Manuscript of the Preface to the 1850 edition of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist


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.



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

[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
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].

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

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.

Full title:
Preface to the Present Edition of Oliver Twist
estimated 1850
Manuscript / Draft
Charles Dickens
© Mark Charles Dickens, Head of the Dickens Family
Usage terms
Creative Commons Attribution licence
Held by
British Library

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