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Literary Time Travel 3: Back to mid-19th century London with Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist

November 27, 2014 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In our Literary Time Travel series after visiting the 18th century with Jonathan Swift and Lemuel Gulliver, the early 19th century with Jane Austen and Emma, we are now in the mid-19th century  right in the heart of  Victorian London.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist takes us on a realistic, if at times dark, journey into the first half of the 1800s.  What can we learn about society, working conditions, and life in general from this novel?

Helbling Readers Red Series Classics Oliver Twist

The lesson

  • Level: CEF A1, A2; Cambridge KET, Trinity 1, 2, 3
  • Age: 12-16
  • Themes: Adventure, Human interest Elementary or pre-intermediate level (CEF A1-A2), age 12-16. You can do it before or after reading the book. You will only need a laptop and a projector or an interactive whiteboard, a good Internet connection. Do the lesson directly from our Blog and you will have all the resources, links and activities in one place.

Tip: You can do the steps of the lesson together or you can assign it to five groups and they can present their findings in the next lesson.

Mid-19th century London

1 The story of Oliver

Read more about the reader here.

A) If you have already read the story, create a storymap together. Start at the top right hand corner and summarize the story in 18 steps (or more). Start like this:  1. Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse. He was an orphan.

B) If you haven't read the story, read the blurb, look at the cover image and look at some illustrations from the book. 

2 Dickens' London

There are some very important themes in this novel. The novel describes how poverty can lead to crime, how evil people can be, and how dangerous and dark city life was in London. Oliver also experiences acts of kindness and goodness in the story, too.

But how was it possible for a 9-year-old child to get into situations like Oliver? Why was there so much crime in the streets?

  • What was a workhouse? Visit this website and learn about Victorian workhouses.
  • What did they eat in workhouses? Click on this link to the Victorian Web project to learn about the diet in the workhouses. Prepare a table with your own diet today. How is it different?

What was life like in the dark streets of London?

3 The life of Dickens

  • Watch this animation about the life of Charles Dickens. You can also research the web for the biography of Dickens.
  • Here is another website to learn about his life.
  • Answer the questions below. You will find more information about his life on page 6 of the Helbling Reader Oliver Twist.
  1. When and where was he born?
  2. Why didn't he go to school?
  3. What happened to his father in 1824?
  4. Where did Dickens work after 1824?
  5. Who was his wife?
  6. Where did he live with his wife?
  7. How many children did they have?
  8. Where did he travel?
  9. When did he die?
  10. Where is he buried?

Some historical background information

What were the most important events in Britain's history that influenced the novel? Learn about the following events:

  • When Dickens was writing the novel, he thought a lot about the Poor Law of 1834. What was this law? Learn more about it on this website.
  • Who were the Victorians? Who was Queen Victoria? Go to this website to find out about them.
  • You can find an illustrated timeline of the life of Queen Victoria with some fun facts about her life.

The rich and the poor

In the novel we can see how different the lives of poor and rich children were. Oliver was born in a workhouse, and then grew up in an orphanage, and went back to work in a workhouse. He lived in the streets, never had enough food to eat, and he almost got involved in crime. Then he met rich people and saw how they lived. There is a big difference between living in the slums, the poor areas of London, and living in the beautiful countryside. Learn more about these differences.

Extra 1: The publication of Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens did not publish the story as a novel, but in a serial form for a magazine. In the 19th century these magazine series were similar to our television series today. This is why the story has so many chapters and it always gets more and more exciting with a lot of drama. Look at original illustrations of the story here:

Extra 2: The film

There have been various film and TV adaptations of the novel.

  • You will find a whole film education project on the Film Education website (a charity supported by the UK Film Industry: Oliver Twist Film Project
  • Here is the BBC website of the TV mini-series.

For another interactive lesson plan on Charles Dickens, visit this page on our Blog:

Come back soon for more holiday inspired lesson plans and classroom ideas!