Dickens' greatest villain: The faces of Fagin

In the latest version of Oliver Twist, one of the most controversial characters in English literature is played by a Jewish actor. But is that enough to allay the charges of stereotyping and prejudice that have dogged the footsteps of the evil old gangmaster since the day he sprang from his creator's pen? Paul Vallely reports

When Oliver Twist was serialised in 1837 it was a sensational success. And the crafty old Jew who runs a school for child thieves was central to its compelling portrait of life among the criminals and prostitutes of London's East End. It was controversial from the outset. Polite novelists did not write about what Dickens later described as "the very dregs of life". It was all a world away from the jollity of The Pickwick Papers. But it is what many have seen as the anti-Semitism running through Dickens' depiction of the menacing figure of Fagin that has made it most controversial.

The book, like all Dickens' work, has never been out of print - hardly surprising since it combines a gripping narrative with graphic characterisation, social conscience and heart-tugging sentimentality in measured proportions. The plot of Oliver Twist has been adapted for the screen more than 20 times, the latest of which by Roman Polanski opens in Britain today. But the character of Fagin has transcended the storyline to become, like only a handful of other literary figures, a character in his own right.

Members of the Jewish community were concerned from the outset. In 1854 the Jewish Chronicle was lamenting as to why "Jews alone should be excluded from 'the sympathising heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed". Oliver Twist, like so many of Dickens' novels, had been a campaigning book, targeted against the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which threw huge numbers of the destitute poor into conditions of semi-imprisonment. But the book repeatedly referred to Fagin - no less than 257 times in the first 38 chapters - as "the Jew" whereas the race and religion of other villain, Bill Sikes, goes unremarked.

Even so, Dickens' response was naïve or disingenuous. "I know of no reason the Jews can have for regarding me as 'inimical' to them," he told the Westminster Jewish Free School, saying that in his Child's History of England he had expressed "a strong abhorrence" of treatment of the Jews.

But then in 1860 he put his house up for sale. It was bought by a man whom Dickens described to a friend as "a Jew money-lender" but whom he later came to describe as honest, considerate and a gentleman. Three years later, the new owner's wife, Eliza Davis, wrote to the novelist expressing surprise that "Charles Dickens, the large-hearted, whose works plead so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country ... has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew". He had done, she said, "a great wrong" to the Jewish people.

At first Dickens was defensive. Fagin was the only Jew in the story, he said, and "all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians". Fagin had been described as a Jew, he explained, "because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew". If Jews were offended, he said, then "they are a far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed".

There was more to this than artful dodging. "Dickens was relatively free of the conventional anti-Semitism prevalent among early Victorians," says Andrew Xavier, curator of the Dickens House Museum. Even so, Mrs Davis was uncowed.

"I cannot dispute the fact that at the time to which Oliver Twist refers, there were some Jews, receivers of stolen goods," she wrote in a recently discovered letter. The professional avenues open to Ashkenazi Jews were severely limited in those days, as Ben Kingsley, who plays Fagin in the Polanski version, acknowledges: "It basically came down to ... you can buy and sell secondhand clothes, you can be a ragpicker and you can unofficially lend money."

Even so, Mrs Davis told Dickens archly: "I hazard the opinion that it would well repay an author to examine more closely into the manners and character of the British Jews and to represent them as they really are."

Dickens' response was twofold. He halted the reprinting of Oliver Twist - which was halfway through - and altered the text which had not yet been set (which is why, still today, Fagin is called "the Jew" 257 times in the first 38 chapters but in only a small percentage of the 179 references in the rest of the book).

And in his next, and what proved to be his final novel, Our Mutual Friend, he includes a major character, Riah (the word means "friend" in Hebrew) whose goodness is almost as complete as is Fagin's evil - and who offers this eloquent indictment of anti-Jewish prejudice: "Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews ... they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say 'All Jews are alike'." Mrs Davis sent Dickens a copy of Benisch's Hebrew and English Bible, in gratitude for his atonement.

But there is more to the story of Fagin than the intentions of his creator. For Fagin has assumed a mythic status. Dickens knew no Jews when he conceived the character (it was based on newspaper reports of a real-life Jewish fence named Ikey Solomons who died in 1850). But Fagin stands on the shoulders of a long line of literary Jewish villains, the mystery-play portrayal of Barrabas, the cut-throats of Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale; Marlowe's monstrous Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's Shylock. None of these were drawn from reality - there were no Jews in England after their expulsion in 1290 until they were unofficially invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1664. But the Jew was a vilified abstraction in medieval legend and folklore. Fagin grew fully formed from this tradition.

"Fagin is no ordinary villain," says Milton Kerker, writing for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. "He is the traditional medieval Jewish bogeyman, the Jew who is not a mere vicarious atavism of Satan, but the grotesque Jew, the crafty Jew in whose heart Satan is actually lodged."

And if you think that is fanciful, read how Dickens introduces his villain - standing before a fire, fork in hand, with a villainous and repulsive face, and matted red hair. Red hair was worn by the devil in medieval mystery plays. Dickens several times refers to Fagin as the "merry old gentleman", an ancient euphemism for the devil, as is the phrase Bill Sikes uses when he says Fagin looks as if he has come straight from "the old 'un without any father at all betwixt you".

In the literary subconscious Fagin is cast in the traditional Satanic role of corrupting the innocent, a Mephistophelean devil who seeks out Christian children. In Fagan's prison cell, Oliver offers to pray with the condemned man. "Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we will talk till morning." But the Jew is impervious to these Christian entreaties. Whatever Dickens' intention he was peddling a myth that has poisoned the psyche of the Western world.

Historians of cinema offer an interesting commentary on that. Over the past 100 years the portrait of Jews in film has evolved revealingly. In the silent-movie era, Jews, where they were not grasping money lenders, were pictured along with the Irish and blacks as buffoons. In the 1920s there were quaint ethnic minority features with names like Frisco Sally Levy and Kosher Kitty Kelly. And the conflict between an American and a Jew was the subtext to the first real talkie, The Jazz Singer, though Jewish characters were noticeable by their absence from screens in the 1930s. Jews were there only tentatively in Second World War films and it was not until 1948 that Gentleman's Agreement confronted American anti-Semitism, though the producer Darryl Zanuck was not Jewish.

That year also saw the first significant film version of Oliver Twist (there had been an unmemorable Tod Browning low-budget version with Lon Chaney in 1922). David Lean's brooding 1948 version was greatly acclaimed at the time, but its Fagin, moodily played by Alec Guinness, raised the old controversies.

In the United States this monochrome morality tale was censored to remove the depictions of Fagin which were considered most offensive. It is an extraordinary testimony to the depth and potency of the enduring myth that it was considered possible to render such a portrait just five years after a shocked world saw pictures from inside the Nazi concentration camps and learned the awful truth about a Holocaust in which six million Jews died. Though the story has been revisited on the big and small screens many times, most versions since have been TV serials, children's cartoons or modernisations such as Jacob Tierney's Twist (set among male prostitutes in modern-day Toronto). The next major version was Carol Reed's 1968 adaptation of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! in which the Jewishness issue was side-stepped by Ron Moody's playing Fagin for laughs, leaving the menace to Oliver Reed's Bill Sikes.

The version out this week ought to avoid controversy. After all, Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor who was only 11 years old when the war ended, and whose parents were sent to concentration camps. His affinity for Oliver comes from an entirely different direction from that in previous versions. His screenwriter Ronald Harwood is also Jewish - while the actor portraying Fagin, Ben Kingsley, has Jewish ancestry on his mother's side. "I had a yellow star on three different overcoats in three different films with three different numbers on them," he says, recalling the fact that he has played Simon Wiesenthal, Otto Frank and, perhaps his most acclaimed role, Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List.

Even that may not be enough. "While Fagin is bleached of his explicit Jewishness," the film critic Saul Austerlitz complained after the Polanski version opened in New York, "Fagin is still outfitted with a comically exaggerated proboscis. . . [He] paces the floor muttering "oy, oy" to himself again and again. Fagin may not be wearing a yarmulke, and no one in Polanski's film calls him a Jew, but on a slightly more subterranean level, this Oliver Twist still engages in some fairly rancid physical stereotypes."

"Please, sir, I want some more," young Oliver most famously says. But there are plenty of people who clearly feel we have had quite enough already.

The great performances

Dickens described his creation as "a very old, shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face is obscured by a quantity of matted red hair." In George Cruikshank's original illustration, he looks middle-aged, wears a nightcap as well as a broad-brimmed hat, and sits in terrified solitude chewing his nails as he anticipates his grisly fate.

Lon Chaney (1922)

In the first Hollywood version, Chaney (who also played the Wolf Man) plays Fagin as a hunched monster - emaciated, clad in rags, with protruding teeth and claw-like hands. "I was so frightened by this man," reported seven-year-old Jackie Coogan, playing Oliver, "the only thing that got me out of it, when we started to do our scene and I got close to him, was the smell of spirit gum..."

Alec Guinness (1948)

The highlight of David Lean's dark and sinister adaptation was Guinness's grotesque caricature. Vastly hook-nosed, heavy of eyelids, straggle-bearded and indefinably filthy, this Fagin yet had a seductive side to him, announced by his alligator smile, his sleepy Levantine croak and his way of saying "My dear..." He was ancient, but still as playful as the boys needed him to be. The pederastic signals are unmistakable. But the Jewish stereotyping delayed the film's release in the US for three years.

Ron Moody (1966)

Carol Reed, the director of Oliver!, invested most of the film's evil in Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) leaving Moody to play Fagin as a trickster, a light-fingered ne'er-do-well, glorying in his own wickedness. "There's a great deal of humour there if you look for it," commented Moody. Barely 30, he played the "very old" thief with a capering glee that brought him an Oscar nomination. And the long coat and broad-brimmed hat from Cruickshank's illustration came out of retirement.

Richard Dreyfuss (1997)

The made-for-TV Disney version of Oliver Twist was never going to risk upsetting people. Dreyfuss studied Moody's and Guinness's portrayals closely, and raided the make-up department to achieve the requisite haggardness. His Fagin is a million miles from Guinness's - a tough-minded, sometimes ruthless character with occasional (hopeful) glimpses of a loveable rogue.

Robert Lindsay (1997 and 1999)

Lindsay played the role on the West End stage in 1997, and also in the 1999 ITV mini-series directed by Alan Bleasdale. Anxious to avoid Yiddish stereotyping, Bleasdale turned him into a warm and endearing Czech magician. Lindsay portrayed him with lank hair and beard - and gave him Yiddish speech inflections anyway. No Guinness-style fake nose, though.

John Walsh

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