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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How racist is Oliver Twist?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 29, 2005

Two masterpieces of English literature are unmistakably anti-Semitic. In The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare depicts Shylock as a heartless usurer, a racial stereotype that many in his audience would have associated with the moneylenders that Jesus so righteously drove from the Temple in Jerusalem.

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes Fagin as 'the Jew' - not once by way of identification, but repeatedly, relentlessly, emphatically, to such an extent that the wicked old receiver of stolen goods is hardly ever mentioned by name, only by racial and religious origin. In the first 38 chapters of Oliver Twist there are 257 references to 'the Jew' against 42 to 'Fagin' or 'the old man'. A more vicious stigmatisation of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined and it was not by any means unintended.

Dickens, when challenged some years later, said that he had made Fagin Jewish because 'that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.' There is no evidence to support this, nothing in the London crime statistics of the 1830s to suggest that Jews controlled gangs of boy pickpockets. What the great social campaigner was spouting in this novel was ignorance tinged with old malice. There is an unmissable hint in Fagin, 'villainous looking and repulsive', of the archetypal Jew who kidnaps Christian boys for their blood, an ancient libel that provoked many a pre-Easter pogrom.

Dickens' odious prejudice might be excused as conventional for its time were it not so excessive and Oliver Twist so compelling a novel, one of the most gripping narratives in the English language, infinitely transmissible from generation to generation. And with each fresh reading or dramatisation, the spectre of racial hatred hovers in the margins, gnawing at the unconscious.

A new film of Oliver Twist approaches, a cause for excitement and concern. There hasn't been a cinema release since David Lean's in 1948, a monochrome morality tale in which Alec Guinness, as Fagin, held his character at arm's length to avoid any taint of infection and Kay Walsh (who died five months ago) was far too nice as Nancy to be Bill Sikes's moll. In the musical Oliver!, twenty years later, Ron Moody played Fagin for merry laughs and the raw menace of Oliver Reed as Sykes cornered the market in evil. Instead of dealing with racism, film has artfully dodged the issue.

Roman Polanski's movie, with a script by the British playwright and novelist Ronald Harwood, is addressed at a target audience of children, the director having declared that he wanted for once to make a movie that his nine-year old daughter could enjoy. Polanski and Harwood are the new A-team of their art form, a latter day Verdi and Boito who found each other late in life and, in The Pianist, won an Oscar each for a harrowing tale sensitively told. A close personal affinity has arisen from professional collusion. When Polanski sued Vanity Fair for libel this summer over imputations that he pursued women on the day of his wife's funeral, Harwood sat with him every day in Paris throughout the arduous trial.

Both men are consciously Jewish. Neither, says Harwood, was bothered by Dickens' anti-Semitic overtones. 'I can honestly say we never talked about it,' insists Harwood's line. Polanski, asked if he ever discussed the moral dimensions of the story with his scriptwriter, said: 'I wouldn't insult him! We're both grown men.'

Harwood, transparent in his candour, has impressed on me that he 'had no view on prejudice, all I wanted was to tell the story.' But the way he approached the plot, and the way Polanski filmed it, is indicative itself of the problem they faced, whether they discussed it or not. And their solution is several degrees more original and convincing than previous fudges.

Polanski's Oliver Twist is an adventure story, pure and simple, a rags to rags account of Oliver's progress from poorhouse to thieves den, lit up by a glimmer of deliverance from the kindhearted Mr Brownlow. Polanski, in Harwood's view, empathises with Oliver from personal experience. 'Roman was in the Cracow Ghetto: this is about a little boy who survives.'

Harwood eliminates all subplots and secondary characters, all pre-history and post. The revelation of Oliver's true parentage, so important to snobbish Victorians, is erased. In its place, we have flashes of Dickensian wit. 'You are quite a literary character, Mr Bumble,' says a passerby, seeing the beadle with a book in hand.

A new study by an Australian academic, John Waller, argues that Dickens took his story from the memoirs of a poorhouse boy, Robert Blincoe, published in 1832, five years before Oliver. The Real Oliver Twist (Icon Books, 16.99) may have uncovered a source of Dickensian detail, but no affinity of character.

As for Fagin, there is no telling where he came from. Dickens admitted that he knew no Jews at the time. Yet, like Shakespeare before him, he allowed the villain a certain endearing avuncularity. One feels Fagin's sorrow as gives up Oliver to the custody of Sikes. Rachel Portman's attractive score studiously underplays the accompaniment of Jewish music to Jewish misery.

Ben Kingsley endows the villain with tragic inevitability: a lonely old man, scrabbling for trinkets of security and a little human warmth. The story ends in his prison cell, gallows rising in the square outside. Instead of Dickens' happy ending, showing Oliver's acceptance into polite society, the apotheosis is cruel and appropriately sanctimonious. In this, and most other ways, the film is true to the spirit of the story and of the author's ambiguities: for the blurring of anti-semitism is something in which Dickens himself ultimately conspired.

In 1860, Dickens sold his London home to a Jewish banker, James Davis. 'The purchaser of Tavistock House will be a Jew Money-Lender,' he told a friend. Some time later he added: 'I must say that in all things the purchaser has behaved thoroughly well, and that I cannot call to mind any occasion when I have had money-dealings with anyone that have been so satisfactory, considerate and trusting.'

He took quite a shine to the banker's wife, Eliza Davis, who reproached him in a letter of 1863 for the 'great wrong' he had committed in Oliver Twist. Two years later, Dickens created in Our Mutual Friend the noble character of Riah, an elderly Jew who finds jobs for downcast young women in Jewish-owned factories. 'I think there cannot be kinder people in the world,' exclaims one of the girls. 'There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offense,' wrote Dickens to Mrs Davis.

He set about revising Oliver Twist in light of her criticisms, removing almost all mention of 'the Jew' from the last 15 chapters. In one of his last public readings in 1869, a year before his death, Dickens cleansed Fagin of stereotypical caricature. 'There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted,' or so the reports have it.

This attempt to make amends redeems Oliver Twist, for me, from the index of anti-Semitic English literature, a list that stretches from Chaucer through Marlow to Trollope and Belloc, Agatha Christie and T S Eliot. It was certainly Dickens' final intention that 'the Jew' should be incidental in Oliver Twist and in his film Polanski has given the story a personal dimension that renders it irreproachably universal.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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