Charles Dickens told his biographer that Nancy in Oliver Twist was based on a real woman. But who was she?
The character is a ‘fallen woman’, part of Fagin’s gang and the lover of the burglar Bill Sikes. When we first meet her, she and her friend Bet are described as ‘not exactly pretty, perhaps, but they had a good deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty. Being remarkably free and agreeable in their manners, Oliver thought them very nice girls.’
Dickens doesn’t tell us exactly what Nancy does, but the description hints at prostitution. She has no police record, however, and is able to go to the magistrate court unrecognised to see Oliver’s trial for pickpocketing. It’s Nancy who comes up with a plan to kidnap Oliver off the streets. But she has a change of heart, protects the boy from Bill when he threatens to beat him, and eventually goes to Oliver’s benefactor to warn him of danger to the boy.
Although she is offered a chance to ‘go straight’ she prefers to go back to the only life she knows, out of loyalty to her friends. That fatal act, however, is seen as a betrayal that Bill Sikes cannot forgive.
A few years ago, another author found a report of a murder case where a woman was killed in circumstances similar to Nancy, shortly before Dickens wrote Nancy’s death. But Dickens did not know the murdered woman, although he probably heard about her death and may have used it while writing Oliver Twist. So who was Nancy?
We don’t know, and we probably never will. But that little mystery was enough to spark my imagination – and get me started on the novel that became Folly Ditch.
I made a little video of some of the ways in which Nancy has been depicted – view it here.