As a child I was obsessed with mapping fiction. While others were out enjoying fresh air and mucky-kneed society I toiled away in my attic scrawling my own maps to wrangle some locational sense from the Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Springfield, and the physically impossible Rovers Return (my heart still races with anger thinking about how the back kitchen would actually be half-way across Rosamund Street).
I still like to know where things should be especially when if book set in a real city. I have retraced Mrs Dalloway's stroll to get flowers and can't read Sherlock Holmes without cross-examining each journey with Google Maps. And so this week I investigated/Googled where exactly the back alleys, dodgy pubs, and posh homes of Oliver Twist were meant to be. Luckily Dickens was equally obsessed with geographic detail. He mentions 93 unique London locations in the book and it all makes sense. That is my kind of writer.
I imagined Oliver Twist followed the expected divide between the slums of the East End and the leafy avenues of the West but actually the contrast is drawn between two areas of London whose fortunes have changed dramatically since 1839.
Fagin's den is just off Saffron Hill, near Farringdon station (which means that unlike every other costume drama's obsessive need to stick St Paul's into the background, it does make sense here). These days it's a characterless Pret and glass-building commercial hub where businessfolk have a 'cheeky pint' after work, but then...
“A dirtier of more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.”
Meanwhile Oliver's posh saviour Mr Brownlow lived "a quiet shady street near Pentonville" which brings us just east of Kings Cross and west of Islington. It was then a mecca for upwardly-mobile living (in fact was the first planned suburb in London) but, while still probably unaffordable for most people, is far from the aspirational hot-spot it once was. There's now large prison stuck on it and a higher crime rate than Fagin's end of town.
So in conclusion - Fagin solidly beat Brownlow in the property investment stakes. He'd be laughing had he only just held-on to life for 180 years and not been fictional.
Further info on the location in Oliver Twist HERE
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