Charles Dickens put the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist to a focus group of friends because he was worried it was too graphic, a newly published letter has revealed.
The author was preparing to give public readings of the novel but feared that the scene, in which Nancy is battered to death by Bill Sikes, was upsetting.
In a letter to his friend, Thomas Beard, in November 1868, Dickens wrote: “My Dear Beard, I am going to do an odd thing on Saturday. I cannot make up my mind whether to read the murder from Oliver Twist, or no.
“So I am going to have a handful of private friends in St James’s Hall, to try how it affects them, and so decide. Can you come? At half past 8? It will not occupy more than an hour. I will send you a card of admission. Ever affectionately, Charles Dickens."
Dickens was also concerned that reading the dramatic Sikes and Nancy scene would be detrimental to his own health.
'I cannot make up my mind…': The letter on display at the Charles Dickens Museum
Credit: David Rose
His doctor recorded Dickens’ pulse before and after the reading of particular passages, including Boots at the Holly-tree Inn, a Christmas short story.
A note from the doctor reads: “… Tuesday March 8th 1870: Pulse before reading ‘Boots at the Holly Tree’: 94; After reading 112. After reading ‘Nancy & Sykes’ (the murder): 120.”
Both documents are on display in a new exhibition, More! Oliver Twist, Dickens and Stories of the City, which opens at the Charles Dickens Museum from June 30 to October 17.
Museum staffer Jordan Evans in the study at 48 Doughty Street where Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1841
Credit: David Rose
Dickens’ public readings were hugely popular. He began them in 1853 but it was not until his 1868 farewell tour that he included Nancy’s death scene, although it had been published 20 years earlier.
The author threw himself into the readings with great gusto. A contemporary account by his friend, Charles Kent, records: “Upon the occasion of his last and grandest reading of the murder, as he stepped upon the platform – resolved apparently upon outdoing himself – he remarked to me in a half-whisper just before advancing from the cover of the screen to the familiar reading desk, ‘I shall tear myself to pieces.’
“He certainly ever acted with more impassioned earnestness – though never once for an instant overstepping the boundaries of nature.
“His pulse had just before been tested very carefully by his medical attendant. It was counted just as carefully by him immediately afterwards – the rise then apparent being something startling, almost alarming under the circumstances.”
Due to these concerns, the reading tour was cut short in April 1870. Dickens died two months later.
Louisa Prince, curator of the museum, said: “The murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes is among the most horribly memorable events in all of Dickens’ writing. It is fascinating to be able to show the visceral power of the scene and how wary Dickens was of inflicting it on his audience. And we can now see the clinical evidence of the toll his own work took on him.”