The Arty Semite

Laughter and Horror at Dickens’s Bicentenary

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of Miriam Margolyes

Dickens 2012, the official UK website celebrating English novelist Charles Dickens on the bicentenary year of his birth, is mostly silent on the author’s anti-Semitism, most famously expressed in the notorious characters of Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” A Jewish villain, albeit a comic one, Fagin is still highly offensive to many, as PBS discovered in 2009 when it broadcast a BBC-TV film of “Oliver Twist”.

Even in the 1850s, readers of London’s Jewish Chronicle expressed comparable outrage at the story’s stereotypes. So it is good to have a view of Dickens from a perspective of Yiddishkeit, in the form of British actress Miriam Margolyes. Margolyes, who turns 71 on May 18, is fondly remembered as Madame Morrible in the Broadway musical “Wicked,” Professor Sprout in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and a host of classical roles on stage and screen.

For over two decades, Margolyes, born in Oxford to a family of Belarusian Jewish origin, has also been touring with “Dickens’ Women,” a solo show devised with director Sonia Fraser, most recently in Australia. The playscript was published last fall by Hesperus Press, with a CD version from BBC Audiobooks out on February 2. In an introduction, Margolyes explains how at age eleven, she first read “Oliver Twist” and enjoyed the character of Fagin despite his obvious horribleness:

I am Jewish and I did resent some of the descriptions…. But I couldn’t help responding to the humor of the man too; as the novel progressed, I started to laugh as well as be horrified.

Enlarging her understanding of Dickens during studies at Cambridge University, Margolyes decided that beyond the racial prejudice, the author “never portrayed a woman whom we would recognize as a mature sexual and emotional partner for his heroes.” Even so, a psychological depth of understanding about human nature made Dickens intriguing, and Margolyes notes that the young Sigmund Freund gave the novel David Copperfield to his fiancée as a love gift.

Margolyes adds:

Luckily, Dickens could never have read Freud… indeed I doubt if he would have written a line if he had read him.

The actress concludes that she has learned from Dickens that “literature is not peripheral to life; it is the stuff of life itself… [Dickens’] humanity transcends his cruelty; the prejudice, the sense of grievance of which he is occasionally guilty seem to fade and, at the end, I am left with the triumph of his imagination and I am happy to settle for that.”

Watch Miriam Margolyes talking about Dickens in 2011.

And watch Margolyes in 2007 on the same subject.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.