It seems likely that, in writing with such conviction and clarity about Oliver Twist’s workhouse experiences as a young orphan, Dickens knew something of what went on inside. But what’s far more remarkable is that so few of his biographers followed up the connection between his sometime family home as a child and young man on Norfolk Street, London, and the building that stood only a few doors away from him and his family: the Cleveland Street Workhouse.
Only when Ruth Richardson became involved in a campaign to save the building did she discover the connection herself, and it has resulted in this marvellous history, which thoroughly enjoys a bit of mischievous speculation (there are plenty of “must haves” and “surely would haves” to send a shudder through the hearts of more conservative biographers). What importance does it have for us as readers of Dickens? It establishes him as a man who drew from life around him, as Richardson captures with certainty the stories of the poor of the area, such as the woman in labour, turned away from the workhouse door as one of the “undeserving”, whose baby died in the street. She emphasises the effects of the harsh New Reform Act and its place in one of Dickens’s most famous novels. For a boy whose family ended up in the Marshalsea Prison for debt for a time, and who had to work in a blacking factory as a child, the spectre of the workhouse would have loomed large in his young life indeed.
Richardson weaves together the art and the life – the effect that wearing the calico workhouse uniform has on an individual, for instance – through this one building, to place Dickens right on the street, in his house, among his neighbours. It is a lively, compassionate, and revealing account of the man and his times.