|First appearance||Oliver Twist|
|Created by||Charles Dickens|
Mr. Sowerberry is a fictional character who appears as a weak antagonist in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. He is an undertaker and coffin maker who owns and operates a small dark shop in a small town some 75 miles from London. This shop also serves as a dwelling for himself, his wife, a maidservant named Charlotte, an assistant named Noah Claypole, and, for a short period, as an apprentice, the protagonist of the novel, Master Oliver Twist.
In the novel Sowerberry is described as a "tall gaunt, large jointed man, attired in a suit of threadbare black, with darned cotton stockings of the same colour, and shoes to answer." The various stage and screen adaptations of the novel do their best to interpret this description in the guise of an older male. Funerary practices and social customs of the time add depth to this character sometimes presenting him as a weak, miserly, menacing and unwelcomed dark spectre.
Although portrayed somewhat humorously in the musical adaptation of the novel, particularly in his feigning subservience to Mrs. Sowerberry, Mr. Sowerberry is nonetheless a miser who, despite what wealth he has acquired over the years, does very little to improve the squalid lives of those around him simply because he believes it is the job of others and is therefore none of his concern. In the scene where he visits the home of a destitute family whose mother has died, there is no overt callousness, it is merely a job and nothing more.
Dickens created Sowerberry's name and character from his observation of living examples in the society in which he lived. Dickens had extensive knowledge of London street life; of the 'real' poor and 'false' rich. His novels are full of characters with odd sounding names which in reality assist the reader in visualizing the character itself. For example a 'sour berry' may make the reader grimace or think of something unpalatable, stale or stagnant. In the novel, Dickens creates an image of the undertaker we have come to recognize so well as represented in the modern media: an older tallish, thin man wearing all black, the costume of his trade. But, as a contrast, there are also moments in the novel where he appears benevolent or doting, almost genial.
Dickens includes at least two similar characters in other novels for comparison. In Martin Chuzzlewit the undertaker is known as Mr. Mould, a balding elderly man in a black suit with, "...a face in which a queer attempt at melancholy was at odds with a smirk of satisfaction..." Mr. Omer in David Copperfield is presented as,"...a merry little old man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of his breeches, black stockings and a broad brimmed hat..."
Middle class attitudes
Sowerberry is representative of a stereotype typical to the English Georgian period and Victorian era of the 19th century, and to his trade. It is likely he belonged to the lower middle class of business owners. Their sole aim was to keep themselves in reasonable comfort as compared to the poorer classes of the time, to protect what reputations they had and retain a little money in their pockets. When Oliver is presented to him as an apprentice his thoughts are on what profit could be made from taking the boy rather than on what was best for his up-bringing.
Typical to its historical era the mourning period after the death of a loved one was an important social custom that entailed certain protocols as did the funeral itself. Specially designed black clothing, a slow moving funeral cortege, even paid mourners at the graveside, were features offered by most city undertakers. Dickens found much of this a mockery as he later commented on in his journal Household Words describing such practices as "grotesque" and "exaggerated". The pointless expense was further highlighted by him when he described the role of the mute in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, "...Two mutes were at the house door, looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand..."
Film, theatre and television
English adaptations of the novel have included numerous actors, some well known, in the character of Mr. Sowerberry. The earliest known motion picture version of Frank Lloyd's 1922 production placed the American actor Nelson McDowell in the role. David Lean created some very atmospheric settings in his movie version Oliver Twist which featured Gibb McLaughlin as Mr. Sowerberry.
In 1960 the novel Oliver Twist was further adapted by Lionel Bart as the musical Oliver! which premiered in the West End. The original cast included the Australian, Barry Humphries in the role. It gave the character a first-name of Henry and was a minor singing role featuring the song, 'That's Your Funeral'. Oliver! was brought to Broadway in 1963 and later revived in 1984.
Following the success of the theatrical musical presentation a motion picture version of that adaptation was produced in 1968 with Leonard Rossiter as Mr. Sowerberry. In this portrayal the undertakers cool, and sometimes cruel traits, are largely underplayed and are replaced by his fondness for intoxicating drink. This is in line with Bart's adaptation of the original novel.
In 1994, Oliver! was revived at the Palladium Theatre in London and again in 2009.
2005, Roman Polanski production enlisted the services of Michael Heath as the undertaker.
And so it goes on, the adaptation by Bart continues to play in both large well known theatres and small auditoriums around the world.
- Perdue, David (c2014). Charles Dickens Page. Retrieved on 14 May 2014 from http://charlesdickenspage.com/characters.html
- Rawlinson, Richardson (2013) Bah humbug! Blame Dickens for undertaker-phobia. (blog entry) Retrieved on 14 May 2014 from http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2013/08/bah-humbug-blame-dickens-for-undertaker-phobia
- Alirangues Loretta M. Funerary in the Victorian Era Practices. (e-zine) Retrieved on a4 May 2014 from http://www.morbidoutlook.com/nonfiction/articles/2003_04_vicdeath.html
- Dickens. Household Words Volume 1 (1850). (p.78) Retrieved on 14 May 2014 from http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-i/page-78.html
- Bart, Lionel (1994). Oliver!. (Revised 1994) London, Oliver Productions Ltd.
- http://charlesdickenspage.com%7CDavid Perdue's, Charles Dickens pages
- https://www.imdb.com/character/ch0044885/%7CImdb Filmography
- http://dontknowdickens.wordpress.com/research-project-1/ | Don't know Dickens . . Victorian funerary rites