We live in a society of unregulated media, and almost nothing is left to the imagination involving the portrayal of violence and criminality. Larry Wolff examines the criminals in Oliver Twist, and the possibility of not only Nancy being a prostitute, but also the young boys under Fagin’s watchful eye. Marcy Hess incisively shows that Nancy is a carefully wrought character that at once reflects the stereotypical traits of a Victorian prostitute, yet also has some of the characteristics of a virtuous middle class woman, “and thus renders false this supposedly truthful depiction of Nineteenth-century lower class prostitution” (Hess).
Indeed, Nancy may be the most complex character in the novel. Even though she is a prostitute, and “the girl’s life had been squandered in the streets” (Dickens), she is the true heroine of the novel. Nancy is a fallen woman. Though her original nature is good, she is a victim of her environment and of circumstance. Nancy is a prostitute and a battered woman, who sacrifices herself to help Oliver; she is a complex representation of a Victorian lower-class prostitute in London.
Dickens carefully crafted Oliver Twist in order to appeal to the queen and her subjects. Both Hess and Wolff examine Dickens’s 1841 preface to the novel to show his skillful development of the criminal characters to avoid censure and public outcry. Hess writes that, “To successfully enter the print marketplace of 1837, Dickens could not risk baldly stating that Nancy was a prostitute; thus he did not directly name her profession.
To do so would have been to risk great public censure” (Hess). Before the turn of the century there were both fiction and non-fictional works that discussed prostitution, some even romanticizing the life of a harlot. The evangelical movement at the turn of the century, and a sweeping conservative backlash against the somewhat liberal and honest discussions of sexuality in the century before made prostitution an unacceptable subject for discussion, in fiction or public debate. This policy of avoidance and a conception of, the lower-class prostitute as both physical and moral contagion is evident in non-fiction works such as Thomas Smith’s “An Address to the Guardian Society” (1817) in which prostitutes are described as “leprosy and scurvy all over… the body moral of this metropolis”, the visible “consequences and symptoms of a moral distemper”… (Hess) From 1800 through the late 1830’s, the problem of prostitution was discussed almost solely in government literature and studies of England’s Female Penitentiaries.
Dickens wrote about prostitution in earlier works but only in stereotypical terms, using the most accepted language to describe them. Hess insightfully discusses the Victorian stereotype of the prostitute: an unbonneted, dirty, drunken, cunning and ferocious woman, in shabby, gaudy clothes, wearing too much make-up, hair a mess (to suggest she has recently spent time on her back) who is also duplicitous, sneaky and an actress to boot. Early Victorian morals were such that the underclass was rarely identified openly in fiction.
In “The Boys are Pickpockets and the Girl is a Prostitute”: Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from Oliver Twist to London Labour” Wolff shows that if we read between the lines of Oliver Twist, it is possible that the boys who were pickpockets and petty thieves were also used as prostitutes, not just Nancy. Wolff quotes Dickens preface of Oliver Twist in 1841 when he explains his purposeful avoidance of naming Nancy as a prostitute.
No less consulting my own taste, than the manners of the age, I endeavoured, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspect, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could possibly offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. In the case of the girl in particular, I kept this intention constantly in view.
Whether it is apparent in the narrative, and how it is executed, I leave my readers to determine (Wolff). Wolff correctly points out that “Dickens leaves a lot for his readers to determine- by ‘inference’- especially concerning what is ‘most debased and vicious’ in the world of his criminal characters. ” (Wolff) Wolff’s hypothesis is that it is sociologically plausible that orphaned and runaway boys in a big city like London controlled by an immoral old criminal such as Fagin could be exploited and sold for sex, just as Nancy has been exploited.
Larry Wolff explores the possibility that the young boys in “Oliver Twist” may have been used by Fagin as prostitutes, though Dickens never actually labels Nancy as a prostitute in the novel, and the boys are called pickpockets and prigs, rather than thieves. There is no suggestion of their sexual exploitation in the novel, though when examined closely, the likely hood exists.