Oliver and the Master of the Workhouse
12.5 x 8.8 cm framed
First illustration for The Adventures of Oliver Twist, Centenary Edition (1912), facing p. 16.
Dickens's original illustrator, George Cruikshank in Bentley's Miscellany began the novel's serial run with a realisation of the scene in the workhouse refectory when Oliver, egged on by the other starving inmates, dares to challenge the authority of the parochial functionary by asking for a second helping. Subsequent illustrators including Harry Furniss in 1910 and Charles Pears in 1912 have included a version of the scene in their programs. [Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
[Chapter 2, "Treats of Oliver Twist's Growth, Education, and Board," p. 11-12]
In the Household Edition sequence by James Mahoney, the reader encounters Oliver's asking for more as the third illustration, the first being the frontispiece which establishes the plot involving the lost heir, The Evidence Destroyed. Similarly, in the 1910 Charles Dickens Library volume, Harry Furniss introduces the issue of Oliver's parentage in Oliver and His Mother's Portrait before starting the boy's story with Starvation in the Workhouse. Two years later, Charles Pears' approach was to introduce the subplot involving the housebreaker and his doxy first with the Fred Barnard frontispiece from his series of Scenes and Characters from Dickens.
Pears' title is revealing, for this is a study in contrasts rather than a political cartoon assailing the excesses of cost-saving measures in parochial workhouses of the early Victorian era. Gone, therefore, are the shocked attendants and the breathless audience of pauper boys who have drawn lots to make Oliver their spokesman; the confrontation is between binary opposites entirely, the corpulent, balding, middle-aged, perfectly normal official and the small, rake-thin, large-headed boy in ill-fitting clothing. No previous treatment brings the confrontation of these two opposites — establishmentarian figure and rank outsider — down to these bare essentials; here, Oliver is not acting a spokesperson selected by fate (the drawing of lots) to ask for more on behalf of his fellow paupers — an engaged audience in previous treatments. Rather, in Pears Oliver tentatively approaches the big man with the ladle. The unflustered Master, in respectable middle-class tailcoat (despite the apron) is mildly curious and somewhat surprised, but hardly indignant or shocked at the effrontery of the small petitioner. Diffidently, Oliver asserts himself against an institution (as personified by the Master and the brick cooking facility behind him) wholly lacking in empathy for the indigent children in its charge. Both Oliver and the Master in this revision are closely based on the previous treatments by the original illustrator, George Cruikshank, and Pears' immediate predecessor, Harry Furniss. The juxtaposition and poses of the two Pears figures are virtually identical to those in the Cruikshank original, but the aperture behind the matron in the earlier illustration has become a stout wooden door immediately behind the Master here, as if he blocks Oliver's passage. The middle space between boy and man in Pears is occupied by the small ladle, by which the illustrator seems to be implying that Oliver will be successful in his suit. In contrast to visual satirist Furniss's exaggerated caricature of the adults' disbelief at the tiny Oliver's temerity, Pears offers realistic portraiture, figures of more realistic proportions, and possessing far less emotional expressions, so that one must read Dickens's text to assess Oliver's motives and the Master's reaction. Furniss's theatrical crowd scene has shrunk to a momentary conversation between just the child and adult, a conversation devoid of an audience of which Furniss makes readers a part.
In James Mahoney's redrafting of the celebrated scene for the The Household Edition in 1871, a rake-thin Oliver innocently gestures towards the fat master with his bowl. Nothing separates the the viewer from the naieve boy in penitential uniform, and the focal point of the picture is clearly the boy and the master, the largest figures in the picture. Whereas in the original 1837 steel engraving the overfed "master" scowls at the temerity of the scrawny waif, while the eight other survivors of the starving system look on in suspense, Mahoney has turned the master's face away from the reader, and has repositioned the matron, who now expresses merely modest astonishment (centre rear) at Oliver's unorthodox behaviour. Although the lineaments of the scenario are much the same in Furniss's reinterpretation, the overall effect is far more kinetic and emotionally charged — an not without some comic distortion and melodramatic exaggeration. In particular, Furniss has given the tiny protagonist a look of stern defiance wholly absent in previous interpretations in this David-versus-Goliath confrontation of scrawny underdog taking on the corpulent establishmentarian figure in what amounts to Socialistic propaganda. Whereas previous illustrators have focussed on the plump, incredulous functionary and the emaciated petitioner, Furniss presents the entire social context of the dramatic moment, placing the eight other boys, individually realised, in the foreground so that the reader approaches the lithograph as if it were a theatrical scene, including two shocked elderly female assistants (upper centre).
Even lacking the support of the Master's female assistants, in Pears' treatment the functionary is in an unequal contest with the wraith of a boy. Although a rebel as a result of social pressure, Oliver here is relatively nondescript; what strikes us about the petitioner is his awkward thinness. In contrast, as the writer of the introduction to the Centenary volume, A. C. Benson, notes,
All the richness of the book, all its characterisation, lies in the evil, grotesque, tainted, pompous figures which it contains. [xi]
The first of these is Bumble, the parish beadle; the second is the Master of the Workhouse: large, unpleasant, mean-spirited, self-serving functionaries of a heartless system designed not to cure poverty but to eliminate by systematic starvation the boys who would otherwise grow up to be charges upon the state in prisons, refuges, and union workhouses. The scene in Pears is all very well, with a bemused rather than an outraged authority whose hyperbolic reaction in Furniss and Cruikshank both amuses the readers and prods them, as comfortable members of the book-buying and periodical-consuming middle class, to ponder whether such enormities as Bumble and the Master of the Workhouse should be tolerated in a progressive, democratic society. In short, what Pears' treatment substitutes for Dickensian mirth and indignation is mere portraiture.
Illustrations from the original 1837-38 serial publication and later editions
Left: George Cruikshank's illustration Oliver Asking for More (Part 1, February 1837). Centre: Harry Furniss's pen and ink study of the hungry boys, Starvation in the Workhouse. Right: Kyd's original watercolour study of Oliver asking for a second helping, Oliver Twist (c. 1900). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: James Mahoney's 1871 engraving of Oliver challenging the dietary system of the Mudfog workhouse, "Uncaptioned Headpiece for Chapter One". [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 19 March 2015