Nancy, BTW, is not a prostitute.

At least, not in the way that we understand the word.

During my research for Oliver Twist, I came across something that gave me pause. To wit, that Nancy is often referred to in reviews and literary criticism as being a prostitute.

Thing is, though, I read the book several times. And I was buggered if I could find any actual evidence pointing that way. The passage in the book that usually gets quoted as proving this runs so:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. Being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

Come on. Really? That single passage is the only evidence in the entire book? That, my friends, is a stretch.

In fact, there’s plenty of evidence against. Nancy says to Fagin “I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this! I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since.”

So she states quite clearly that her profession is thief. Not prostitute.

And yet everyone thinks she is. Why?

I managed to chase it down, in the end, to the introduction to the 1841 edition. Dickens himself says it. “That the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.”

So Dickens says that she’s a prostitute – and then puts no evidence for it in the book. The boys are shown picking pockets, Fagin being a fence, Sikes being a murderer, and yet Nancy’s purported profession is never shown or stated within the book.

Seems more than a little odd, doesn’t it?

The answer finally came from The London Underworld in the Victorian Period – a selection of contemporary writings on crime in Victorian times. And there it is on page 83, at the end of the section on prostitutes.

“The last head in our classification is ‘Cohabitant prostitutes’.”

The book then goes on to define a cohabitant prostitute. It’s someone who moves in with a man without being married to them. Someone who has sex before marriage – and continues to do so. A kept woman, as the old phrase has it.

As Nancy is.

Proof? Fagin visits her in Bill Sikes’ apartment. Where she lives.

A thief, yes. But not a prostitute in the way we would use the word. Nancy is just a woman who lives with her boyfriend, and is supported by him.

And is deeply, tragically, fatally in love.


A lot of people are using the start of the new year to set goals for themselves. Many are publishing these goals on their blogs.

This is fine and good. Stating a goal publicly gives you a real incentive to finish.

But there’s a worrying trend I’ve noticed in a lot of these goals. I’ll throw a couple of common examples at you.

Goal for 2010: Get an agent.
Goal for 2010: Get a radio commission.

The problem with these goals is this: They are not under your control.

You could be a bloody brilliant writer, with a fantastic script: but if the agent’s books are full that year, or if Radio 4 has already commissioned a play on the same subject matter, you’re going to be shit out of luck. And you’ll spend the year striving and striving, and next year you’ll be sad when you haven’t achieved a goal the success or failure of which had not a damn thing to do with you.

Instead, if you’re setting goals for yourself, choose something that is in your power to make happen or not. F’rexample…

Goal for 2010: Write three scripts this year.
Goal for 2010: Direct a short film.
Goal for 2010: Go on a writing course.
Goal for 2010: Trade notes with other writers to get better.

Or for the two goals we started with, rephrase them so that the thing you promise to do in 2010 is in your control, not someone else’s.

Goal for 2010: Send every script I finish this year to at least ten agents.
Goal for 2010: Pitch potential radio plays to at least ten producers before each offers round.

Because those actions are exactly what you’d need to do in order to get an agent or get a commission anyway.

The difference is this: You’re in control of whether or not you achieve them.

There’s no-one to blame or praise but yourself. And there’s no way, at the end of the year, that your sense of achievement will be dependent on whether or not someone else has a bad day.

And maybe you will get that commission, or that agent. That’d be a nice bonus. But that’s what it is: a bonus.

If you’re setting goals, make them something that you have control over.

Don’t put your happiness in the hands of someone you don’t know.