DICK­ENS AND THE WORK­HOUSE

Ruth Richard­son Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, £10.99

The Herald - Arts - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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