Fagin, who recruits a gang of young thieves in "Oliver Twist," is arguably the most villainous caricature of a Jew in English literature -- not excepting Shakespeare's Shylock -- but his creator, Charles Dickens, was no dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite.
Indeed, in "Our Mutual Friend," his last completed novel, Dickens took a 180-degree turn in his portrayal of the Jew Riah, who is as saintly as Fagin is evil. For good measure, Dickens added a Jewish factory owner and his wife, who treated all their employees with kindness and generosity.
The appraisal of Dickens comes from Harry Stone, one of the foremost collectors and authorities on the great 19th-century English novelist.
Stone, who taught English literature at Cal State Northridge for 32 years, recently donated to the university the thousands of items in his private Dickens collection, including first editions of all the novelist's works, the monthly newspaper installments in which they first appeared, personal letters, corrected proof sheets, translations, photographs, and even dolls and figurines inspired by his characters.
The collection is considered one of the three or four most complete in the world and Stone, though he has never had it appraised, believes it to be worth "well over $1 million to several million dollars."
In an interview with the 77-year-old scholar, who looks like -- well -- your favorite kindly English professor, the Westside resident revealed an unpublicized facet about his family background.
His father, London-born Bernard Stone, was one of the early Zionist leaders and organized the first Zionist activities on the West Coast.
"My father was an omnivorous reader, he always carried three or four books on him, and he started reading Dickens to me when I was a child," Stone reminisced. "By the time I was 16, I had read all of Dickens' works."
An ardent Zionist from the beginning of the movement, Bernard Stone frequently told his son how he had served as an usher when Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, spoke at a meeting in London in the late 1890s.
The elder Stone also met Chaim Weizmann, later Israel's first president, and became his friend and follower. He accompanied Weizmann on a trip to then-Palestine, and later on a speaking and fundraising tour of the United States.
At Weizmann's request, Stone settled in New York as a Zionist envoy and organizer in the 1920s. His job frequently took him to the West Coast.
"My father, who died when he was 59, devoted his life to Zionism," said the younger Stone.
After Navy service in World War II and becoming a faculty member at Northwestern University, Stone remembered the trips with his father to California and decided to return to the Golden State.
He built up his Dickens collection over decades, with many years spent in England.
"I had the advantage, because I generally knew a great deal more [about] Dickens' writing and memorabilia that the dealer who was selling them," Stone said.
He has by no means retired from his life's work and is busy writing essays, giving lectures and reviewing books.