Thursday, October 4, 2018

Oliver Twist

Yesterday a high-schooler asked me how many books I read per week. "I'm not really a fast reader," I told him. "Maybe three or four."

Which is a gross exaggeration! I might read one book a week, but honestly, it's probably even less than that. I have no idea what made me say three or four, and the minute it came out of my mouth I wanted to reel it back in. I almost feel like the next time I see him I need to 'fess up.

I'm about halfway through "Oliver Twist," which I've been reading since last Thursday. It's an interesting book. Despite the antiquated language and the laughable fact that one of the characters is named "Master Bates" (yes, I am that juvenile) it's pretty enjoyable. A tad melodramatic, maybe.

I've often heard that some of Dickens' writing bears traces of anti-semitism, and it's surprisingly blatant in this book. The character of Fagin, the ringleader of a group of thieving boys (including Master Bates and the unfortunate Oliver), is introduced as "a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair." From that point on he is often referred to simply as "the Jew" and described, it seems to me, in especially harsh terms. Here's another example:
The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.
Now, regardless of his ethnicity he's supposed to be a villain, so I can see how Dickens would want to cast him in a negative light. But that seems over the top. Apparently Dickens himself softened the anti-semitic references in later chapters, in response to reader complaints, and argued elsewhere that he had no antipathy toward Jews -- but you sure gotta wonder.

It's fascinating to read the descriptions of London in the 1830s. As I mentioned in yesterday's photo caption, the story takes place partly in Clerkenwell, around Saffron Hill -- a street where I coincidentally found myself walking on Sunday. Dickens also mentions Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, and his characters even travel far to the west, to Hampton and Hounslow.

Here's how Dickens describes Smithfield, London's wholesale meat market, which I also walked past on Sunday:
It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths and quarreling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.
Needless to say, although Smithfield market is still in use, it doesn't look (or sound or smell) quite like that now! In fact, it's a vibrant area that's been the focus of redevelopment efforts, housing restaurants and nightclubs along its side streets. The Victorian market building -- erected after the time of "Oliver Twist" -- has historic preservation protection.

(Photo: Part of Smithfield market, on Sunday.)


  1. That is quite some description of Smithfield market......I could smell it and hear it!!

  2. When the boy asked you how many books you read in a week, he did not specify entire books. As you are a librarian you probably read the titles on at least a thousand book spines in a week so you should have said that you read around a thousand give or take a couple of hundred. That would really have impressed him. As for jews in Dickens, I refuse to comment for fear of being labelled anti-semitic. You on the other hand will now be on the hit list!

  3. Oh dear.
    On both Fagin and the meat market.
    Seriously. Try David Copperfield.

  4. I would like to visit this market!

  5. It always knocks me out to read anti-semitic stuff. I am not religiously Jewish, but 23 & Me revealed that I am 98.3T% Ashkenazi. We live in scary times, and the stereotyping persists.

  6. it's amazing even now how much casual bigotry there is against jews. people say things in casual conversation that if you confronted them they would probably be shocked to hear you think is racist (not really the proper word since judaism is a religion, not a race).

    and you bad boy...slow reader, only 3 or 4 a week!

  7. I'm reading Ivanhoe and the same anti semitism is is found there .

  8. The photos of your most recent two posts have made my day! Hilarious! I have never enjoyed reading Dickens, but I am not a scholar of literature, I tried, but there are so many books to read , if after the first chapter I am not grabbed I usually abandon it. Quitters never win....

  9. That was quite a description. He's made it sound horrific.
    Maybe you've inspired that young reader to up his game!

  10. I think I may have read some Dickens as a young boy but, frankly, I can't remember. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes linger more in my memory.

  11. I'm reading a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories and have been jarred repeatedly by his references to African Americans using terms of that era. It has affected my perception of him as a writer, because he has used them needlessly. They doesn't serve any purpose; they're just casual mentions that aren't necessary to the storylines.

    Times change, thankfully. And they need to keep changing.