Oliver Twist, the tale of a young boy who rebels against the workhouse to lift himself from poverty, has echoes of the author's own harsh and lonely upbringing.
Now, 167 years after it was published, a "real life" Oliver Twist, the true source for the story of the boy who dared to ask for more, has supposedly been uncovered.
The author and academic John Waller claims in a new book that the story was inspired by a London-born child called Robert Blincoe, who at the turn of the 19th century spent four grim years in the workhouse before he was packed off to a cotton mill - with more abuse, regular beatings and hours of back-breaking work.
In The Real Oliver Twist, to be published next month, Dr Waller will suggest that Dickens was likely to have read Blincoe's memoir and that there are strong parallels between the two stories.
The revelation will reopen the debate about whether, as in a number of Dickens's other books, the central character of Twist was based on a real person. In Bleak House, several characters were based on people he knew, while his own father John appeared in Our Mutual Friend.
But it has generally been assumed that, for Oliver Twist, the author relied on his own experiences - as a 12-year-old, he spent 10 hours a day in a factory when his family fell on hard times.
Publication of Dr Waller's book comes as interest in the story of Twist is set to intensify, with a multimillion-pound movie made by the Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski due to hit cinemas next month.
Details of the book are being kept under wraps by Icon, its publisher, until it appears on 6 October, and the "inspiration" claim will be pored over keenly by Dickens experts, who have been largely unaware of any connection.
Peter Ackroyd, who wrote an exhaustive biography of the writer, said he had "never heard of Blincoe".
And Professor John Sutherland, a scholar of Victorian fiction, said he was eager to hear the evidence, as he had not previously come across this supposed inspiration.
Blincoe's tale was recorded by John Brown, a journalist from Bolton, who was so intrigued after speaking to him for a short article that he went on to chronicle his entire early life. The account was published in five instalments in the radical newspaper The Lion in early 1828, then in its own right as a pamphlet, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, some four years later.
Blincoe was born in 1792 in the parish of St Pancras and placed in the workhouse at the age of four. He never learnt what happened to his parents. At six he was sent to work sweeping chimneys, as were many youngsters then, but returned to the St Pancras workhouse within a few months.
By 1799, he was recruited, along with dozens of children from the same workhouse, to learn the stocking-weaving trade at Lowdham Mill, 10 miles from Nottingham.
Like Twist, Blincoe managed to turn his life around. By the time he was 25 he had set up his own small cotton-spinning business, although he suffered a severe setback in 1828, when a fire destroyed his machinery and, without an income, he was put in a debtor's jail. But in later life he became a cotton waste dealer, financing a decent education for his children, with one son attending Cambridge University and joining the clergy.
The revelations in Waller's book have taken Dickens scholars by surprise. Sophie Slade, curator of the Dickens Museum in London, while not herself aware of Blincoe, said: "It would not be that surprising if Dickens had read about [him]. During his life, Dickens carefully studied the communities he wrote about. For Nicholas Nickleby, he travelled through Yorkshire, visiting schools."
However, Thelma Grove, joint secretary of the international Dickens Fellowship, said: "I have certainly seen no evidence that Dickens based his character Oliver Twist on this boy Robert Blincoe." Had he done so, she said, there would have been some reference to the boy in his writings, most probably in his letters to his first biographer, John Forster. "But Blincoe is not mentioned. I've never heard that Twist was based on one particular person. It is an interesting idea, but if it's not in Dickens's letters or writing, then I tend to think it's not right.
"As far as we can tell, Twist was an imagined character - after all, it would be amazing for a real boy to go through everything he did and still be such a little gentleman. But, obviously Dickens must have made use of certain personality elements of people who lived at the time."
Dr Gillian Sutherland, a social historian at Cambridge University, said: "This is a period when the issues of the Poor Law and child labour were being hotly debated. There were huge amounts of material appearing all over the place, so it would be difficult to identify this as the particular trigger for Oliver Twist unless there is some sort of hard evidence that it was thrust under his nose."
As well as the release of the new movie on 7 October, starring Ben Kingsley, interest in Dickens will be further heightened in a new BBC1 production of Bleak House next month, to be shown, soap-style, in twice-weekly half-hour episodes. Penguin is preparing for a rush of interest in both titles.
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