The Arty Semite

Laughter and Horror at Dickens’s Bicentenary

By Benjamin Ivry

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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.


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