Bill Sikes and Nancy recapturing Oliver Twist

Two illustrations showing Oliver Twist being recaptured by Bill Sikes after his time with Mr. Brownlow. Left: Oliver claimed by his affectionate friends, by British illustrator George Cruikshank (1837). Right: Sikes, Nancy, and Oliver Twist, by American illustrator F. O. C. Darley (1888). [Click on all the images to enlarge them.]

Dickens introduces the brutal, ruthless bully, Bill Sikes, in Chapter 13 of Oliver Twist (1837), describing him as "a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings which inclosed a bulky pair of legs." Sikes is accompanied by a shaggy white dog, "his face scratched and torn in twenty different places" (I: 141-42). The original illustrator for the British serial of the novel in 1837, George Cruikshank, captures Sikes's domineering and violent presence well when illustrating the incident shown above. Oliver had been saved from street life by kindly Mr Brownlow, and was doing an errand for him, taking books to a bookseller. As Sikes recaptures him, Cruikshank shows him shrinking away in fear, and Sikes's common-law wife, Nancy, is seen appealing to bystanders — in the text, she pretends to them that the boy has simply run away from home.

Several decades later, American illustrator Felix Octavius Carr Darley in his Character Sketches from Dickens (1888) also chooses to illustrate this scene, perhaps using the juxtaposition of these well-known figures to recall the original illustration. Echoing Cruikshank in his own triple portait, he too comments on his subjects' individual reactions: Sikes himself, cruelly domineering; Oliver, naturally alarmed and frightened; and Nancy evidently troubled but trying to help Sikes by restraining the boy. Like Cruikshank, Darley is faithful to the text in making Nancy's large street-door key and the boy's confiscated books prominent. But he has replaced Cruikshank's seedy and somewhat cartoonish crowd of bystanders outside the Regency beer shop with an atmospheric backdrop suggestive of early evening, as indicated by the gas-lamp which illuminates Nancy. The action takes place in what looks like a proletarian neighbourhood, but there are no curious and sympathetic witnesses who might yet help Oliver to escape Sikes's grasp. There are other differences as well. Cruikshank's Nancy (readily identifiable by her basket as well as the key) is short, dumpy, and unattractive, whereas Darley's is more youthful, slender, and vigorous. And Darley uses as binary opposites Oliver's expensive Regency clothing (a revenant of Mr. Brownlow's care) and the thug's soiled togs. Brownlow's books, the key, and the nearby street-lamp, although not represented as anything but what they are, reveal that Darley had scrupulously re-read Dickens's text, and thought through the theatrical properties, poses, and interactions of his characters, as well as the nocturnal setting in Smithfield.

The botched burglary

Two illustrations showing the attempted burglary. Left: The Burglary (Part 10, January 1838): Cruikshank's somewhat humorous depiction of Sikes "framed" in the attempted robbery of the house at Chertsey. Right: The Attempted Burglary (1865): Darley illustration for this episode.

Later, when Sikes makes use of the reclaimed Oliver in a burglary, Cruikshank depicts the housebreaker as a sordid, lower-class villain right out of contemporary melodrama. In Chapter 22 he shows Oliver being surprised and shot at almost as soon as he has entered the house that Sikes is attempting to rob. Cruikshank injects the notorious housebreaker into the scene of The Burglary as if in a framed portrait: unshaven, unkempt, and full-faced. The small window through which he peers would make it hard for him to fire his own weapon on the two servants, let alone haul Oliver out of harm's way by the collar, as he does in the text on the facing page. Unable to act, Cruikshank's Sikes watches the unfolding drama with interest and some frustration through a small window. Anthony Burton notes that throughout the sequence the artist employs doors and windows as "potent symbols of exclusion and inclusion" (127). Sikes is obviously excluded from the action here. But Oliver is very much a part of it. He is wounded: "the door opens on him and emits a puff of smoke and a bullet" (127).

Selecting an equally dramatic moment from the episode, Darley depicts the slightly earlier point at which the brutal Sikes is much more active. Once again Darley presents him much more ​as an individual than a type — despite his caricatural frowning face and white top hat, surely drawn from the Cruikshank series. Sikes is about to hoist Oliver up by his collar "with his feet first" so that he can squeeze through the narrow window and let him and his accomplice, Toby Crackit, into the house. Armed with a full knowledge of the plot, Darley telegraphs an important point about this incident in his caption, "The Attempted Burglary" [emphasis added]. Sikes and Crackit will not succeed. Nevertheless, Sikes's character as a low-life villain in confirmed.

Unlike Cruikshank, who only had the serial instalments issued up to September 1837 to work with, Darley possessed a complete knowledge of the novel's plot. His task, like that of all the other post-Cruikshank illustrators, is to provide suggestions of Sikes's heartlessness in advance of the most violent incident in the plot: the bludgeoning to death Nancy.

Depictions of Sikes by Kyd (Clayton C. Clarke)

Bill Sikes, from the Player's Cigarette Card series: Kyd's turn-of-the-century coloured lithographs bespeak a certain fascination with the uncouth, atavistic villain of Dickens's Newgate novel.

An embattled Sikes

Bill Sikes (1867): Sol Eytinge's dual character study, a contextless depiction of Sikes the housebreaker armed with a cudgel, which serves as an extension of his character.

Sikes's downfall is signalled even before the dramatic ending which seals his fate. In Chapter XXXIX, Dickens "Introduces Some Respectable Characters with whom the Reader is Already Acquainted," and describes him as inhabiting a room quite close to his old lodgings, but considerably less desirable,

being a mean and badly-furnished apartment, of very limited size; lighted only by one small window in the shelving roof, and abutting on a close and dirty lane. Nor were there wanting other indications of the good gentleman's having gone down in the world of late: for a great scarcity of furniture, and total absence of comfort, together with the disappearance of all such small moveables as spare clothes and linen, bespoke a state of extreme poverty; while the meagre and attenuated condition of Mr. Sikes himself would have fully confirmed these symptoms, if they had stood in any need of corroboration.

In these surroundings, the miserable villain is "lying on the bed, wrapped in his white great-coat, by way of dressing-gown, and displaying a set of features in no degree improved by the cadaverous hue of illness, and the addition of a soiled nightcap, and a stiff, black beard of a week's growth." Beside him sits his dog, responding to the situation by "now eyeing his master with a wistful look, and now pricking his ears, and uttering a low growl as some noise in the street, or in the lower part of the house, attracted his attention." Someone else is present, too: "Seated by the window, busily engaged in patching an old waistcoat which formed a portion of the robber's ordinary dress, was a female: so pale and reduced with watching and privation, that there would have been considerable difficulty in recognising her as the same Nancy who has already figured in this tale" (Household Edition, II: 119-20]

In the 1867 Diamond Edition, Sol Eytinge in Nancy and Bill Sikes captures the disreputable couple's desperation and despondency so well. A youthful but haggard Nancy with bedraggled hair is refined by her gesture of deep concern for her rough companion, whose face and hands place him lower down the evolutionary scale. In the particular moment in the action captured here, Eytinge plays the contrasting figures off against one another to reveal their natures, complementing Dickens's description of them on the page before. Their youthful vigour and health have disappeared.

The murder of Nancy

Left: A Foul Deed (1886): British illustrator F. W. Pailthorpe's hand-tinted engraving in which Sikes brutally murders Nancy. Right: "He moved, backwards, towards the door: dragging the dog with him" (1871) — Irish illustrator James Mahoney's illustration of Sikes dragging away his dog after the murder.

In one of the novel's most sensational scenes, Sikes turns on the woman who loves him when he suspects that she has betrayed him to the authorities. He treats her as viciously as he treats his dog — seen in Darley's street scene (top right) scanning the deserted surroundings, as if standing guard for the malefactors. Past loyalty means nothing to Sikes. He operates mercilessly, without any compunction at all. Mahoney's representation of him slinking away from the scene of the crime, apparently while Nancy, hand to head, is still dying, confirms his status as an outcast of humanity. Despite the order in which the illustrations are shown above (which reflects the order of events) Mahoney's dramatic and nuanced realisation of the murder's aftermath preceded Pailthorpe's chilling A foul deed by fifteen years. With great originality, and to great effect, he had chosen to describe the event obliquely rather than directly.

A selection of other illustrations featuring Sikes, Nancy and Oliver (1846-1910)

Left: Cruikshank's Sikes attempting to destroy his dog (1846). Centre: Mahoney's Household Edition illustration (1871) "You are on the scent, are you, Nancy?". Right: Harry Furniss's Oliver in the Grip of Sikes (1910).

Links to related material


Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.

Bolton, Theodore. The Book Illustrations of Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1951). Worcester, Mass: American Antiquarian Society, 1952.

Burton, Anthony. "Cruikshank as an Illustrator of Fiction." George Cruikshank: A Revaluation. Ed. Robert L. Patten. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1974. Pp. 93-128.

Darley, Felix Octavius Carr. Character Sketches from Dickens. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1888.

Dickens, Charles. The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1846.

_______. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Household Edition. 55 vols. Illustrated by F. O. C. Darley and John Gilbert. New York: Sheldon and Co., 1865. 2 vols.

_______. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Diamond Edition. 18 vols. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

_______. The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Household Edition. Illustrated by James Mahoney. London: Chapman and Hall, 1871.

_______. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. III.

Vann, J. Don. "Oliver Twist." Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1985, 62-63.

Created 18 November 2021