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Love in the Lower Depths

Dickens does not, it is true, call Fagin a pederast directly—as he nowhere calls Nancy a prostitute. Yet Nancy’s prostitution clearly underlies all her outbursts of grievance against Fagin, who put her on the streets; and Fagin’s pederasty as clearly underlies much of Oliver’s fear and fascination. “As he glanced timidly up, and met the Jew’s searching look, he felt that his pale face and trembling limbs were neither unnoticed, nor unrelished by, that wary old gentleman.” The hostile distance between Fagin and Sikes is created in part by the latter’s brutal heterosexuality, contemptuous of Fagin’s silken charms. In the pub that serves as the criminal “flash house,” the flash (knowing) talk about Fagin’s boys is a staple:

Wud of Bister Fagin’s lads,” exclaimed Barney [the keeper of the flash house], with a grin.4

Fagin’s eh!” exclaimed Toby [Crackit], looking at Oliver. “Wot an inwalable boy that’ll make, for the old ladies’ pockets in chapels. His mug is a fortun’ to him.”

There—there’s enough of that,” interposed Sikes, impatiently; and stooping over his recumbent friend, he whispered a few words in his ear: at which Mr. Crackit laughed immensely, and honoured Oliver with a long stare of astonishment.

What astonishes Toby? Not the fact that Oliver is one of Fagin’s boys. That was taken for granted in his first remark. The only thing that would astonish him is that Oliver had not done what was taken for granted. Fagin’s method is one of seduction, not force—he usually leaves the force to Bill Sikes: and Oliver has refused to be seduced. On the level of overt action, this means that Oliver refuses to become a thief. He rebels against Fagin’s system as he had against the more respectable institutions of society. Fagin, we learn in time, has been hired by Oliver’s unknown half-brother (“Monks”) to debase Oliver so thoroughly that he will not dare, later in his life, to lay claim to the family estate in the West Indies. Monks resorts to this indirect way of eliminating Oliver’s claims since he feels the taboo against actual fratricide. His demands on Fagin explain the pederast’s panic at the thought that Sikes would risk the boy’s life, putting Monks’s bribes in peril:

Once let him feel that he is one of us, once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief; and he’s ours! Ours for his life! Oho! It couldn’t have come about better!” The old man crossed his arms upon his breast; and, drawing his head and shoulders into a heap, literally hugged himself for joy.

Ours!” said Sikes. “Yours you mean.”

Perhaps I do, my dear,” said the Jew, with a shrill chuckle. “Mine, if you like, Bill.”

And wot,” said Sikes, scowling fiercely on his agreeable friend, “wot makes you take so much pains about one chalk-faced kid, when you know there are fifty boys snoozing about Common Garden every night, as you might pick and choose from?”

Because they’re of no use to me, my dear,” replied the Jew with some confusion, “not worth the taking.”

Fagin speaks with confusion because he cannot tell Sikes about the bargain with Monks. Instead, he invents a reason for his solicitude that Oliver not be killed—the boy’s innocent look is useful for gulling victims of the gang’s theft.

When I first read Oliver Twist, in my own childhood, I did not know that Sikes’s lover Nancy is a prostitute; and it is safe to bet that Queen Victoria, enthusiastically following the novel as it appeared in serial numbers, did not realize that Fagin is a pederast. Did Dickens expect his knowledgeable adult readers to understand this fact, as important to Fagin’s speeches as her prostitution is to Nancy’s? There are many things, within the novel itself as well as in Dickens’s other works, to indicate that he did expect such understanding. Fred Kaplan notes that “Dickens’s knowledgeability about sexual relationships between males (particularly between older men and young boys) can hardly be doubted.” His good friend and fellow mesmerist Chauncy Hare Townshend had a boy subject for his hypnotizing sessions who seems to have been his catamite.5

Nor was Dickens’s awareness of homosexuality confined to male lovers. In Little Dorrit, the relationship of Miss Wade to Tattycoram is clearly lesbian. Miss Wade describes a girlhood experience that seems to have set the pattern for her later emotional experiences. As a girl of twelve, she was obsessed with a “chosen friend” at school, a friend who humiliated her by acts of kindness to Miss Wade herself and to all others, acts (Miss Wade is convinced) meant deliberately to contrast with her own suspicion and jealousy:

I so loved that unworthy girl, that my life was made stormy by my fondness for her. I was constantly lectured and disgraced for what was called “trying her”; in other words, charging her with her little perfidy and throwing her into tears by showing her that I read her heart. However, I loved her, faithfully; and one time I went home with her for the holidays.

She was worse at home than she had been at school. She had a crowd of cousins and acquaintances, and we had dances at her house, and went out to dances at other houses, and, both at home and out, she tormented my love beyond endurance. Her plan was, to make them all fond of her—and so drive me wild with jealousy. To be familiar and endearing with them all—and so make me mad with envying them. When we were left alone in our bedroom at night, I would reproach her with my perfect knowledge of her baseness; and then she would cry and cry and say I was cruel, and then I would hold her in my arms till morning: loving her as much as ever, and often feeling as if, rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river—where I would still hold her, after we were both dead.

When Miss Wade finds Tattycoram chafing under her service at the Meagleses’, she recruits her to a sisterhood of resentment. Tattycoram’s break with the Meagleses resembles Miss Wade’s angry departure from her childhood friend’s house. Tattycoram has grown increasingly jealous of “Pet,” the Meagleses’ child, who is in love with a young man. On the night she leaves the house, Tattycoram denounces the family in words that Mr. Meagles recalls: “When we pretended to be so fond of one another, we exulted over her; that was what we did; we exulted over her, and shamed her.” Tattycoram runs off to join Miss Wade, who establishes a passionate hold over her. When Mr. Meagles fails in his appeal to Tattycoram, Miss Wade claims her prize:

Miss Wade, who had watched her under this final appeal with that strange attentive smile, and that repressing hand upon her own bosom, with which she had watched her in her struggle at Marseilles, then put her arm about her waist as if she took possession of her for evermore.

This is the bond that Meagles had feared, giving a special emphasis to his words with Miss Wade: “If it should happen that you are a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverted delight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is (I am old enough to have heard of such), I warn her against you, and I warn you against yourself” (italics added).

Miss Wade takes Tattycoram captive, as Fagin is supposed to subjugate Oliver, in a way that will make it impossible for the victim to rejoin respectable society. So Tattycoram, even when she is beginning to rebel against her thralldom to Miss Wade, rejects the idea that she could ever go back to the Meagleses. “You know very well that I have thrown them off, and never can, never shall, never will, go back to them.” When she does go back, proving the depth of kindness in the Meagleses, it is with an almost hysterical self-abasement:

Oh! I have been so wretched,” cried Tattycoram, weeping much more, after that, than before; “always so unhappy, and so repentant! I was afraid of her, from the first time I ever saw her. I knew she had got a power over me, through understanding what was bad in me, so well. It was madness in me, and she could raise it whenever she liked.” 6

A closer parallel to Oliver’s situation at Fagin’s is to be found in Dombey and Son. Indeed, Dickens seems deliberately to have gone back to Oliver Twist, in this novel, to “update” its themes in one of his larger social tales. Thus Florence is kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” stripped of her fine clothes and dressed in rags, like Oliver after Nancy and Bill bring him back to the ken. But the more important parallel is between Oliver’s tutelage and that of Robin Toodle (“Rob the Grinder”). Rob may in fact be considered an Oliver who does not escape the snares of the criminals he deals with.7 Sent to a charity school, where he is beaten and brutalized, he joins a street gang fencing its goods to Mrs. Brown, and then falls into the literal clutches of James Carker, who immediately shows his repressed violence by almost strangling the young boy of fifteen. Despite this harsh first encounter, or because of it, Rob becomes abjectly devoted to Carker, constantly fixing on him “eyes, which were nailed upon him as if he had won the boy by a charm, body and soul.” Dickens describes the boy’s “stupor of submission,” his “reverie of worshipful terror,” in terms that would perfectly express Oliver’s bondage to Fagin if he had surrendered to him:

[Rob] could not have quaked more, through his whole being, before the teeth [of Carker], though he had come into the service of some powerful enchanter, and they had been his strongest spells. The boy had a sense of power and authority in this patron of his that engrossed his whole attention and exacted his most implicit submission and obedience. He hardly considered himself safe in thinking about him when he was absent, lest he should feel himself immediately taken by the throat again, as on the morning when he first became bound to him, and should see every one of the teeth finding him out, and taxing him with every fancy of his mind. Face to face with him, Rob had no more doubt that Mr. Carker read his secret thoughts, or that he could read them by the least exertion of his will if he were so inclined, than he had that Mr. Carker saw him when he looked at him. The ascendancy was so complete, and held him in such enthralment, that, hardly daring to think at all but with his mind filled with a constantly dilating impression of his patron’s irresistible command over him, and power of doing anything with him, he would stand watching his pleasure, and trying to anticipate his orders, in a state of mental suspension, as to all other things.

[italics added]

  1. 4

    Barney, the other Jew in the novel, has the nasal accent of a European emigrant to London, but—as this conversation shows—does not share Fagin’s homosexuality, which is therefore not presented as a generically Jewish trait.

  2. 5

    Fred Kaplan, Dickens and Mesmerism (Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 197–198. Homoeroticism in nineteenth-century English fiction is getting some delayed and overstated attention now, e.g., in D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police (University of California Press, 1988). I find particularly unconvincing Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s attempt to find overlapping patterns of homosexual ties in Our Mutual Friend. See Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire (Columbia University Press, 1985). But even Chesterton, who overemphasized the writer’s innocence, knew Dickens was often suggesting more than he was allowed to say about his characters’ sex lives: “Dickens did not claim the license of diction Fielding might have claimed in repeating the senile ecstacies of Gride (let us say) over his purchased bride [in Nicholas Nickleby]; but Dickens does not leave the reader in the faintest doubt about what sort of feelings they were.” Cf. The Victorian Age in Literature (1913; reprinted by the University of Notre Dame, 1963), p. 50.

  3. 6

    For Miss Wade as lesbian, see Kate Flint, Dickens (Humanities Press International, 1986), pp. 131–132.

  4. 7

    For Carker as pederast, see Kaplan, Dickens and Mesmerism, p. 197.

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