King's College London
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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Life and fiction

Self-portrait vignette by George Cruikshank depicting the illustrator seated at his desk and holding a sign or blotting pad bearing the words 'Our own times'Self-portrait vignette by George CruikshankThe possibility that the Dickens family might have feared the prospect of becoming workhouse paupers of is often overlooked by biographers.

Until his death nearly half a century later, the adult Dickens endeavoured to keep this ghastly time - with its terrible fear of workhouse and prison, and his life as a factory boy - absolutely secret, even from his own children.

Yet there are two strong reasons to believe that Dickens had been pondering this bitter time while he was writing Oliver Twist. First because he took the name of one of the book's memorable villains, Fagin, from one of the boys alongside whom he had worked in the blacking factory.

Playbill for A Christmas Carol, at the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, February 1844Playbill for A Christmas Carol, at the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, February 1844Second, because the other murderous villain in Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes, bore the same name as a shopkeeper whose premises faced the workhouse in Cleveland Street, beside which the Dickens family had lived, twice - before, and again after, the Marshalsea Prison episode.

Hand-coloured etching depicting Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing'Mr. Fezziwig’s ball' illustrated by John LeechCamden Town (where the Dickens family had also lived in poor circumstances) is a locality in A Christmas Carol, named in the playbill shown here (four lines from the bottom), which dates from February 1844, soon after the book first appeared. The impoverished working-class Cratchit family, scratching a living on the paltry wage Scrooge paid (fifteen shillings a week) live there.

The book makes clear that kindness doesn’t cost a lot: Mr Fezziwig is a good employer who knows how to make a Christmas party work, and the Cratchit family's mutual affection shines through, despite their poverty, to soften Scrooge's heart.

Dickens intertwines truth and fiction, place and story, poverty and kindness, cruelty and meanness, Christmas and conviviality, the real and the spiritual worlds, love, sorrow, and joy in a work that was immediately loved by the public, and recognised as a classic in his lifetime.

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