Ellie Wilkinson in the role of Nancy in 1910
IN CHAPTER 60 of Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, two very different women come together. They are Rose Maylie, the refined and beautiful adopted daughter of a prominent family, and Nancy, a prostitute who has lived on the streets of greedy London for most of her life. Nancy was trained at a young age to be a thief and is a member of Fagin’s pickpocket gang.
Nancy has come to see Rose in an effort to rescue Oliver from Fagin’s gang and the same life she has led. She knows she may be killed for doing so. As the type of person she is portrayed to be, she might have felt nothing but envy toward the beautiful Rose Maylie. But instead she is not too proud to be touched by the gentlewoman’s kindness. Rose could have felt nothing but disgust for a street walker, but instead her heart breaks with compassion.
It is a meeting between two entirely different worlds joined by something universal and eternal. They are both striving to be good. They both desire justice. They are both inspiring, without any of the neurotic narcissism of characters in modern novels and movies. Nancy’s words are a moving condemnation of the evil spirit of deformed capitalism which Dickens, perhaps more than any other author in the modern world, captured so well:
‘Oh, lady, lady!’ she said, clasping her hands passionately before her face, ‘if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me,—there would—there would!’
Nancy is subsequently murdered. Rose goes on to a brilliant marriage.
Here is the scene in its entirety:
The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets, and among the most noisome of the stews and dens of London, but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still; and when she heard a light step approaching the door opposite to that by which she had entered, and thought of the wide contrast which the small room would in another moment contain, she felt burdened with the sense of her own deep shame, and shrunk as though she could scarcely bear the presence of her with whom she had sought this interview.
But struggling with these better feelings was pride,—the vice of the lowest and most debased creatures no less than of the high and self-assured. The miserable companion of thieves and ruffians, the fallen outcast of low haunts, the associate of the scourings of the jails and hulks, living within the shadow of the gallows itself,—even this degraded being felt too proud to betray a feeble gleam of the womanly feeling which she thought a weakness, but which alone connected her with that humanity, of which her wasting life had obliterated so many, many traces when a very child.
She raised her eyes sufficiently to observe that the figure which presented itself was that of a slight and beautiful girl; then, bending them on the ground, she tossed her head with affected carelessness as she said: Read More »