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(the opening of Chapter Two)

“For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in “the house” who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be “farmed,” or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.”

A passage about young Oliver’s experiences in the workhouse system. It is notable for its careful tone of neutrality when describing the horrors of the way poor people were treated in the 19th century. Apart from the opening sentence, where we are told of the “treachery and deception” involved, the rest of the paragraph adopts a very measured, judicious approach, using words like “magnanimously and humanely” to describe the authorities’ decision to send Oliver to the baby farm. The victims of the system, meanwhile, are referred to as “juvenile offenders against the poor-laws” or “culprits”. The whole passage reflects the self-satisfied complacency of the authorities of the time, and of the general public who allowed such abuses to take place unchallenged.

Of course Dickens writes in this way quite deliberately and succeeds in alarming and disturbing his readers much more by conveying his message of fury and detestation of the system under the cover of apparent approval. The contrast between the tone of the passage and what it implies about a horrendous, abusive social system is quite evident to any reader who pays the slightest attention. To my mind Dickens’ argument is actually much more effective when delivered in this indirect way. A simple rant against the immorality of the system would have been much less persuasive.

May 2022