The Cheap Edition of Charles Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist, was published in 1850, 13 years after its first appearance as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany. In the Preface to this new edition he took the opportunity to reply to the magistrate Sir Peter Laurie, who had recently dismissed Jacob’s Island, the desolate, decaying neighbourhood where Sikes fell to his death, as a figment of Dickens’s imagination. ‘I was as well convinced then, as I am now,’ Dickens writes, ‘that nothing can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome’.

What is the Cheap Edition?

The Cheap Edition is the first collected edition of Dickens’s novels, published in three series between 1847 and 1867. It was an enterprising venture, carefully devised by Dickens – who was an astute businessman – to appeal to the less affluent. Although the scheme of publication was later modified, the first series was published in weekly numbers at 1½d. [1.25 pence], monthly parts at 7d. [approx. 6 pence] and bound volumes at prices ranging from 2 to 5 shillings [20 to 50 pence]. The original illustrations were not reproduced, but each novel contained a specially commissioned frontispiece and a new Preface.

What does the new Preface tell us about Dickens as an author?

Many readers were startled by the sombre tone of Oliver Twist after the light-hearted comedy of Pickwick Papers. As he grew older Dickens increasingly saw himself as a serious writer with a mission to speak for the poor and powerless. ‘Pray do not ... suppose that I ever write merely to amuse, or without an object,’ he told one of his critics in 1852.


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    Preface to the cheap Edition of Oliver Twist

    at page 267 of this present
    Edition of Oliver Twist, (first published in the year of 38), there is a description
    of “the filthiest, the strangest, the most
    extraordinary, of the many localities that
    are hidden in London.” and ^ the name of this place is is
    called Jacob’s Island.

    I have the honor to belong to the constituent
    body represented, for parochial purposes, by the
    sagacious vestry of Marylebone - an honor which
    I hope I bear meekly. A part of This vestry

    Eleven or twelve years have elapsed, since
    that the description was first published. I was as
    well ^ XXXXX well convinced then, as I am now, that nothing
    effectual can be done for the elevation of the
    poor in England, until their dwelling places are
    made decent clean and wholesome. ^ I have always been xxxx education
    its ef I have ever since been, to the best of my power
    an advocate of what is now call[ed] the Sanitary xxxx ^ Cause
    I was a member of the late Metropolitan Health of

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    [page] 2
    xxxxx conviction convinced that this Reform
    must precede all other Social Reforms; and that
    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ^ it must prepare the [w]ay xxxxx for the xxxfulness xxxxxx
    these natural xxxxxxxxx Education we hope xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
    ixxxxbut xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx hope itself
    ^ even for Religion ; and that
    without it those classes of the people which increase
    the fastest, must become so xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
    defeacted ^ and miserable be made so miserable xxxxmade so bad that the
    whole fabric
    as to bear within themselves the certain
    principle ^seeds of ruin to the whole community

    On Wednesday The Government ^ constitutionally xxxxxx nervous,
    itself ^ being more frightened ^ as to sanitary questions, than it xxx they need have been, by
    the noise of ^ the noisiest members of a few vestries metropolitan vestries and
    other who such bodies; and having in consequence excluded
    the Metropolis (of all places under Heaven) from the
    provisions of the Public Health Act passed last
    year; a Society was formed just now, called the
    Metropolitan Sanitary Association, with xxxxxxxxxx ^ the veiw
    of remedying this grievous mistake made helping
    but right this xxxkedIt ^ The Association held its first public
    meeting at Freemason’s Hall, on Wednesday the
    Sixth of February last, the Bishop of London
    presiding. It ^Now it It happened that this very place, Jacob’s
    Island had ^ lately attracted the attention of the Board
    of Health, in consequence of its having been ravaged
    by cholera, and that Mr Chadwick had placed in

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    the hands of the Bishop of London, as an instance of
    the cheapness of sanitary improvements, their calculations ^ an estimate
    of the ^ probable cost of making ^ at which the houses in Jacob’s Island ^ could be rendered fit
    for human habitation - which ^ cost was ^ stated at about a penny ^ three farthings
    per week per house. The Right Reverend Chairman
    referred ^ referred referred to this paper, with the moderation and forbearance
    which characterised xxxxxxx pervaded all his
    observations, and did me the honor to mention that I
    had described Jacob’s Island when I subsequently made
    a few observations myse[l]f, as a member of the Society
    I confessed that soft impeachment. with all due

    No Now, the vested vestry of Marylebone
    Parish, all ^ meeting on the following Saturday, I had ^might xxxxx
    xxxx allow of the condition is of this sufficient
    enough and I hope I based weekxx
    had the honor to
    be addressed by Sir Peter Laurie; a gentleman of
    of infallible authority, of great innate modesty, and
    of a most sweet humanity. The ^ This summation delivered remarkable Alderman
    as I find ^ am informed by The Observer Newspaper, then and there
    delivered the following xxxxxx himself as follows:

    [the following is an extract from the newspaper attached to the manuscript]
    Having touched upon the point of saving to the poor, he begged to illustrate it
    by reading for them the particulars of a survey that had been made in a lo-
    cality called “Jacob’s Island” - [a laugh] - where, according to the surveyor,
    1,300 houses were erected on 40 acres of ground. The surveyor asserted and
    laid down that each house could be supplied with a constant supply of pure
    water - secondly, that each house could be supplied with a sink - thirdly, a
    water-closet - fourthly, a drain - fifthly, a foundation drain - and sixthly, the
    accommodation of a dust bin [laughter], and all at the average rate of 13s. 4d
    per week [oh, oh, and laughter].
    Mr. G. BIRD: Can Sir Peter Laurie tell the vesty where “Jacob’s Island”
    is [laughter]
    Sir P. LAURIE: That was just what he was about to tell them. The Bishop
    of London, poor soul, in his simplicity, thought there really was such a place,
    which he had been describing so minutely, whereas it turned out that it only
    existed in a work of fiction, written by Mr. Charles Dickens ten years ago

    [roars of laughter]. The fact was admitted by Mr. Charles Dickens himself
    at the meeting
    , and he (Sir P. Laurie) had extracted his words from the same
    paper, the Morning Herald. Mr. Dickens said “Now the first of these classes
    proceeded generally on the supposition that the compulsory improvements of
    these dwellings, when exceedingly defective, would be very expensive. But
    that was a great mistake, for nothing was cheaper than good sanitary improv-
    ments, as they knew in this case of “Jacob’s Island” [laughter], which he had
    described in a work of fiction some 10 or 11 years ago, and where the improve-
    ments had been made at a cost of less than the price of a pint of porter, or of
    two glasses of gin a week to each inhabitant” [laughter]. Now he did hope
    that this industrial training scheme would not turn out like “Jacob’s Island,”
    all fiction [hear, and laughter].

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    When I came to read this, I was so much struck by the
    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx truth, and the xx & xxx wisdom
    of this ^ xxxxxxxxxxxxxx logic and ^ as well as by the fact of the sagacious vestry,
    including Members of Parliament, Magistrates, officers, chemists,
    and I know not who else listening to it meekly (as became
    them) that I resolved ^ determined resolved to record it in this xxxxx place here,
    xxxxxx that as a certain means of making it known
    to many thousands of people and of xxx reflecting upon
    it, and xxxxing xx its universal application; remem-
    bering how when Smolle ^ that when Fielding described Newgate, it
    immediately ceased to exist; that when Smollett
    took Roderick Random to Bath, that city instantly
    vanished from ^ sunk into the earth; that when Scott exercised
    his genius on Whitefriars, it incontinently glided into
    the Thames; that ^ an ancient place called Windsor was ^ hopelessly entirely destroyed in the reign of
    Queen Elizabeth by two Merry Wives of that town xxxxx
    that ^ acting under the direction of a person of the name of
    Shakespeare; and that Mr Pope, after being at a great
    expense to complete his grotto at Twickenham, in-
    cautiously reduced ^ it to ashes, by writing xxx a poem
    upon it; I say when I came to consider these things, I
    was inclined to make this preface the vehicle of my
    humble tribute of admiration to Sir Peter Laurie whom
    I xx ^ xxx But I am restrained ^ xxxx by a very painful consideration - by no less
    a consideration than the impossibility of his ^ his existence.
    For having been himself described in a Book (as I under-
    stand he was, one christmas time, for his conduct on the
    seat of Justice) it is but too clear that there can be xx

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    xxxx no such man!

    Of xxxxx for otherwise; I think I should have asked of him ^ been
    for ^ quite sure of his concurrence in the following passage- written, thirty
    years ago by my late lamented friend the Revere[n]d Sydney
    Smith, that great master of wit, and terror of Noodles, and
    singularly applicable to the present time.

    “We have been thus particular in stating the
    case, that we may make an answer to those profligate
    persons who are always ready to fling an air of ridicule
    upon the labors of humanity, because they are desirous
    that what they have not the virtue to do
    themselves, should appear to be foolish and
    romantic when done by others. A still hig higher
    degree of depravity than this, is to want every sort
    of compassion for human misery, when it is accompanied
    by filth, poverty and ignorance, - to regulate humanity
    by the income tax, and to deem the bodily wretchedness
    and the dirty tears of the poor, a fit subject for
    pleasantry and contempt. We should have been
    loath to believe that such deep-seated and
    disgusting immorality existed in these days; but the
    notice of it is forced upon us”

    If any person, in xxxxxx ^ a distorted appetite for
    xxxxxxxx ^ notoriety, should henceforth assume the name and
    title of Sir Peter Laurie, he ^ that person will please to take notice (after
    the precedent of John Partridge and Isaac Bickerstaff) that
    he is dead.

    Devonshire Terrace
    March 1850.