Many of us know the story of Oliver Twist, though far lesser of us have actually read Dickens’ classic book. A famous Broadway musical, several children’s books, multiple film adaptations and even cartoon variations have abounded in the 150 years since it was first published. While the main story lines each version—a poor orphaned boy gets into trouble with some criminals but eventually finds a good home—there is something dramatically missing in all of them that was a strong statement in Dickens’ original: Oliver’s friend Nancy was a prostitute.
Prostitution was not illegal in London in the mid-XIX century, and while it may have been looked down on by the higher social circles it was considered a viable occupation for single women of the lower class. Indeed, prostitute’s health were actually better and they enjoyed a higher standard of living than their peers in other professions, who would labor under 14 hour days for less money. Studies estimate that there were over 50,000 prostitutes in London alone in 1850—one for every 36 citizens.
Further than that, prostitutes were employed to service enrolled men in the military, who were unable to wed during their term of service. As homosexuality was becoming more popular in the army, women would be brought in to have sex with them and squelch their appetites. By late 1860s only 1 in 3 military men did not suffer from some sort of venereal disease for this reason.
The woman were primarily young—in their twenties—and were either orphaned or half-orphaned, having lost one parent. Some would raise illegitimate children, but for the most part prostitution was just a temporary occupation, one given up when the woman married, often to a former John. Like our escorting business today, prostitution was not condoned as something a woman did forever—it was a platform that would bring her to a better quality of life.
Charles Dickens had extreme sympathy for prostitutes, so much so that he even founded Urania Cottage, a home for “fallen women” to help reclaim them. His sympathy was not judgmental; his intentions were truly to give the women a new chance at education, family and respectability. Yet he was criticized for opening, funding and playing an active role in the cottage, and his character of Nancy criticized for being a woman of the street.
In Oliver Twist, Oliver runs away from the orphanage where he was savagely beaten and emotionally exhausted. While on the street he runs into a gang called “Fagin’s Boys”. He innocently doesn’t realize that “making handkerchiefs” means that they’re going to steal on the street from passersby, and upon his first outing gets caught by the man his comrades stole from.
Throughout the story, Oliver is shuttled between Fagin’s gang and wealthy patrons who see the good in him and want to give him a home. Realizing his worth and understanding that Oliver could rat him out and get all the boys into trouble, Fagin and his cohort Bill Sikes plan to use Oliver as best they can. It is only through Sikes’ girlfriend, Nancy, that Oliver is saved.
Nancy is part of the gang—a poor woman who works the streets and practices prostitution, though she is dearly in love with Sikes, who treats her roughly and often beats her, eventually beating her to death when told that she betrayed him (she didn’t, of course).
Fagin, Sikes and Nancy all die by the novel’s end, but it was Dickens’ treatment of Nancy’s death that caused the most chaos: critics questioned why Dickens would give a “whoring slut of the streets” redemption. Though Nancy is originally involved in thieving along with the men and boys and plays a part in Oliver’s initial trouble, her kindness and concern for him lead her to betray the gang for his safety, informing his wealthy benefactors of a plot against him. Unlike Sikes and Fagin, who die miserable, in pain and without atonement, Nancy dies with a clean soul and in a prayerful position.
Dickens’ opinion of escorts at the time coincides with one aspect of the way their trade was looked at in society—that good women often had no choice but to enter into the profession when they needed to make money to survive during hard times. And with that profession and the roughness of urban life during economically failing times, sometimes things got dark.
An alternative first title for Oliver Twist was The Parish Boy’s Progress, which was in part based on a series of caricatures entitled A Harlot’s Progress. In them the artist William Hogarth shows an innocent woman coming to London for work, seemingly to work in a dress shop. She gets lured into becoming an prostitute and a kept woman for a wealthy man, and then progresses to prostitution. While the final pieces in the series are incredibly sad, the work as a whole is presented without judgment and with sympathy: bad things have happened to “Moll”, the female center of the piece, through no fault of her own. Though she dies in pain and poor, she dies with a maid who loves her, a son at her feet, and enough wealth that there’s something to be stolen from her when she dies.
Similarly, Dickens’ redemption of Nancy is set apart from the purely selfish and desperate actions of Fagin and Sikes: they are the villains, Nancy the savior.
In further adaptations of the tale Nancy’s profession is reduced to being a flower-seller, and we know from the beginning that she is a good person and on Oliver’s side. We see her as the heroine from the get-go. So what is fascinating in Dickens’ original tale is that the reader gets to see Nancy’s transformation—not so much in regards to prostitution, but more so for choosing to not join Fagin and Sikes in using Oliver, rather giving him the chance at a better life.
In 1864, a few decades after Oliver Twist was published, the Contagious Disease Act was passed, primarily to make sure that escorts were checked medically so that they didn’t pass venereal diseases to their military clients. For the next few decades, the purpose of the acts transformed to becoming something a moral issue: society had created a world where women had to prostitute themselves, and that needed to change. They needed to be redeemed, needed opportunities for better work and a higher goal in life.
What is a beautiful, common through line connecting Dickens’ tale, newspaper articles of the period and the general understanding of prostitution from the perspective of the lower classes in the Victorian era is the extreme sympathy and understanding of prostitution as a profession. The lower classes were generally more liberal sexually, and so prostitution was never even questioned as being particularly disrespectful. While it obviously wasn’t the ideal situation for a woman to find herself in and is not comparable to the escorting trade today, it was work. It was a living. It was a life.
As Nancy sings in Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of the novel:
Small pleasures, small pleasures,
Who would deny us these?
Gin toddies—large measures—
No skimping if you please!
I rough it. I love it.
Life is a game of chance.
I’ll never tire of it—
Leading this merry dance.
If you don’t mind having to go without things,
It’s a fine life!