For the last 150 years most critics and academics have dismissed the shocking Bill Sikes and Nancy murder scene in Oliver Twist as over the top, while stage and film adaptations shy away from including it in its full, unexpurgated horror. We should cut Charles Dickens some slack: The scene is based on a true murder.
The scene, in which a betrayed and boiling Sikes confronts Nancy in her bed, is not one you will see in the chirpy West End musical. Nancy’s pleas go ignored. He bludgeons her again and again even after he knows she is dead.
Nancy’s corpse is in such a state that the friend who identifies the body has to be led away in a straitjacket.
Understandably, in his 1948 film, David Lean focused on Sikes’ dog trying desperately to escape the room for much of the scene.
Writer Rebecca Gowers has uncovered what no other Dickens academic seems to have noticed — Dickens modeled the scene on one of the most shocking and infamous 19th-century English murders, that of Eliza Grimwood.
“I’ve been living with the joint and contradictory terrors of either someone having said this [before] or someone saying this is obviously wrong,” Gowers said. “But it’s such a tight case, it is so compelling.”
The scene also has a deeper resonance. It was one of the novelist’s favorites, and in his later stage shows, Dickens re-enacted the encounter with dangerously energetic vigor. The effect on his health was serious and close friends blamed the scene for his early death from a stroke at the age of 58.
The Grimwood case was one of the best-known of all Victorian murders.
The evidence is compelling that Dickens had Grimwood in mind. Eliza, like Nancy, was half-dressed in bed, and both were forced to their knees by their killers.
In both cases the killer brutalized the corpse. In both cases there is evidence to suggest the victim knew her killer. Neither screamed for help. In both cases the bloody aftermath is horrible.
Most critics have poured scorn on the murder scene and Gowers believes the discovery is significant.
“This does change things. When people look at Oliver Twist, critics always say that Nancy’s killing is out and out melodrama, that Dickens was being terribly self-indulgent and looking for cheap thrills,” she said.
Gowers worked out that Dickens would have been writing Oliver Twist at the height of public interest in Grimwood’s murder.
Of course we all know who killed Nancy, but we will probably never know who killed Eliza.
Her pimp — a man named Hubbard who was also her cousin and lover — was charged, but the lack of motive and, crucially, lack of blood on him led to his acquittal.