year of 1834 and became engaged to her one year afterwards. When did you write Oliver Twist and what influenced you?
I began writing Oliver Twist in 1836 but it was only published in 1837. It was on January the eighteenth I told my publisher I had “hit upon a capital notion” 2 There were a lot of influences which inspired me to write this novel, the main one being my time spent in the workhouse. I knew that virtually none of the middle and upper classes really understood what went on in the workhouses so I wrote this book to educate them, to open their eyes to the tortures of being poor. Also my time working as a clerk in a solicitor’s office opened me up to a lot of information on the Poor Laws and how lower class people were acted towards.
What was happening in England at the time of writing Oliver Twist? In 1834 the New Poor Law was introduced and as a result of this thousands more workhouses were being built up and down the country. People who were poor, old and sick were sent to work there even though it was a place they feared. These changes encouraged me even more to write this novel. What is your greatest achievement as a writer?
I am extremely pleased that my novels are still being read and enjoyed more than 150 years after they were originally written and published but I am even more pleased that people can still find meaning in them. But despite that I believe my greatest achievement is to have my novels being converted into musicals, films, and theatre productions. It means that no matter what language you speak, what class you are from or how literate you are you have access to my writings and are able to understand them.
What themes have you used in the novel and why? Were they successful? I wanted to show readers the notoriety of the rich poor divide and its effects. I wanted to illustrate the depths of the crimes committed by the poor in order for them to live but I think the main theme I have used is that good will always triumph over evil and I think the prominence of this theme is apparent throughout the novel. It tells people that if they have a kind and loving heart then they will be better off in the end unlike if you are cold, heartless and selfish like Fagin who gets hanged near the end of the novel.
I also wanted to show my readers that the justice system does not alter people. This came across well in Rose’s speech before the court, “‘But even if he has been wicked,’ pursed Rose, ‘think how young he is, think that he may never have known a mother’s love, or the comfort of a home, and that ill-usage and blows, or the want of bread, may have driven him to herd with men who have forced him to guilt. Aunt, dear aunt, for mercy’s sake, think of this, before you let them drag this sick child to a prison, which in any case must be the grave of all his chances of amendment.'” 3 There are also many minor themes, such as, the Poor Laws, poverty, crime in general, prostitution and economic disparity.
Would you say the themes are still relevant to today’s audiences and if so why? I think they are important from a historical aspect as they can educate the readers about life under Queen Victoria’s reign but they are also very important in the modern world as it is still important to have morals and stick to them and most of the themes I use have moral aspects to them. Were you writing this novel as a critique of society and if so why? I was not writing to specifically ‘review’ our society, but to teach the upper class of the effects of their actions on the lower class so, I suppose that in a way I was being a critique of society. I was trying to use literature to have a positive effect on the lives of the poor.
What did you want the original audience to think about the main characters and the interactions between them, and is this the same for today’s readers? I wanted the original audience to be affected by what I wrote and for it to have a positive impact on their lives. I wanted for them to be understanding of the lower class and to change their actions towards them for the better. I wanted them to be more considerate of the working class and to be lenient in court and in the workhouse.
Where did you set Oliver Twist and why did you choose this setting? I chose to set Oliver Twist in London, as at the time, it was very much a place for rich people to live in luxury and for the poor to live in poverty along side each other. There was a very apparent rich poor separation and it was an ideal setting because during Oliver’s life he makes several ‘jumps’ from rich to poor. London was also, like any city during that period, full of crime.
The crime scene was vital for this novel as a major part of Oliver’s life was his involvement with Fagin’s pick-pocketing gang. In addition to that, London was a filthy city, as Oliver discovers in this passage, “Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention, he could not help bestowing a few hast glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy; and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.
There were a good few small shops, but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out of doors, or screaming from the inside. Covered ways and yards, which here and there and diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging; bound, to all appearances, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.”
Why do you think your work is still studied today by literature students? I think the style used in my books, once common in Victorian times, is very different to the styles used a lot in today’s literary works and therefore it is important for students to explore all different styles of writing. My works also contain hidden messages, which are important to anybody, especially the younger generation.
Oliver Twist teaches young people about justice and social justice, something people need to know about no matter what class they are or what era they come from. In this quote, today’s younger audience are taught that they do not only need to be aware of controlling their own wrongdoings but helping others amend their wrongdoings, “Oh! If when we oppress and grind our fellow creatures, we bestowed but one thought on the dark evidences of human error, which, like dense and heavy clouds, are rising, slowly it is true, but not less surely, to Heaven, to pour their after-vengeance on our heads; if we heard but one instant, in imagination, the deep testimony of dead men’s voices, which no power can stifle, and no pride shut out; where would be the injury and injustice, the suffering, misery, cruelty, and wrong, that each day’s life brings with it.”