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.

11 responses to “Nancy, BTW, is not a prostitute.”

  1. I’ve come across this idea before and actually had a full-on argument with a fellow student in a seminar a few months ago.

    There is very little evidence that she is an acting prostitute. She’s what we’d call a Fallen Woman. This is usually understood to be a hooker, but what it’s really about is a woman who – in the eyes of society – is immoral etc. She lives with Fagin unmarried, thieves etc.

    So this puts her under the same banner of the Fallen Woman in literary terms. For the Victorians there is little difference between the woman who thieves and lives with a man, and a prostitute.

    To the Victorians themselves, she’s deemed a threat because:

    She is able to live, not depending on men (this is debatable based on her ralationship with Fagin)

    So a woman who is self-reliant and therefore a direct threat to the male-dominated economic sphere. We’re in a time where the woman’s place is in the home, so by taking her out of there, she’s a direct worryment and threat.

    That’s why she’s generally accepted to be a prostitute, because as far as the Victorians are concerned, she might as well be.

    Glad you got that out of the reading though – most people just blatently say she’s a hooker and leave well alone. Kudos!

    Just a little English degree bordom for you there lol

  2. Fascinating post, Piers.
    I’ve always carried the same vague notion that Nancy was a prostitute (in our C20th/21st sense of the word) without really knowing why. It’s all part of that ‘tart with a heart’ cliche and the way in which women’s reputations were constantly called into question (for centuries, singers and actresses were also treated as being synonymous with prostitution).
    Poor Nancy. BTW I made the DVD ‘making of’ for the 1948 David Lean film. The only surviving cast member I met was Kay Walsh (Nancy) but sadly she didn’t want to appear on camera. Shame as she had some fascinating insights…

  3. I find your argument compelling, however in Dicken’s first edition of Oliver Twist, he specifically states that “Nancy is a prostitute”

  4. Exactly the case.

    He’s using the word to mean a co-habitant prostitute – someone who moves in with their partner without being married.

    So not a prostitute in any sense of the word today.

  5. I agree with you there Brent Reid, it’s a brilliant explanation of what Nancy actually was. It’s been great learning a little about Victorian’s views on certain types of woman back then too. Thankyou for this interesting read and it’s answered my question on if Nancy was a prostitute as we understand it today.

  6. When Nancy first appears, she is with a friend who is described as “gorgeously attired, in a red gown, green boots, and yellow curly papers.” A few paragraphs later, she is selected to kidnap Oliver because she stands no risks of running into her “numerous acquaintance.” These details are subtle, but they certainly suggest prostitution, which Dickens’s himself claimed in the 1841 preface.

  7. Thank you for this article. Since I’ve read the book in Serbian I’ve thought that I’ve lost something in translation.

  8. This is interesting. I’m not sure it fully rules out her being a prostitute in the sense we mean it today but it’s a good example of the way people and pop culture pick up odd assumptions sometimes.

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