The Life and Times of Mr Bumble, the Beadle
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The Life and Times of Mr Bumble, the Beadle

Mr Bumble the beadle from Oliver Twist is one of Charles Dickens' greatest comic characters.

Mr Bumble the beadle is one of Charles Dickens’s great comic characters. In the 19th century, dramatizers of Oliver Twist tended to give lots of space to Bumble and his courting of Mrs Corney, which ends in the poor beadle becoming a victim of domestic abuse by the shrewish Corney. Nowadays, Bumble is less prominent in the public imagination than characters like Fagin, Sikes, Nancy and the Artful Dodger, as the comedy of Oliver Twist is less admired than his social realism and portrayal of the lowest classes of society.

He is best known for his response to being told that the law supposes him responsible for his wife’s criminal actions, because of the influence a husband has over his wife: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass, a idiot,” replies Bumble (Chapter 52), well aware that he has no control over his wife’s actions at all, quite the opposite. Both Bumble and his wife are considered to have abused their position of authority in the workhouse, because they sold the evidence of Oliver’s fight to an inheritance to Oliver’s evil half-brother Monks, and poor old Bumble loses his position in the workhouse, and, Dickens tells us, ends up as an inmate of that same institution. Oh, the irony.

Bumbles of Film

The most memorable film Bumble is still Frances L. Sullivan in David Lean’s 1948 film of Oliver Twist. Sullivan was already a veteran of Dickens adaptations: he had been Reverand Crisparkle in a 1935 The starring Claude Rains, and Jaggers in Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations, but he was perfectly cast as Bumble. A rotund gentleman, he had a great talent for comic pomposity, and he gave Bumble’s favorite adjective “porochial” a sonorous ring that later actors haven’t been able to match, though the script didn’t include my favorite use of that adjective, from Chapter 23 in the novel, when Bumble refers to the wind and rain as “anti-porochial weather”.

In the 1968 film musical Oliver! Mr Bumble was played by the well-known comic actor Harry Secombe, one of the Goons with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine. Secombe was an accomplished singer, which helped him get the job, and, of course, he had the look: that is, he was of hefty build. He looked as if he had been born for the Inverness coat with capelet, the cocked hat and the cane, the invariable props of Bumblery, without which he is nothing. As Dickens wrote: “Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.” (Chapter 37)

Most recently, Mr Bumble was played in a 2007 BBC serial of Oliver Twist by Gregor Fisher, best known for the role of Rab C Nesbitt. Here Bumble is crueller and more sadistic than usual, but just as ridiculous in the end. However, horror of horrors, this adaptation does not include the immortal “Law is a ass” line. In fact, it uses very little of Dickens’s dialogue, which is a shame.

A Reflection on Mr Bumble

Mr Bumble is often seen as a villanous character, but underneath it all he may not have been so bad after all. On two occasions early in the book he sees Oliver crying, and, if not exactly sympathetic, he does seem to be susceptible to pity. On the second of these occasions he responds as follows: “”Mr Bumble regarded Oliver’s piteous and helpless look, with some astonishment, for a few seconds; hemmed three or four times in a husky manner; and, after muttering something about ‘that troublesome cough’, bade Oliver dry his eyes and be a good boy.” (Chapter 4). He also seems to have genuine fondness for Mrs Corney, and offers to protect her from the thrat of Monks, to which offer she replies with the words: "You are a fool, and had better hold your tongue." So spare a thought for poor old Bumble, victim of spousal abuse, and eventually reduced to the status of porochial pauper. In the end, he’s clearly more sinned against that sinning, and deserves a bit of redemption that Dickens doesn’t give him. Only a ass would say otherwise.

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