The Dickens Museum in London is launching a new schools programme about antisemitism centred on the author’s depiction of Fagin, the villain of Oliver Twist.
The master pickpocket has recently been resurrected for TV in Dodger, a BBC children’s series which is set as a prequel to the events in the novel.
The timing, however, is incidental. What inspired the museum’s initiative was the children’s book Dear Mr Dickens published last year by the American writer Nancy Churnin.
Her book, which won a National Jewish Book Award in the USA, tells the story of Eliza Davis, the Jewish woman who wrote to remonstrate with Dickens about his portrayal of Fagin and its slur on the Jewish people.
Cindy Sughrue, director of the museum, said: “It was finally giving us something to explore the whole issue of antisemitism in Dickens’s writing of Oliver Twist and for us it was how do we unwrap that knotty topic in a way that we can communicate to the widest possible audience?”
Primary schools can visit the museum for the programme or book an interactive session. Nancy Churnin will be taking part in some virtual Q and As.
Dickens was taken aback by Eliza Davis’s protest some 25 years after the publication of the novel and stood his ground at first. But he relented and sought to make amends, toning down references to “Fagin the Jew” in new editions and introducing a more positive Jewish character, Mr Riah, in his new novel Our Mutual Friend.
Sarah Hutton, the museum’s learning manager, said Dear Mr Dickens “has given us a lovely way to link into the citizenship curriculum of primary schools”.
At the museum, children will learn about the writing of Oliver Twist which helped catapult Dickens to greater fame and examine some of its problematic passages. They will also be encouraged to think of examples of unfairness or discrimination around them and what they might to challenge it.
“What Eliza does is to use pen and paper to speak out,” says Ms Hutton.
The programme includes a teacher’s resource with a reading of Dear Mr Dickens by Miriam Margolyes, a lesson on discrimination and an activity for children to write their own Speaking Out letter.
“They can also borrow costumes and put them on for an assembly to spread the message,” Ms Hutton said.