Comment: Right of Reply

Yesterday, Steven Berkoff argued that the character of Fagin is a Jewish villain who should not be sanitised. Here the Professor of English at University College, London, responds
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The Independent Culture
"DON'T DEPRIVE us of our best villains," says Steven Berkoff. "Save Our Fagin". It's an unusual battle slogan, even from this pugnacious man of the theatre. What next: "Bring back the Black and White Minstrels"? What would Dickens have said about Alan Bleasdale's "whitewashing" of Fagin in the forthcoming ITV series into a character who "is only incidentally a Jew"? He would not, I think, have been quite as up in the air about it as Steven Berkoff.

Oliver Twist was a very early novel. And Dickens was profoundly unhappy in later life about Fagin - a characterisation that he saw as one of the sins of his literary youth. Eliza Davis, the wife of a banker friend, pointed out feelingly to him (20 years later) that the portrayal of Fagin had done a "great wrong" to Jews. Dickens agreed, and made amends with the saintly Riah in his late novel Our Mutual Friend. He also, in later editions, removed many of the numerously offensive references to "the Jew" in Oliver Twist.

Some offences can't be whitewashed out of the novel. Fagin's frying sausages (pork, get it?) when Oliver first sees him, for example. And if - as Steven Berkoff asserts - Fagin is one of our "best villains", exactly what villainy is he hanged for? The novel never tells us. He hasn't killed anyone. He has stolen a thing or two. Dickens (the young Dickens, that is) hangs him because he's dirty and because he's a Jew. You can't unwrite novels that have become part of the nation's heritage. But my guess is that if Dickens were adapting Oliver Twist for dramatic performance in 1999 he'd do exactly what Alan Bleasdale is going to do: tone down the depiction of Fagin, and limit the damage. You want to save Fagin? Make him acceptable to the 1990s.

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