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Dine with Dickens

Published September 21, 2018 by Dr Emma Harris

Charles Dickens, Mrs Eliza Davis, Fagin, Oliver Twist, Stereotypes, Jews, Victorian Literature, George Cruikshank, Will Eisner, Fagin The Jew, Graphic Novel

Emma Harris answers the age-old question, 'who would I invite to a dinner party?'.

Over dinner recently, a friend asked me the age-old question 'who would I invite to a dinner party?'. Living or dead, who would be my dream dinner guests? It is an interesting question (one which I have been asked many times before). To be fair, the list is endless and I change my guest list every time. Famous or infamous? Friend or foe? Family relations, past and present? Fictional characters perhaps? Should I host an evening filled with laughter as a variety of comedians take centre stage or should it be a more sobering politically-focused affair?

If money was no object, I would host a classic dinner party as described in an Agatha Christie novel (minus the murder, of course). I can't quite decide what to cook but there would definitely be Jewish-inspired cuisine like chicken soup with lokshen and knedlach to start and the definitive guest-pleaser and my favourite dessert apple crumble.

Pondering, I had thought to impress my friend with an eclectic mix of religious figures, politicians, artists and musical icons both past and present but instead I chose to represent something closer to my own research interests and the topic of my new online course, that of English literature.

What you want to achieve at a dinner party is stimulating (perhaps even controversial!) conversation and I think that I would definitely achieve that, drawing out interesting and insightful thoughts. In literature in general, I am fascinated how words can influence the way readers think and act, and how literature can perpetuate age-old misconceptions and stereotypes. I am also interested in exploring the interactions between authors and their correspondents.

So who, you may ask, would I invite?

The guest of honour (as I am sure you have already guessed from the title of this blog post!) would be one of Victorian literature's most celebrated figures, Mr Charles Dickens, whose most famous work, Oliver Twist, would be the focus of the evening's discussion. Serialised between 1837 and 1839, Oliver Twist was Dickens' second novel. It tells orphan Oliver's story from the workhouse to the streets of London and his encounters with a band of pickpockets and their master, Fagin.

To Dickens' left I would seat his fictional character, Fagin, who, like Shakespeare's Shylock, is one of the best-known Jewish characters in English literature. Fagin is portrayed as 'a very old shrivelled Jew whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted old hair' which shines a light quite emphatically on Dickens’s attitude towards Jews and on the effect his second novel may have had (and still has) on readers' feelings towards Jews. In the first edition of Oliver Twist, Fagin was described as 'the Jew' more than 250 times; chapter 9 entitled 'The pleasant old gentleman' refers to 'the Jew' almost 30 times but by his actual name only 3 times. I would like to know how this makes Fagin feel. (We will come back to that a little later.) Does Dickens realise how his words have perpetuated age-old literary stereotypes of Jews? I will ask this question as I glance over to the guest on Dickens' right, Mrs Eliza Davis.

Mrs Davis became acquainted (together with her husband) with Dickens when they bought the lease to his home, Tavistock House. She wrote to Dickens in 1860 explaining that Jews regarded his portrayal of Fagin as 'a great wrong' to their people. He, in response, pointed out, that Fagin was the only Jew in the story and 'all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians'. (But, and as Mrs Davis, later commented, that whilst Dickens had portrayed all the other criminal characters as Christian, there were also 'good Christians [but] this wretched Fagin stands alone as the Jew'.) I am just not sure that Dickens really understood the depth of this discomforting portrayal. I would also point him to the illustrations he agreed to use in the book, those drawn by George Cruikshank (see here) whose work defines the episodes they portray with such precision that it is uncomfortable viewing. Why should Fagin look more evil and demonic than the other criminal characters? To add another dimension to proceedings, I would also show Dickens and the other guests various film clips of Oliver Twist adaptations through the years which portray Fagin as a much more distinctly reprehensible character than any of the other criminals featured. (That may just be my view but I would want Dickens to see how film producers have latched on, time and again, to this evil characterisation.) It would be interesting to get insight into the relationship between Dickens and Mrs Davis – he the author of repute, she attempting to redeem him in the eyes of the Jewish people which he ultimately did in his novel Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) with the wonderfully kind and considerate Mr Riah. After all, there is good and bad in all communities.

The final guest to be lucky enough to sample my Mother's famous apple crumble would be the doyen of the graphic novel, Will Eisner. I have been captivated by his amazing illustrations ever since I discovered his work at an exhibition in 2014 held at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. I highly recommend A Contract with God (published in 1978) which 'captures with pen and ink the drama of the city and its all-too-human inhabitants' (see here). For this evening, Eisner will take his seat between me and Fagin, the character he sympathetically examined in Fagin the Jew (2003). Eisner commented in the introduction that he was 'aware of the influence of imagery on the popular culture that I began to produce graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face'. Eisner gave Fagin the opportunity to tell his story in his own words to Mr Dickens – his heart-breaking, personal and tragic story, 'one that has remained untold and overlooked'.

So a literary evening with an interesting twist, I would say.

Dr Emma Harris, Director of Studies at the Woolf Institute, cannot promise you dinner but she can offer you stimulating discussions on the online course, Representations of Jewish-Christian Relations in Literature. Apply online here.

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