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Oliver Twist (September 30, 2005)

A Darker "Twist" .
By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

My first encounter with Charles Dickens's classic, Oliver Twist, was as a child, watching the 1968 musical, Oliver! Things were certainly tough for that sweet little orphan Oliver, trapped among the evil denizens of London's underworld. But what pluck he had! Anytime things got too tough, he just burst into a song. Oliver!--exclamation point and all--was a determinedly upbeat version of Dickens's tale.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the songs to start in Roman Polanski's new and darker Oliver Twist. The lack of a cheery exclamation point in the title simply underscores its grim, gritty take on the story. Oliver is still a sweet-faced innocent, but what happens to him will make you blanch, not sing.

Good period dramas like Oliver Twist immerse the viewer in the reality of another time and place. In this film, Polanski vividly recreates the corruption and heartlessness of 19th century London. Here's some background of what made that era a harsh one for impoverished orphans like Oliver.

Q. Poor Oliver can't catch a break. Were orphans really treated so cruelly?
A. Pretty much. Local parishes built workhouses like the one shown in the film, which kept orphans and other paupers essentially as slave labor. Yet even with the cheap labor, parish authorities were usually eager to dump their dependants on anyone else willing to pay for their food. So orphans could be apprenticed at very young ages to craftsmen, who could legally exploit the child's labor until he reached adulthood.

As shown in the film, a typical way to "employ" young orphaned boys was to give them to chimney sweeps. Unlike Dick Van Dyke's genial, singing sweep in Mary Poppins, chimney sweeps were in reality pretty nasty. They used small boys-as young as four or five-as "climbing boys," and forced them to crawl into small, 12-by-14-inch chimneys to dislodge the five bushels of coal soot deposited there each year. Since sometimes the boys would get stuck, sweeps took to lighting fires under them, to "encourage" them to get themselves out.

Q. Were they really so miserly with the food to those kids?
A. Oliver's classic line, "Please sir, may I have some more?" captures the reality of the meager rations on which workhouse children subsisted. Less food than prisoners in jails received, one contemporary study noted. That was partly because conventional wisdom at the time held that growing children didn't need much food at all. No twinkies or fruitsnacks for these kids.

Although Polanski shows a scene of wealthy men gorging themselves on a rich meal, the harsh reality was that most English people were not wealthy, but poor. And the poor were lucky to get one hot meal a week, subsisting on bread, gruel, onions, and ale the rest of the time. Hunger was a constant reality.

Q. The 19th century English judicial system seems rather harsh in this film. True?
A. Yes. And the scene in front of the magistrates when Oliver is summarily convicted of thievery is realistic. Forget the Miranda rights. The accused was presumed guilty until proven innocent. Typically, a police magistrate made a snap judgment on a person's guilt or innocence (without a lawyer present) and doled out punishment on the spot.

The harshest punishment was execution, and hanging was the method of choice. In 1800, a person could get hung not only for murder and treason, but for stealing an animal, doing damage to a bridge, impersonating an army veteran, stealing something worth more than five shillings, or for any of a hundred other offenses. While hanging children as young as Oliver was unusual, it wasn't unheard of.

Only slightly less harsh than execution was being sent to the transports, another threat frequently hissed into little Oliver's ear. When England's prisons got too crowded in the eighteenth century, someone hit on the bright idea of simply loading the prisoners onto ships, and sending them out of the country. The American colonies were the favored dumping ground, much to the annoyance of Benjamin Franklin, who suggested the colonists should return the favor by sending rattlesnakes back to Mother England.

Prison and government officials were disgruntled after the American Revolution forced a halt to English prison transports. Until 1810, when they hit upon a new destination--Australia.

Q. I can understand pickpockets stealing wallets and watches. But pocket handkerchiefs?
A. It's details like these that remind us what a different era we live in today. Unlike today's cheap cotton hankies, wealthy people in 19th century England prided themselves on costly handkerchiefs made of silk or linen. Thieves often found them a tempting target.

Q. Where can I get more information on that era?
A. Dickens's classic novels are great. But for a fun social history, try Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.

Daily Southtown, October 4, 2005

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her website at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies.


Run, Oliver, RUN!

© 2004 History in the Movies