Wednesday, September 07, 2005
The author and academic John Waller claims in a new book that the story was inspired by a London-born child called Robert Blincoe, who at the turn of the 19th century spent four grim years in the workhouse before he was packed off to a cotton mill - with more abuse, regular beatings and hours of back-breaking work.
In The Real Oliver Twist, to be published next month, Dr Waller will suggest that Dickens was likely to have read Blincoe’s memoir and that there are strong parallels between the two stories.
After its original newspaper serialization in 1828, Blincoe’s memoir (written by John Brown) was published by J. Doherty, a Manchester-based radical publisher, in 1832. It’s hardly "lost": A. E. Mussen and Owen Ashmore published an edition for the Derbyshire Archaeological Society in 1966; Sharon A. Winn and Lynn M. Alexander anthologized it in 1992; and there are some brief excerpts online at Spartacus and the Victorians subsite of Sparking the Gap. Moreover, it’s common knowledge that the memoirs inspired a different novel: Fanny Trollope’s Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy (1840). 
In other words, just because Blincoe’s name doesn’t leap to the tips of every (or any) Dickens scholars’ tongues, we can’t assume that he wasn’t a (or the) source for Oliver Twist. The memoir was popular, widely-read, and influential. Obviously, we haven’t seen Dr. Waller’s evidence yet. But given that Blincoe’s memoir was still a famous text in 1837, when Oliver Twist began appearing, shouldn’t someone have noticed the parallels--if they’re actually there--at the time? Moreover, why is Blincoe an obvious source? While the descriptions of food (bad) sound vaguely familiar, there doesn’t seem to be much overlap between Blincoe’s horrific experiences in the cotton mills and Oliver Twist’s adventures in the workhouse and the criminal underworld. One would think that Blincoe might be a better inspiration for the bottle factory scenes in David Copperfield (although they’re nowhere near as gothic) or, for that matter, the world of Hard Times. I’ll await Dr. Waller’s book "with great interest," as they say.
 For a fuller exposition of the parallels, see Helen Heineman, Mrs. Trollope: The Triumphant Feminine in the Nineteenth Century (1979; Athens, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1982), 177-79.
Meanwhile, just in time for Lolita‘s golden anniversary, Jo Morgan has launched the book Solving Nabokov’s Lolita Riddle, putting forward the thesis that the story encodes, via Lewis Carroll and chess amongst other things, a genderbent version of Nabokov’s own abuse at the hands of his Uncle Ruka. Announced at websites for the Lewis Carroll Society, British Chess Federation, and NABOKV-L, but lolitariddle.com blocked by WebSense ...