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Dickens & the Workhouse

Oliver Twist & the London Poor
Richardson, Ruth
Publisher
Oxford
Price
£10.99
ISBN
9780199681280
EXTRACT - COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

 

David Copperfield was published in instalments during 1849-50, a couple of years after the 'fragment' had been drafted. Contemporary readers may indeed have wondered about the derivation of parts of the story, but no one beyond Dickens's own close family circle, apart from Forster, knew that the hero's experiences were so very closely modelled on Dickens's own life. The factory experiences of the book's hero are based on those of Dickens himself as a boy, and the Micawbers' imprisonment for debt in the King's Bench prison approximates to that of his own parents in the Marshalsea.

Materials from the manuscript 'autobiographical fragment' were never made public during Dickens's lifetime.5 Knowledge of the dark time when young Dickens was a factory boy and his father a prisoner Charles Dickens said he kept even from his wife.

These parts of his life are thought by many scholars to have scarred Dickens's soul, caused him deep sorrow and shame, and created a well of resentment against his parents' feckless-ness, which seems to have been lifelong. Dickens mellowed towards both his parents as he grew older, recognizing and even saluting their valiant merits as he matured. But as he developed as a famous writer he was careful to keep these dark days from public view, and they remained publicly unknown until after his death.


 Since his death, however, Dickens's personal mortification about the debtors' prison and the blacking factory has not prevented his association with the Marshalsea Prison or the whereabouts of the blacking factory from becoming very generally known. Hungerford Stairs, near the present Hungerford Bridge, where the factory was first situated, has since disappeared, swept away when the Victoria Embankment was being built in the 1860s. But plaques currently mark as significant locations in Dickens's biography the remains of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison and the factory's subsequent site in Chandos Street, Covent Garden. London has more than twenty plaques commemorating Charles Dickens's associations with vari­ous places in the metropolis. There is even a plaque for one of his more obscure characters (Mr Kitterbell, in his Sketch 'The Bloomsbury Christening') on a house in Great Russell Street. So it seems quite incomprehensible that no plaque or sign whatever marked the house which had been Dickens's first home in London, and where he had lived for more than four years before he wrote Oliver Twist.

Until late in 2010, it seems to have been almost forgotten that Dickens had ever lived there. Indeed, an urban legend was circulat­ing to the effect that out of Dickens's many homes in London, only a single survivor was still standing: the house in Doughty Street, which is now the Dickens Museum. An otherwise excellent online 'Camden Dickens Walk' stated this as if it was a fact in November 2010: '48 Doughty Street is the only surviving one of Dickens's main London homes.'…