Oliver Twist is Cityread’s Dickens novel for April. London’s libraries launch the first ever Cityread London in partnership with Penguin Classics, focusing on Oliver Twist as part of Dickens 2012. Over 300 Cityread events will take place throughout April, across all 33 London boroughs, bringing Oliver Twist to life in libraries, cinemas and museums. From afternoon tea and Dickens at Kensington Palace, to Hip Hop Dickens workshops in libraries, there’s something for readers of all ages. You can take part in Cityread London by asking at your local library or visiting the Cityread Facebook group.
Here Cityread blogger Aoife Mannix attends the launch
of the ‘Conversations with A Twist’ exhibition at the Free Word Centre. You can find out more about the exhibition and watch the accompanying short films here.
I arrive at the Free Word Centre on Farringdon Road just as they are finishing filming Professor Robert L. Patten’s series of short films on Oliver Twist. It’s a place I’ve come to know well over the last couple of years as I’ve run writing workshops here as well as attending poetry readings and interesting talks on various aspects of freedom of expression and the role of the writer in society.
In addition to being the home of organisations such as English PEN, Free Word is launching an exhibition in conjunction with the Charles Dickens Museum. ‘Conversations With A Twist’ examines Oliver Twist from the point of view of social justice. I stand under a huge banner bearing one of the best known quotes in English literature ‘Please, Sir, I want some more’. The illustration is from George Cruikshank’s series for the original serialisation of the book. It shows a fat bald man in a white apron peering down at a scrawny boy. Professor Patten, who is visiting scholar at the Charles Dickens museum, points out that this famous drawing has often since been reinterpreted as a political cartoon. It’s a perfect way of representing a huge gap in power relations that dates back to the French Revolution.
Oliver has had the misfortune to draw the short straw amongst the starving workhouse boys and thus he is the one who has to ask the cook if they can have more food. Far from taking pity on him. the cook hits Oliver with his ladle and has him dragged before the board. These good gentlemen are so shocked at the little boy’s audaciousness in complaining about slowly starving to death that they decide to imprison the nine year old in solitary confinement until they can find a trader to take him off their hands for a reward of five pounds. They also confidently predict that rebellion at such a young age is a sure sign that Oliver is destined for the hangman. By ending the first serialisation with this prediction, Dickens is giving us a damning indictment of Victorian society while at the same time leaving his readers anxious to find out if this will indeed be Oliver’s fate.
Cruikshank’s drawing shows the other workhouse boys with pale, twisted faces. It’s a vivid, nightmarish image. Patten argues that while the faces may look like caricatures, the boys were actually starving and shrunk from severe malnutrition. Also their heads had been shaved because of lice. Thus the power of the image lies in its ability to capture a very real social phenomenon.
By mixing quotations from the book with illustrations, playbills and images from Dickens’s own life, ‘Conversations With A Twist’ demonstrates how this classic novel explores deep social and political themes that are still of huge relevance today. Poverty, child labour, exploitation, abuse of power, crime, neglect of orphans, corruption and hypocrisy are all sadly still very much in existence in the world of the 21st century. This exhibition, and the accompanying short films, encourages us to ask the same questions about the injustices of our society as Dickens did of his.
Aoife Mannix is the author of a novel, Heritage of Secrets, and four collections of poetry, The Trick of Foreign Words, The Elephant in the Corner, Growing Up an Alien and Turn the Clocks Upside Down. A regular on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live and on the festival scene, she was recently writer-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has also toured countries as diverse as China, Nigeria and Norway on behalf of the British Council.