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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Real Oliver Twist. John Waller. Icon Books Ltd (2005)

Robert Blincoe was the child of an unmarried mother who was left at the workhouse in the parish of St. Pancras in London at the age of four in 1796. This placed him on the lowest rung of a rigid, hierarchical society which considered poverty the fault of the poor. As a inmate of a parish workhouse he was saved from starvation by the deeply begrudged charity of the local community. His future was bleak in the extreme, the parish was desperate to reduce the drain on its resources by moving the children on, one method was to apprentice the children to various trades. Robert Blincoe was so anxious to leave the workhouse that he hoped to be taken on by a chimney sweep, the most dreaded outcome for workhouse children, the conditions were appalling and life expectant short. In the end he was apprenticed to a cotton mill in Lancashire where he was subject to lavish abuse and degrading working conditions. Robert Blincoe defied the expectations of society to rise to a position of stable prosperity and his children were educated. He was to become a central figure in the factory hours movement due to his biography which told his extraordinary story.

John Waller places Robert Blincoe firmly within the political, economic and social contexts that he moved through. The use of child labour in the cotton mills and the whole issue of factory labour, the enormous and savage political debates that surrounded them are clearly explained. That Robert Blincoes biography had an influence on the writing of Oliver Twist is strongly suggested, it certainly had a significant impact on other novels.

This is a really well written book, the relationship between Robert Blincoe and his society are clearly developed and demonstrated. John Waller does not over argue Robert Blincoe's significance nor does he diminish his exceptional nature. This is not an impartial history, John Waller has clearly expressed views which give the book a thread of anger and passion which it deserves. This is a vivid, articulate, uncomfortable book that reveals that the same narrow threadbare arguments that were used to justify child labour have not gone out of fashion today. Superb.

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