Tag Archives: oliver twist

The Artful Dodger isn’t who you think he is

artful dodger

George Cruikshank illustration of Fagin (left) and Dodger (right)

If you were told to name a Charles Dickens novel at random, possibly by someone attempting to prove a theory, there’s a very good chance that you’d say Oliver Twist. It is, after all, one of his most popular, most adapted and most accessible novels. One of the main reasons for this is the vivid characters – Fagin, Sikes, Nancy (no one cares about the Maylies), and of course the Artful Dodger.

If you’re not familiar with the character, he’s the young pickpocket who meets the title character and introduces him to the thieves’ gang led by Fagin. He’s a bit of an ambiguous character, a friend to Oliver, but one who doesn’t hesitate to sell him out in order to save his own skin. At the end, spoiler alert for a novel a hundred and seventy years old, he finds himself captured and transported to Australia. The character was memorably portrayed by the late Jack Wild in the film Oliver!

The character’s real name is Jack Dawkins, but the Artful Dodger is his better-known nickname. It’s a memorable nickname alright, but where does it come from? It seems obvious. He’s a dodgy character. He dodges about. And he’s very skilled, or “artful.”

But there may be a further significance to the name. I was recently looking into Victorian clothing, and in Ruth Goodman’s very readable How To Be A Victorian, she mentions that at least one East London tailor advertised “artful dodge.” She doesn’t explain the meaning of this phrase, but I had a look in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and in 1842 the word “dodge” was recorded as being slang for “work.” Oliver Twist was published in 1838. Dickens also used the phrase “artful dodge” in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. What all this would seem to suggest is that the phrase “artful dodge” would have been well known to Londoners as a slangy way of saying “good work.”

The word “dodger” itself is also worth looking into, because it doesn’t really exist any more. In the 19th century, it basically meant what the name implies – a person who dodges. From the 18th century onwards, a dodge could also mean a trick or a con. Oddly enough, we don’t really use the word “dodge” in this sense, nor do we use the word “dodger.” We might describe something as “dodgy,” meaning shifty or untrustworthy, a word which appeared around the 1850s, but that’s the only such derivation of the word still in use.

So in other words, “Artful Dodger”  can mean “skilled trickster,” not a million miles from what we’d normally assume such a name to mean. But for Dickens’ early Victorian audience, who saw artful dodge advertised out on the streets and heard it from those around them, the name would have had a double meaning that it’s long since lost.



Filed under 19th century, Literature

Fagin is a problem, isn’t he?

You know, there are times when committing to a blog timetable can be a real bummer. Yr. Humble Chronicler is spending Easter with the folks, meaning that Sunday’s entry has to be written today, Friday. Unfortunately, my Most Diminutive Friend had a party last night in Edgware. And I won’t lie to you (this time), things have been a bit crap lately, the practical result of which is that I had to knock back a ridiculous amount of red just to enjoy myself and not bring everyone else down. I know, alcohol won’t solve your problems, but it’s pretty good in the short term. Red wine is high in congeners, the impurities that contribute to a hangover (hence “red wine headache”). I remember almost nothing of my journey home and this morning I find myself on the receiving end of a hefty dose of alcoholic instant karma.

So, that longwinded and irrelevant introduction over, I thought I’d talk about one of the most well-known characters of London literature – Fagin, the leader of the pickpockets in Charles DickensOliver Twist. He’s a bit of a problematic one, I find. If you’ve not read the book, the version of the character you’re probably most familiar with is Ron Moody’s portrayal in the film Oliver!, which depicts him as a gruff figure with a heart of gold, a lovable, avuncular rogue. Which he isn’t.

In the book, Fagin is a deeply unpleasant character. Although he is described as a “merry old gentleman,” in his first appearance he is also described as “villainous-looking and repulsive.” He is indeed nice to Oliver on their first meeting, but only to love-bomb the boy into joining his gang. He manipulates people (even trying to get Oliver to testify in his favour after his arrest) and doesn’t give a damn about anyone else (he’s responsible, basically, for getting the sympathetic Nancy killed by implying to the vicious Sikes that she’s dobbed him in) and is a coward. Moody himself described Fagin as a “monstrous creation.” More like Alec Guinness’ version in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, above right.

And then there’s the Jewish thing. This makes for particularly uncomfortable reading these days, but Fagin is depicted very much as the clutching, avaricious, filthy, lying, red-haired Jewish stereotype that would find itself plastered across Nazi propaganda a century later. Some portrayals, such as those by Ron Moody and Robert Lindsay, have either toned the Jewish aspect down or attempted to rework it into something more sympathetic.

Dickens’ defence of the character was that such criminals are deeply unpleasant and, like it or not, many such criminals were Jewish. In this, again, uncomfortable though it is in the post-Holocaust world, he was correct. There were a lot of poor Jewish immigrants in the East End in the 19th century, and poverty and desperation breed crime. It wasn’t some sort of Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style cultural or racial motivation, but the result of social circumstances. Dickens appears to have taken a lot of his inspiration for Fagin from a real-life Jewish criminal named Ikey Solomon, a fence, thief and possible recruiter of children, whose life would make for a fine entry in itself. [NOTE TO SELF: You should totally do that.]

Dickens also argued that Fagin is far from the only unlikeable figure in the novel – Monks, Sikes, the Artful Dodger and Bumble are all “baddies,” as it were, but they aren’t Jewish. How do we know they aren’t Jewish? Well, because Dickens doesn’t call them “the Jew.” And there’s another problem. Sikes is Sikes, Dodger is Dodger, but Fagin is largely referred to throughout as “the Jew.” The religion of other characters is almost never raised (although it is fair to say that Dickens isn’t too impressed with the pious hypocrisy of the supposedly Christian gentlemen who run the workhouse in the early chapters).

Even today, Judaism is one of the first things that springs to mind when the character is raised. Will Eisner, legendary comic creator and author of the graphic fictional biography Fagin the Jew, refers to Dickens’ decision to constantly use the term “the Jew” as “an evil thing.” In 2004, Labour MP Ian McCartney caused outrage when he compared Oliver Letwin, who is Jewish himself, to a modern-day Fagin who “will pick the pockets of Scotland’s pensioners.” While perhaps antisemitism is an overreaction (McCartney would appear to have been playing on Letwin’s first name rather than his ethnicity), there’s no denying that it was a bloody stupid thing to say about a Jewish MP.

So, was Dickens an anti-Semite? Well, first and foremost, we should bear in mind that until just a few decades ago, racial stereotyping was fair game. Eisner himself, in the interview cited above, expresses regret at having created a big-lipped, wide-eyed black character named Ebony White in the 1930s. In the pioneering 19th century British comic Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, the titular character’s best friend is Ikey Mo, a positive character but undeniably a stereotype. And then there’s the notorious Tintin books, Tintin in the Congo and The Shooting Star, guilty in their first editions of horrendous racism and anti-semitism. Even these, though were a great improvement on Jewish characters of early ages – I refer you to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta to see the Elizabethan take.

Panel from an early edition of Herge's The Shooting Star. "Have you heard, Isaac? The end of the world! If it's true..." "He! He! There'll be one good thing, Solomon. I owe my creditors 50,000 francs - this way I won't have to pay..."

Dickens, in this context, would appear to be simply going with the current of the times. He later befriended a Jewish woman named Eliza Davis (who had purchased Tavistock House in Bloomsbury from Dickens), who forced him to re-evaluate his opinions. Indeed, on this basis of this friendship, Dickens himself toned down a lot of the references to Fagin’s Judaism in later editions of the book (which rather leads one to wonder how awful it was before he made his changes). In later books he would rigorously criticise anti-Semitism.

If I might finish with my own opinions (not that I haven’t been putting those in, but you know), I think the anti-Semitism in the Fagin character is a great pity. Were he not so portrayed, he would no doubt be regarded as another of Dickens’ great monsters. As it is, a fine villain is ruined by Dickens’ personal ignorance.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/piracy-with-a-twist/ – Previous entry on Oliver Twist.

http://www.time.com/time/columnist/arnold/article/0,9565,488263,00.html – Will Eisner talks about Fagin the Jew.

http://www.fpp.co.uk/online/04/02/Letwin1_2920204.html – Ian McCartney is a fool.

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ – More of Dickens’ inspiration.


Filed under 19th century, Crime, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Theatre

Piracy, with a Twist

Piracy, as the richest man in Somalia will tell you, is a difficult game.

The Somalian flag.

The Somalian flag.

First of all, there’s the startup costs – you need a ship, some cannon, lots of cutlasses, supplies of food, fresh water, ammunition and Vaseline sufficient for several months at sea and a wicked-awesome hat. Then there’s the cost of running the ship and keeping the crew. By the time you’ve paid for all that, it’s hardly worth your while actually plundering anything. Then there’s the risks of bad weather, sickness, boredom and loneliness, and that’s supposing you actually find people to rob who won’t blow you out of the water, and you don’t get caught by the Navy or Cut-Throat Jake.

"Arr, makin' fun o' Somalia, are ye?"

"Arr, makin' fun o' Somalia, are ye?"

All in all, it’s not as much fun as Johnny Depp makes it look (although, to be fair, hanging out with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley is probably no picnic). But the ingenious folk of London came up with a simpler way of doing things. Why chase the ships when the ships can come to you?

Replica ships, the Tobacco Dock, Shadwell. You may think I've used this photo before, but... ohlookovertherebehindyou!

Replica ships, the Tobacco Dock, Shadwell. You may think I've used this photo before, but... ohlookovertherebehindyou!

London, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, was an incredibly busy port. Indeed, even well into the twentieth century it was a bustling centre of sea commerce. The whole reason Tower Bridge was built to lift was because, had it been built any other way, the economic effects of not letting ships through would have been devastating.

There were so many ships, in fact, that before the massive dock building programme of the 19th century, the Port just couldn’t handle them all. Ships would be moored up for weeks at a time awaiting their turn to be unloaded. Have you seen the film version of Sweeney Todd? You know that bit at the beginning where they sail into the City? Yeah, not a chance.

This made the ships easy pickings for pirates, who could pretty well walk from the shore. Something had to be done. The new docks of the nineteenth century – largely covering the area we now call “Docklands” – would be walled. But in the meantime, there was always good old execution.

St. Saviour's Dock

St. Saviour's Dock

On the right is St Saviour’s Dock. The mouth of this dock was chosen as the execution site, which must have been a bit offputting if you were trying to unload. The river that feeds this dock is known as the “Neckinger”, a corruption of “neckerchief,” as a reminded of this grisly purpose.

This disgusting, mud-and-slurry (Murray?) -filled inlet was the Western boundary of Jacob’s Island, a rookery made famous by Charles Dickens, who made it the setting of Fagin’s hideout in Oliver Twist.

St Saviour's from the Neckinger end.

St Saviour's from the Neckinger end.

The Western boundary was marked by the narrower Folly Ditch. Between the two rivers was an area of overcrowding that’s almost unimaginable in London today. Space was so short that some dwellings were even built out over the river, clinging desperately on to the sides of already ramshackle buildings and threatening to drop the inhabitants into water that was little more than raw sewage.

Folly Ditch c. 1840

Folly Ditch c. 1840

Eventually, action was taken in the 1850s. The stews were demolished and replaced with factories and warehouses (some of which, as you can see above, survive to this day) and Folly Ditch was filled in and built over. Not before Bill Sikes met his end there, of course.

Whatever else you might think about the musical, you can't deny that Oliver Reed was the best damn Sikes ever.

Whatever else you might think about the musical, you can't deny that Oliver Reed was the best damn Sikes ever.

Actually, if you’re into your psychogeography, this is probably a place of considerable significance. First of all, there’s the accumulated misery of decades of slum living. Then there’s the pirate executions. Then there’s the death of Sikes. And to cap it all, Spring-Heeled Jack supposedly struck here in 1845. Basically, if you’re planning to summon the Devil, this is probably the place to do it.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Crime, East End and Docklands, History, Literature, London, Psychogeography, Thames, Transport