#CarrotRanch #FlashFiction Challenge: Watching the Hanging @Charli_Mills

This post was written in response to Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch’s weekly Flash Fiction Challenge

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February 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher. Respond by February 21, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 22). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

Here’s my take:

Watching the Hanging

‘We’re going to Horsemonger Lane, Boys,’ said Fagin.

Dodger pulled away. ‘Ain’t nothing there except Southwark prison.’

‘A public hanging!’ said Fagin.

When they arrived, the street was teaming with watchers, howling, screeching and yelling like animals.

Oliver gasped. The place was crawling with thieves and prostitutes fighting and shouting obscenities.

‘Might as well get some work done. Look, there’s a fancy looking toff over there,’ said Fagin, pointing to Charles Dickens.

‘Bet I can half inch his bread and honey,’ bragged Dodger.

‘Watch the hanging carefully, boys,’ warned Fagin. ‘Remember, if you get caught you’ll be brown bread.’

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Some words explained:

Toff (Victorian slang) = rich man

Half inch (cockney slang) = pinch (London/UK slang) = steal

Brown bread (cockney slang) = dead

fagin__oliver_and_dodger_six__by_thebarefootedsasha oliver

The former flash fiction was inspired by a real event, which took place in London in 1849.

Dickens attended the execution of Mr. And Mrs. Manning, convicted of murdering a friend and stealing his money, on November 13, 1849 at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark.

It was called the “Hanging of the Century” at the time because it was the first husband and wife execution in 150 years. Dickens and a huge crowd of rowdy, blood-thirsty Londoners (between 30 and 50 thousand) watched the public execution, performed outside the prison.

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                         Maria and Frederick Manning.

Dickens wrote a scathing letter to The Times condemning the crowd, which can be read at the end of this post.

There were thousands of public hangings in the UK in the 19th century (more figures here). It was indeed a harrowing practice, meant to deter possible criminals, although it actually had the opposite effect. Pickpockets, prostitutes, and all types of petty criminals gathered around the event to carry out their illicit jobs. The police were enormously relieved when public hangings were abolished in England and Scotland, in 1868, because they drew huge crowds and greatly altered public order.

Public executions, and other types of punishment, have been part of most world cultures over the centuries. Looking back always makes me think what a long way we’ve come in Europe, from being the bloodthirsty barbarian spectators at the Roman coliseum, through public punishments such as whippings, the stocks, the pillory, to abolishing capital punishment altogether from our legal system in the 20th century. 

More about public hangings in the UK here.

Conclusion: violence does not deter violence, it breeds violence.

I’ve learnt over time, that all problems have simple solutions, or none at all:

If there’s a solution, Education is almost always the answer.

It’s a simple solution, but it’s not cheap to organise and offer or easy to train teachers and reach students, nevertheless it’s always worthwhile and rewarding.

Children without an education, like Oliver and Dodger in Victorian England, stood a 50% chance of being hanged or imprisoned, as Dodger will no doubt be in the future, as Bill Sykes and Fagin were, or ‘saved’ by a kinder, more socially conscious society, who will educate them and enable them to lead criminal free lives, like Oliver.  

I’ve also included Dickens’ letter condemning the event, below.

English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), circa 1860. (Photo by John & Charles Watkins/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870), circa 1860. (Photo by John & Charles Watkins/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Some people at the time, and even today, unbelievably accuse him of being bloodthirsty himself, for watching the hanging. Well, that’s like accusing a war correspondent of enjoying a war; a bit of twisted logic, I’d say.

Dickens’ letter to The Times Nov. 13, 1849

I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from day-break until after the spectacle was over… I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of ‘Mrs. Manning’ for ‘Susannah’, and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly-as it did-it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

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I love that Dickens wrote to make the world a better place, and campaigned for civil rights and a more socially conscious society in his private life, too. How can anyone not admire him?

 

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens! #amreading #amreviewing Oliver Twist

Today’s a very special day for English literature. On this day, 7th February, in 1812 , Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, United Kingdom.

On this special day, I’d like to suggest you read one of his novels, so I’m including my ‘special tribute review’ of Oliver Twist, which you can read for free as a kindle ebook on amazon, thanks to a community of volunteers who converted this novel from its physical edition to the digital format.

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My Review

If you only read one of Charles Dickens’ books, or if you don’t know where to start reading his books, I recommend you read Oliver Twist, the unforgettable story of a poor orphan boy, who spent his early years in a work house, before being recruited by a gang of pickpockets.

It’s not an easy book to read, and is not meant for children or the faint of heart, because it portrays some harsh events, many of which Dickens had experienced himself, or had personally investigated, and that is one of the main attractions of this book; It’s real.

You may read about child labour and the plight of the many orphaned children in Victorian England, but no history book will describe a workhouse, the inside of a prison, the starving dogs and hungry rats, the life of a pickpocket, a thief, a pimp, or a gang leader, a public hanging, or the cruelty of London slums, the way Dickens does.

Read it if you want to know what really happened, what the streets, people and life was like for Victorian Londoners.

I never tire of rereading it myself. Dramatic, yes, exaggerated, I doubt it, realistic, shockingly.

The plot is a page turner, and the characters come to life in every scene. We see their gestures, smell their ragged clothes and listen to their lies and truths.

I love Dickens’ use of the English language. It may be wordy by contemporary standards, but it’s smoothly done. A real pleasure to read for anyone who loves the English language and wants to take a short trip to Victorian London.

A book to read once and reread all your life. 

Although I usually read my paperback, this free kindle version makes it even easier to read. A big thank you to the volunteers who made this edition possible.

As a writer, I often read a random chapter or passage before I sit down to write. Dickens humbles me, but he also gives me great encouragement by showing me how the English language can convey so much using the right combination of words.

‘Capital!’ As Dickens would say.      

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I’ve written a piece of Flash Fiction based on Oliver Twist, and included some information about child labour and orphans in Victorian England in this post.

I’d like to include one of Dickens’ quotes, which is one of my favourite.

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Dickens wrote his books with the aim of making the world a better place, which he did, through numerous campaigns and by building awareness among the reading public, but his greatest legacy was the belief in the power of words to improve our world.

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As well as influencing me as a writer, Charles Dickens also makes a personal appearance in Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall, my sequel to Jane Eyre, and is a vital part of Jane’s recovery in Midsummer at Eyre Hall, although he is no longer physically present.

Here is the page with the moment Charles Dickens arrives at Eyre Hall to spend a few days with Jane Eyre, now Mrs. Mason.

They spoke about their private lives, the craft of fiction, and also about current affairs such as child labour and abuse, public hangings, and the dangers of the slums of London. It’s one of my favourite chapters.

Which is your favourite novel by Charles Dickens?

Why not write a review and share on a blog post to celebrate his birthday!

 

Carrot Ranch #FlashFiction Challenge: The Mourner

This post was written in response to Charli Mills’ weekly Flash Fiction Challenge.   

January 12, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that expresses a strong concern, something to give a crap about. Something that brings out the feeling to stand up. How can you use it to show tension or reveal attitudes?

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The Mourner

The undertaker pointed to the sullen lad. “He looks like a good candidate, Mr. Bumble.”

“Any job requiring silence will suit this hard-working boy, Mr. Sowerberry.”

“No speaking required,” he said, then turned to the pauper. “Just crying, preferably bawling his eyes out.”

“Indeed?”

“He’ll be working as a mourner at children’s funerals.”

“Excellent. We’ll be sorry to see him go, but it’s our duty to help destitute orphans.”

Good riddance, he thought. Nobody gives a crap about any of the blighters.

He’d paid a fiver to get rid of Oliver Twist.

Troublemaker.

How dare he ask for more!

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Oliver Twist may not be Dickens’ best novel, but it’s my favourite. It’s a novel which is very dear to my heart. I read abridged versions as a child and I’ve read and reread the complete novel many times.

Oliver Twist is Dickens at his rawest, most melodramatic, and outspoken. I can almost hear his pen scratching the paper as he writes and see his head shaking with anger at the injustices remembered and portrayed.

I watched all the film adaptations, my absolute favourite is Carol Reed’s 1968 version. I watched numerous versions as school plays, throughout my school days. Years later I took my children to see Lionel Bart’s unforgettable musical adaptation live at the London Palladium in 1994. Here’s Jonathan Pryce as Fagin.

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Oliver Twist was an orphan who spent his early years in a workhouse, until he was found a job away from the other inmates, because he was considered subversive as a result of asking for more gruel.

This is the extract from the scene in Dickens’ Oliver Twist where he asks for more gruel:

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Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.

The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’

The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, ‘Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!’

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

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Of course they were horrified, How dare he ask for more? How dare he speak up and challenge injustice? How dare he hope to improve his lot? He was obviously an upstart and it was then that they decided to find him a job away from the workhouse, because he would be a bad influence on the rest of the inmates.

i-want-some-more

Few people gave a crap about children in general, and even less so if they were orphans, in Victorian England.

Child abuse, including child labour, and exploitation, was rampant in Victorian England. Children who survived infancy were often put to work at an early age in textile mills, coal mines, and down chimneys, where working conditions often proved deadly. Girls from the age of five went into domestic service as nurses or maids, and rural children worked on farms, too. Workhouses and poor houses, like the ones in Oliver Twist were cruel places as Dickens himself experienced as a child.

lord_shaftesburycharles-dickens

Fortunately, many Victorians campaigned to improve the lives of poor children. Reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885 in the picture above, left), were able to pass laws to protect children from exploitations, such as the 1841 Mines Act which made it illegal for children under the age of 10 to work in a coal mine. The 1847 Ten Hour Act which made it illegal for children to work more than 10 hours in a day. The 1874 Factory Act which banned the employment of children under 10 in factories. Of course if these laws were needed, it meant that children under the age of ten were working as if they were adults, and probably earning a great deal less. Lord Shaftesbury later became the president of the Ragged School Union, an evangelical organization which established hundreds of schools for the poor.

Charles Dickens’ novels revealed and condemned the exploitation of helpless children. When Dickens was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking factory, an incident that haunted him his whole life. No wonder his novels depict plenty of neglected, exploited, or abused children and orphans.

Oliver Twist (1837) was written to expose and attack on these practices and the cruelty and injustice of workhouses and poor houses for the homeless, which subjected them to unhealthy and inhuman living conditions and hard labour.

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Orphans and their plight also featured predominantly in other Victorian novels, such as my beloved Jane Eyre. Many of the characters in The Eyre Hall Trilogy are orphans or abandoned children, too.

Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall includes an account of a dramatic case of child farming, child abuse and kidnapping, which, as Dickens’ novels, is based on real events.

In the following scene from Chapter XI, Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall. Michael is in London, searching for a child who had been kidnapped and sold. The following is his conversation with a representative of the law, who expresses the general opinion of many people within the establishment, at the time.

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Sergeant Wilson was a round sort of man. He had a round red–veined face, a large round belly, and fat chubby fingers. I imagined he was a man who enjoyed his food and drink over any other pleasures in life. When he spoke, his slurred and jovial voice convinced me he would never be seen chasing anyone or even organising a chase. I informed him of my suspicion that a woman under an assumed name was buying and selling babies. I was appalled at his lack of interest in the topic.

“There are too many children in London, Lieutenant Kirkpatrick, far too many. They are often born in the wrong families, who cannot feed them or clothe them, so they are taken to other better–off families. It is often a question of social justice. Many of the intermediaries are religious orders. Children are left on church or convent doorsteps, others sadly fall into the hands of dubious individuals such as the one you mention, but in any case, the children who survive will have a better life, don’t you think?”

I could not disclose the real events that had occurred, but I needed to be able to threaten her with some legal action.

“Of course I agree, Sergeant Wilson, but let us suppose a criminal had robbed children and was selling them for immoral reasons, such as prostitution or unpaid labour?”

“If it could be proved in a court of law that she stole the children and sold them, she would be taken to Newgate and later hanged. Unfortunately, none of the parents would miss a hungry baby, and call the police to deal with the crime.”

I tried to convince him that the plight of the babies was important, but he was unmoved.

“Have you any idea how much crime, I mean serious crime, there is in London? Pickpockets, thieves, burglars, and debtors, they are our curse. They threaten the honest, hard–working citizens of London.”

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Fortunately, at least in Europe, we have a welfare system which caters for the underprivileged, makes education available and compulsory for children up to the age of 16 or 18, a national health service covers all citizens, and there are laws to protect children and other vulnerable citizens, such as immigrants, refugees and the unemployed. We should never forget that this hasn’t always been the case. Social care and civil rights were gained because many people fought for them, and now it’s our turn to make sure they are still guaranteed for our children and grandchildren.

More on the Victorians and child labour at the British Library

Carrot Ranch #FlashFiction ‘Oliver and Trip’ A Tribute to Charles Dickens

This Flash Fiction was written in response to Charlie Mills at Carrot Ranch’s weekly prompt

Carrot Ranch 20th Jan
January 20, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a boy and his dog, showing the value or benefit of such a relationship. Be creative, uplifting and demonstrate that such a relationship has merit. If the prompt takes you somewhere darker, know that writing into the dark often retrieves the light. Let it have a purpose.

This week’s prompt has taken me to Victorian England. Those of you who know me will not be surprised!

Dogs feature prominently in Dickens’ work. He was a dog lover all his life. More about Dickens and his dogs here

Dickens walking his dogs
Dickens took long walks in the afternoon, ten miles or more, with the dogs as his sole companions. Illustration from Princes, Authors, and Statesmen of Our Time, Henry Bill Publishing Co., 1885

In my flash the boy and the dog will grow a bond because, sadly, they’re both given the same food to eat, and both wish to ‘join forces’ and escape from their cruel ‘owners’.

It’s inspired by an episode in my beloved Oliver Twist, but more later. Here’s my flash!

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Oliver and Trip

An Undertaker’s Cellar. London, 1837.

The undertaker’s wife pushed me down the stairs into the coal-cellar, where I almost tripped over a shaggy dog. 

‘Oliver, you can ‘ave what Trip’s left on his plate. Probably found himself a big fat rat last night, so ‘e ain’t hungry this morning.’

She kicked the animal viciously. ‘Don’t be greedy and let the little beggar eat some o’ them bits o’ meat!’

Trip backed away and growled, but I was so hungry I decided to risk it and put my fingers on his food. 

‘We’ll get out of here together,’ I whispered as he licked my hand.

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This flash is inspired by some characters and events in Oliver Twist, published by Charles Dickens in 1837.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating in my Flash Fiction, there follows an extract from Dickens’ novel, where a similar event is described.

Oliver had just been ‘brought’ or ‘bought’ from the poor house to work at an Undertaker’s and he is given the dog’s food to eat, which he devours hungrily.

Notice also how, in the passage, Dickens, ardent and active social campaigner, directs his wrath at a ‘well-fed philosopher’, no doubt some contemporary politician/s, who will never witness the ‘ferocity of famine’.

Here’s the extract from the end of Chapter IV (The undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, who has just collected Oliver from the workhouse is speaking to his wife, Charlotte. Trip is their dog.)

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‘Here, Charlotte,’ said Mr. Sowerberry, who had followed Oliver down, ‘give this boy some of the cold bits that were put by for Trip. He hasn’t come home since the morning, so he may go without ‘em. I dare say the boy isn’t too dainty to eat ‘em—are you, boy?’

Oliver, whose eyes had glistened at the mention of meat, and who was trembling with eagerness to devour it, replied in the negative; and a plateful of coarse broken victuals was set before him.

I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish.

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It pains me to listen to some critics/readers, both his and our contemporaries, say Dickens’ writings were ‘too melodramatic’. I’d reply, ‘You weren’t there. You didn’t walk down the cellars, or inside the chimneys, or live in the poor houses. Don’t you dare classify abuse and suffering as melodramatic!’

There can be no doubt in our minds that this ‘piece of fiction’ happened often enough to be described by Charles Dickens. We’ve come a long way, partly thanks to Mr. Dickens’ honest descriptions of cruelty and exploitation in Victorian England.

This is why I believe literature is more enlightening than history to understand our past. History tells us the facts, whereas literature tells the real story of what happened to real people, not only the names of the Kings and Queens who reigned or the battles fought.

Writers are telling the real story, so please keep writing, all of you!