Table of Contents
As a child,
(1812-70) came to know not only hunger and privation, but also the horror of the infamous debtors’ prison and the evils of child labor. A surprise legacy brought release from the nightmare of prison and “slave” factories and afforded Dickens the opportunity of two years’ formal schooling. He taught himself shorthand and worked as a parliamentary reporter until his writing career took off with the publication of Sketches by Boz (1836) and
The Pickwick Papers
(1837). As a novelist and magazine editor, Dickens had a long run of serialized success through
Our Mutual Friend
(1864-65). In later years, ill health slowed him down, but he continued his popular dramatic readings from his fiction to an adoring public, which included Queen Victoria. At his death,
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
is the author of more than twenty works of fiction, including
Closing Arguments, Girls,
The Mutual Friend,
a novel about Charles Dickens. The winner of numerous awards, he is the Edgar W. B. Fairchild Professor Emeritus of Literature at Colgate University.
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First Signet Classics Printing, December 1961
First Signet Classics Printing (Busch Introduction), April 2005
Introduction copyright © Frederick Busch, 2005
Afterword copyright © New American Library a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 1961
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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
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
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 goad to the conscience of his readers. Victimized children, by-products of the Industrial Revolution, also occur with frequency in Dickens’ fiction. The protagonist of Little Dorrit, his great novel of 1857, is born in debtors’ prison; foreshadowing her, Oliver is born in the prisonlike conditions of the workhouse, not a place of work but a place for the destitute purposely made more harsh than comforting. Regulations were cruel and the food provided was sparse; the paupers seeking shelter were to be made uncomfortable so that they would be discouraged from entering the local parish workhouse and would, instead, seek employment. The assumption was that the poor evaded work, and little distinction was made between paupers who could work (whether they could find employment or not) and those who surely could not (small children, say, or the aged or ill). The sense of accusation in poorhouse regulations was part of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and
is an attack on the mentality that made such a cruel attitude into the law of the land. There is considerable pleasure taken by Dickens, and by the reader, as Bumble the Beadle, that bully, hypocrite, and unmistakable expression of the Poor Law’s inhumanity, and his wife, Mrs. Corney, no less shallow or cruel, end up abject in the workhouse. Their erotic relationship begins as a commercial transaction—we watch Bumble paw and appraise her belongings—and it ends in fiscal disaster: they are financially, as well as spiritually, bankrupt. It is worth noting how Dickens plots this pleasure for us: he knows at the start, in chapter XXIII, that the circle of this couple’s story will be closed (in chapter LIII) “in that very same workhouse in which they had once lorded it over others.” The author needed to know, at least roughly, very early in the serial what elements would need management for the later episodes. The parish boy’s “progress” is not merely linear, a straight line of events from his birth as an “item of mortality” to his happy days with Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow; there is more design than that to the novel, and we might want to trace it from chapter II.