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!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • 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.