Oliver waited on by the Bow Street Runners
George Cruikshank, 1792-1878
1838 (Part 14, May 1838)
Etching on steel
Source: Oliver Twist, 1839 ed., facing p. 196.
Here, George Cruikshank illustrates the aftermath of the breaking-and-entering episode which first introduces Oliver Twist to the Maylies in Chertsey, Surrey. [Commentary continues below.]
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The bewildered butler gazed from Mssrs. Blathers and Duff towards Oliver, then towards Mr. Losberne, in fear and perplexity. [Ch. 31]
The incident itself is well known: briefly, in the early hours of the morning, the villainous Bill Sykes forces Oliver to break into Mrs. Maylie's house through a little window. But Mr. Giles, her steward and butler, hears the noise and fires a shot at him from the top of the stairs. Sikes gets the injured boy out through the window again, but, when pursued, he and his accomplice Toby Crackit abandon him in a ditch. Oliver manages to struggle back to the house through the drenching rain and knock on the door, to be taken in from the doorstep like a pint of milk. A doctor and a constable are called, the former, Mr Losberne, being a large, hearty, kindly man, seen here later on gesturing at his patient and looking accusingly at poor Giles. The constable (not shown here) is also a large but rather crude person. Losberne, Mrs. Maylie, and her ward Rose quickly decide that Oliver looks too innocent to be taken into police custody, so Losberne hastens to remove suspicion from Oliver by confusing the "thick-headed constable-fellow" (267). This is easily done, especially as the man is now the worse for drink. But then a gig turns up at the door. Giles and Mr. Brittles, the odd-job lad, had taken it on themselves to send for the Bow Street Runners.
Dickens expresses his opinion of the efficiency of the Bow Street Runners, the predecessors of the Metropolitan London Police(the original force of just six constables having found founded by Henry Fielding in 1749 and disbanded in 1839), in the names he gives the officers in Part 14 (May 1838) of The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress . Given their limited ability to conduct the interview, the evasive account that Losberne provides, and the contradictory narratives of Giles and Brittles, it is not surprising that the constables return to London without having made an arrest. Strangely, Cruikshank has made the bed-ridden, feverish Oliver, recovering from his ordeal, look like a miniature adult, and has not subjected the four adults to much visual satire.
The window of Pyrcroft House, Chertsey, which is thought to have been the model for the window featured in this episode (photograph taken of the window in situ in August 2005). The window is now in the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London.
Putting the officers off the scent presents more of a challenge — or it should do. However, neither their names nor their appearances are promising. Cruikshank portrays them very accurately here. Mr Blathers (to "blather" means to talk nonsense) is "a stout personage of middle height, aged about fifty: with shiny black hair, cropped pretty close; half-whiskers, a round face, and sharp eyes." Mr Duff ("duff" is an adjective meaning fake, or not the real thing, and "to duff someone up" means to assault them), is rougher-looking: he is "a red-headed, bony man, in top-boots, with a rather ill-favoured countenance, and a turned-up, sinister-looking nose" (272). As soon as they come into the parlour, Blathers tries to take charge of the situation, putting some handcuffs down on the table, ready to make an arrest. But Duff, who plays the part of the stooge, sits down awkwardly and puts the end of his stick to his mouth. Losberne starts by saying the boy had nothing to do with the attempted burglary. After the pair have poked around for evidence, he softens them up by offering them drinks, which they gratefully accept. Rose encourages them to ramble on about another local case that was never satisfactorily solved.
In the scene illustrated above, the two officers, who have now been conducted to Oliver's bedside, stand between Mr. Losberne and Mr. Giles, who holds a candle. Losberne confuses them, as he had confused the constable previously, by saying that Oliver is simply a boy who came seeking help after having been accidentally wounded in a "boyish trespass" (281). As he had done before, too, he makes it obvious that Giles cannot identify him as one of the robbers, and blames him for Oliver's condition. Giles is again too puzzled by the false account to contradict him. Finally, after going out to nearby Kingston-on-Thames on another meaningless mission, Blathers and Duff depart none the wiser, arguing about the culprits of the other local case they had been discussing. They assume that the same people were involved this time, though they cannot agree on the actual culprit. Like the constable, they are, in short, a comedy turn, especially in comparison with the sympathetic Losberne and Maylies.
In literary terms, bamboozling the incompetent Blather and Duff is useful because it counteracts the sentimentality that surrounds Oliver at the Maylies. It is simply not fair to say that Fagin's den is "the one pocket of vitality and spontaneity in the novel" (Brantlinger 70). There is much else here, including this episode, that comes memorably to life. The episode is also important in another way. Today, misleading police officers would be frowned on. But things were different then. The emphasis was on preventing rather than detecting crime. Investigative policing was not yet on a professional footing: in 1838 the process had not even started. As for the Metropolitan Police, "a small detective force was formed in 1842, was greatly increased numerically in 1869, and was transformed into the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1878" (Petrow 54). In these early days, detective work was viewed with suspicion rather than respect, as a form of spying and intrusion (see Wilson and Finnane 136). Losberne's perversion of an imperfect justice system, in favour of a more reliable higher one, makes a particular point: it suggests a set of values that does not depend on, or even trust, human agencies, overriding them for an acceptable end. As Losberne says to Mrs Maylie and Rose, "the object is a good one, and that must be our excuse" (276).
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Last modified 15 9 December 2014