Oliver Twist was published as a 24-part serial between 1837 and 1839 in a monthly magazine edited by Charles Dickens, or Boz as he was known. A timely publication, Oliver Twist was not your average Victorian novel – it was a brave satirical criticism of contemporary treatment of the poor and vulnerable.
Before becoming a novelist, Dickens was a solicitor’s clerk and parliamentary reporter. Both positions gave him ample ammunition for the scathing social satires that were to follow.
Oliver Twist was Dickens’s way of entering into a national debate – a carefully crafted piece of social and political commentary, lambasting England’s despicable New Poor Laws, passed in 1834.
Dickens was no stranger to poverty – he was forced to leave school at 12 and work in a factory after his father was sent to debtors’ prison. So it’s no surprise that Oliver Twist depicts the working conditions and abuse endured by child labourers.
Oliver Twist is nine years old when the New Poor Law was passed. An outspoken critic of these laws, Dickens shows his disdain in his ironic description of Oliver’s birth and earliest years. Oliver’s mother died in childbirth in the workhouse, so in contrast to the milk that nourishes most children, Oliver’s first meal was gruel. Gruel came to define the rest of his life after the iconic scene in the workhouse canteen:
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver, while his neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table, and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear. ‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice. ‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’
The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle, pinioned him with his arms, and shrieked aloud for the beadle.
For such a simple food, Dickens’s gruel represents an incredibly complex social problem. But gruel has deeper origins – for both the rich and the poor – going as far back as the ancient Greeks when it was often eaten as a restorative. But the poor man’s gruel here is distinctly Victorian, yet another example of the lasting influence of Dickens and how his books have come to define terms for the modern culture.