Fri, Feb 03, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Book traces real-life Dickens characters

The Guardian, LONDON

Bill Sikes and Scrooge are among the most well-known characters in English literature, but rather than being figments of Charles Dickens’ imagination, their names were derived from real people — and new research has pinpointed the writer’s sources of inspiration.

The thug from Oliver Twist, the miser in A Christmas Carol and the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, among others, have been linked to people who lived or worked near Dickens’ first London home.

Detective work by Ruth Richardson has revealed that a trader named William Sykes sold tallow and oil for lamps from a shop in the same bustling east Marylebone street in which Dickens lived between the ages of 17 and 20.

Nearby, Richardson discovered the home of a sculptor derided by locals as a miser, the premises of two tradesmen named Goodge and Marney, and a local cheesemonger called Marley — “so suggestive of Scrooge and Marley,” she said.

They all lived meters from Dickens’ modest lodgings at 10 Norfolk Street above a small cornershop. Crucially, he lived nine doors from the barbaric workhouse now thought to have inspired Oliver Twist a few years later.

Richardson, the author of Dickens and the Workhouse, published to coincide with next week’s 200th anniversary of his birth, described the number of fictional characters she has linked to Dickens’ neighbors as “breathtaking.”

Although Dickens based other fictional characters on actual people — notably Micawber on his father — biographers have overlooked the inhabitants around Norfolk Street and its link to Dickens was only recently discovered by Richardson, an affiliated academic at Cambridge University.

It was her research that last year identified the four-story 1770s workhouse in Cleveland Street as an inspiration for perhaps the world’s most famous workhouse in Oliver Twist.

That led her to Dickens’ house. She realized that the address had changed since Dickens’ day — 22 Cleveland Street was formerly 10 Norfolk Street.

While previous biographers had only briefly mentioned the house, if at all, assuming it had disappeared long ago, she found the building. It had been a peculiar biographical void, she said.

Sykes’ business was at 11 Cleveland Street. Richardson said: “He was certainly there while Dickens was planning Oliver Twist.”

So too, she added, was a local publican called Sowerby: The fictional Mr Sowerberry is the “parochial undertaker” who takes Oliver into his service. She also found a glover-hosier called Corney, a possible inspiration for the Mrs Corney, whom Mr Bumble marries in Oliver Twist. In the churchyard, she spotted a Mrs Malie, a doctor’s wife, whose name may have served for the kindly Mrs Maylie.

At No. 20, opposite Dickens’ home, was Dan Weller’s shoe shop, from whom he might have cobbled the inimitable Sam Weller for The Pickwick Papers.

Norfolk Street in Dickens’ day was full of shops. Its businesses included a pawnbroker’s that “may be central to Oliver Twist,” Richardson said. Its plot — and Oliver’s identity — hinge on a locket taken from his mother’s corpse and pawned.

Readers learn that the pawnbroker’s was visible from the workhouse. Richardson considers it significant that “the pawnbroker’s stood diagonally opposite the Cleveland Street workhouse, and was visible from Dickens’ front in Norfolk Street.”

Dickens himself had to pawn family belongings before his father was imprisoned for debt.

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