Place in the narrative
Field Lane is where Fagin’s den is set. The small lane was the last section of Saffron Hill leading to Holborn. This is where Fagin trains the boys to pick pocket and how to steal pocket handkerchiefs. Once trained in the skills of the trade, they are released to do the dirty work for Fagin in the outer community. Many important events happen here. When Oliver is first brought here, we are given a very detailed description of the area to contrast with other locations in its condition of squalor. All the scenes before Oliver is caught for stealing take place here and afterwards when he is recaptured. This location represents the poor and destitute and Dickens wrote about it to highlight the issue to government.
At the time Dickens was writing, this area was squalid and miserable. A place of poverty, particularly known for child crime and pickpocketing. In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote from experience of what he had seen in Field Lane and surrounding area to bring it to the attention of the politicians. He writes graphically to make a difference to those that lived there and within years of Oliver Twist being published, the area was cleared to make way for the Holborn Viaduct. The character of Fagin is said to have been based on a Jewish Fence, Ikey Solomons, who was a well known character in Field Lane and experienced many of the events, that Fagin does in the narrative except his final execution.
‘Oliver was just considering where he hadn’t better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill. His conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door of a house near Field Lane; and drawing him into the passage, closed it behind them.’
‘The walls and ceiling were perfectly black with age and dirt. There was a deal table before the fire; upon which were a candle, stuck in a ginger-beer bottle, two or three pewter pots, a loaf and butter, and a plate. In a frying pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantelshelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.’
‘Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men.’
‘Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself; the emporium of petty larceny(theft of personal property): visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go as strangely as they come.’
What I wrote in London
Field Lane is a difficult location to suss out as it is said to be at the lower end of Saffron Hill or further towards Holborn Viaduct. The last part of Saffron Hill now is a glass office complex with stairs leading to the street above at the end. From the One Tun to the end there is little to see but the glass offices and dozy office workers lingering having the odd nifty fag. However the street is very narrow and again gives the impression of claustrophobia and closeness of space that people would have had to live in. Before you get to the glass building, there are a couple of dark brick buildings with small windows – these give the best impression of how it might have been when Dickens was there. Dodger is said to have opened a darkened door to get into Fagin's den and there are several dodgy doors that might have led to the blackened and soot covered rooms of Fagin and the boys. I could still imagine them in the cramped room on the top floor, working on more ways of stealing and 'drinking and smoking like old men'!
Reading Dickens' description of Field Lane, it doesn’t feel like a place you would want to visit, with pickpockets on every corner and streets filled with children, mud and mire. However the truth now, I am glad to report, couldn't be further from the truth. It is a clean and almost deserted end of Saffron Hill so its difficult to get a feel for how it might have been. In the glass office complex that takes over most the final part of Saffron Hill, there is very little to see. The odd office worker, traffic cone, the odd bin truck but nothing to suggest the history. People walk down the road past the One Tun without giving the area a second glance and you would have no idea of its history by passing by. The only impression of the Dickensian era you can see is two dark terracotta buildings which reach to the sky and make you feel decidedly hemmed in. I could imagine Fagin's den being housed in one of these but probably are now inhabited by design companies or such like. As in many of the locations in Oliver Twist, using your imagination is very important as so many locations have changed completely and this case is in the best way possible.