DICKENS AND THE WORKHOUSE
Ruth Richardson Oxford University Press, £10.99
Like a number of wellmeaning Victorians, Charles Dickens was well aware of the dreadful conditions suffered by the poor. Dickens, though, knew it from first-hand experience. He didn’t talk about the disgrace of his family’s poverty, preferring to fictionalise it. So it wasn’t until Ruth Richardson came along that anyone realised that, as a boy, he had lived only a few doors away from Cleveland Street Workhouse, something which had been overlooked because the street had changed its name. Richardson assumes, probably quite correctly, that Cleveland Street inspired the workhouse seen in Oliver Twist, revealing some of the terrible cruelty that took place there and citing people who may have turned up later as characters in his books. She conjures up vivid images of poverty-stricken Victorian London and deepens our understanding of the sense of outrage that compelled Dickens to bring the predicament of the poor to wider attention.