Twist in his tale

21st October 2005 at 01:00
With Polanski's film sparking renewed interest in Dickens's Oliver, Sean Lang finds out what lay beyond the workhouse for the boy who is said to have inspired the novel

The Real Oliver Twist: Robert Blincoe, a life that illuminates an age

By John Waller

Icon Books pound;16.99

Oliver Twist has always spoken to readers more than any other of Dickens's creations, even Scrooge. It was only Dickens's second full-length work, very different in tone from the jolly japes of the Pickwick Papers that preceded it.

Oliver asking for more has become an iconic moment in literature and in film: the gothic menace of David Lean's 1948 version and the outrage of Harry Secombe's "More?", rising a good two octaves in a single word, in Lionel Bart's 1968 Oliver! are deeply implanted in the modern psyche.

Victorian audiences, who first encountered the story in monthly magazine instalments, were gripped: Bill Sikes's violent murder of Nancy quickly became a classic, the equivalent of the shower scene in Psycho for us, and the passion which Dickens poured into his public readings of it, which left him emotionally drained and physically exhausted, were blamed in part for his early death.

John Waller believes Dickens modelled his hero on Robert Blincoe, a workhouse boy whose early life does indeed seem to run parallel with the early chapters of Oliver Twist.

Blincoe's life story was written by John Brown, a verbose writer with a persecution complex, and was widely read in book form in 1832 (it had also been serialised in a radical newspaper). Blincoe gave evidence to a royal commission into factory conditions, and was celebrated in his day as an example of someone who had overcome a childhood spent mostly in the cotton mills and achieved respectable status. MP Nicholas Blincoe is his great-great-great-grandson.

There seems good reason to think that Dickens would have known about Blincoe, and the early episodes of Oliver Twist do mirror his experiences: both had an anonymous birth, both had names given them arbitrarily in the workhouse (even Oliver Twist was not "the real Oliver Twist"), and both boys narrowly escaped being apprenticed to a chimney sweep. Unlike Oliver, Blincoe was desperate to go with the sweeps - anything to get out of the workhouse - but, at six, was too young.

Beyond that, however, the parallel ends: where Oliver headed for London and slipped into a life of crime, Blincoe was apprenticed to a Nottingham mill owner, and spent his childhood gathering fallen cotton from under moving machinery: dangerous work in which crushed fingers and limbs were common and some children were killed. The mill left him with stunted growth and buckled legs for the rest of his life.

Not that Blincoe would ever have dreamt of following Oliver's path of a pickpocket; he was a firm believer in the rule of law, and in the face of daily beatings from his overseers and the mill owners, whom he blamed bitterly for having misled the workhouse children with talk of apprenticeship and good food and drink, he bravely went to see the local magistrates to complain.

Blincoe went through hardships which are difficult to imagine today outside the sweatshops and slums of the Third World, but he didn't take his harsh treatment lying down, and in adulthood he drifted naturally into radical protest and reform campaigning. In many ways Blincoe's was the more interesting life, not just because it was real, but because it was more typical: as Waller says in the book's subtitle, it did illuminate his age.

The whole point about Oliver Twist is that he is not Oliver Twist, but the long-lost relative of Mr Brownlow: the book is not about a boy who rises from the workhouse to respectability, but about Oliver's restoration to a life that was always rightfully his.

Blincoe, on the other hand, although he clung to the delusion that he was the illegitimate son of a clergyman and therefore ought to be treated better, was the genuine workhouse article: a pauper orphan cared for at the parish's expense and sold off to a mill owner as soon as the parish could get rid of him.

He had no wealthy relatives to look for, no dramatic coincidences beyond a chance meeting with officials from his workhouse; he had to make his own destiny, going round looking for work, marrying suddenly at a friend's light-hearted suggestion, even eventually becoming a small-scale mill owner himself. There is a wealth of research here, fully referenced, but Waller carries his scholarship lightly: anyone who suffered history lessons at school about the Whigs and Tories of early 19th-century England and who groaned at their interminable factory acts and reforms, can rest easy.

The narrative flows, and there are frequent digressions to set the wider scene of the impact of Napoleonic blockade or economic collapse on a poor working man looking for employment. National figures including Michael Sadler, the aristocratic factory reformer, and the poet Robert Southey, are well drawn, and Blincoe himself comes across as a man of great dignity and integrity, the more so because of the cruelties he witnessed and endured.

His features were even used in a factory reform poster, echoing the famous anti-slave trade medallion of a kneeling African slave under the slogan "Am I not a Man and a Brother?"

Factory owners saw their operatives and "parish apprentices" as expendable factory fodder, of less value than animals. One of the most potent images of Blincoe's memoir shows him fighting for scraps with the factory pigs.

Victorian factory conditions form part of our common mental heritage of the past, like the trenches or the Black Death, but it's a generalised picture, where all masters are cruel and all workers are downtrodden. Blincoe's story shows a more complex reality: kinder mill owners often prospered more than their more whip-happy competitors, and his former masters went bankrupt when industrial technology moved on from water power. He couldn't gloat, though: his own spinning venture collapsed when his uninsured machinery was destroyed by fire on his first day in business.

This is a remarkable narrative, easy to read and with plenty of good material for English, history or drama lessons. One thing, though: Blincoe liked the food at the workhouse: it was plentiful and wholesome and there was no need to ask for more. He did once ask a mill owner for more wages, and got them. He got the sack too.

Sean Lang teaches history at Long Road sixth form college, Cambridge

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