Even I take fright sometimes at the prospect of Victorian triple-decker novels. However, I was about to finish Northanger Abbey and asked Jamie what I should read next. He suggested Little Dorrit and since this is THE year to read anything Dickens, I gave it a whirl. I didn’t realize I would enjoy the book so much.
It is only the third Dickens novel I have read (not counting the collected Christmas books), so although I really enjoyed the BBC miniseries from a few years back, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Nevertheless, in my mind’s eye I had the cast from that adaptation in mind, which helped somewhat in keeping the characters straight. Fortunately, I had unconsciously contrived to forget the ending, so it wasn’t in any sense dull.
The Marshalsea was a debtor’s prison, medieval in origin but deeply ingrained in Dickens’ youth because his father was imprisoned there, roughly at the time the novel is set. By the time Dickens wrote the novel in the 1850s, the Marshalsea had been torn down. It now exists only as a wall in Southwark near the Cross Bones burial site. It’s not too far from where I live. Among many points that the book attempts to make is that the people in the Marshalsea are not inherently bad, they are honest and hard-working people, for the most part, who have fallen on hard times. The true villains of Little Dorrit come in myriad forms, but they are not the debtors. Sometimes Dickens’ powers of observation, obviously taken from real life, are so keen to be painful. He describes the people who daily come in to the Marshalsea to do trade with the inmates with the same language as photographs will show of the Creepers, people so weak with starvation and cold that they could only sit in doorways and live on handouts. Probably the most heart-breaking moment of the book is “Amy’s party,” when she and her (mentally disabled) friend/dependent Maggy are forced to walk the streets all night after they have been locked out the prison and cannot get into Maggy’s lodgings. London takes on a nightmarish quality, but they manage in the end to get some sleep on the floor of a church. The biting irony is that Amy told her father she was going to a party; she has to lie in order to keep up the fantasy that keeps him alive.
For you see, Mr Dorrit was a gentleman who was confined to the Marshalsea some twenty-odd years before the book begins. Therefore, Amy has the distinction of having been born in the Marshalsea, when the Dorrit family came to join Mr Dorrit in prison. Amy is affectionately called Little Dorrit because she is very small and child-like (I expect from poor nutrition!). Interestingly, Maggy is in some ways Amy’s doppelganger: outwardly looking older than Amy yet assuming the mental age of ten. Amy takes care of her entire family. “Shall we speak of the inspiration of a poet or a priest, and not of the heart impelled by love and self-desertion to the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life!” Her older sister Fanny works as a dancer in the same theatre where her uncle plays the clarinet. Her older brother Tip is a sorry excuse for a human being; yet Amy cannot help bursting into tears when he gets into debt and has to stay in the Marshalsea on his own account. Her father is difficult to sympathize with, in the end, yet his actions are understandable: in order to cope with the great trauma he has undergone, he lives under a layer of illusion and self-aggrandizement, which unfortunately influences Fanny and Tip. He has moments of lucidity, but he cannot sustain them. “It was not that they stinted her praises, or were insensible to what she did for them, but that they were lazily habituated to her, as they were to all the rest of their condition.” Amy herself does needlework in the house of Mrs Clennam.
Enter Arthur Clennam. Arthur is not your typical hero, and I love him to bits. I never much liked Matthew Macfayden as Darcy, but he really brought Arthur alive for me in the BBC version. He’s spent 20 years of his life in China with his father, a merchant (it isn’t explicitly stated, but I believe the Clennams deal in tea). Upon his father’s death he returns to his mother’s house and the, er, unusual family life there. “I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured and priced everything,” he tells his acquaintance Mr Meagles. “For whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced had no existence. Strict people as the phrase is, professors of a stern religion, their very religion was a gloomy sacrifice of tastes and sympathies that were never their own, offerings as part of a bargain for the security of their possessions.” This is another of Dickens’ points; the Clennams conceal a dark secret, and no bones are made about the rotting and disfiguring influence of a lifetime spent in hellfire-and-damnation Calvinist dogma. Dickens certainly preaches a Christian ethos in Little Dorrit (it is represented when Amy herself spells out Mrs Clennam’s errors to her), but it is all about forgiveness and charity by acts. Mrs Clennam is a curious character, less admirable than Arthur but an example of an extremely strong and self-possessed woman in a time when such was very rare indeed. “As there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal, and shades of colour in black itself, so even in the asperity of Mrs Clennam’s demeanour towards all the rest of humanity and towards Little Dorrit, there was a fine gradation.” Her opposite is Mrs Affery Flintwinch, a servant in the house, who puts up with spousal abuse and wilts under the force of Mrs Clennam’s iron character; nevertheless, she has her own moment of emancipation at the end of the book. Jeremiah Flintwinch is her husband, and he must be on of Dickens’ most inscrutable characters.
These are two of the locales and two of the houses involved. There are also the inmates of Bleeding Heart Yard (which, I believe, still exists in Holborn); within another sphere entirely, the people of high society, centering around the Merdles. There are also the Meagleses, whom Arthur meets in Marseilles on his return to England. I’m not sure what to think of the Meagleses, as we are clearly supposed to ascribe affection toward them as Arthur does (and it’s not difficult to do). Mr and Mrs Meagles dearly love their daughter, called Pet. Mr Meagles also puts Arthur in touch with Daniel Doyce, a self-made man, an inventor, and another of the novel’s undoubtedly good people. But there are two shades on the Meagleses. The first is the fate of Pet. The second is their treatment of Harriet the orphan, known as Tattycoram. She is a wonderful character, as is her friend Miss Wade. Tattycoram feels a lot of resentment due to the fact the Meagleses spoil Pet and treat her as slightly better than servant. “They make a fool of her, they spoil her. She thinks of nothing but herself, she thinks no more of me than if I as a stock and stone!” I personally feel Tattycoram is perfectly right to feel that way, but the narrator disagrees with me. The narrator thinks Tattycoram is wicked to give in to such notions, wicked to run away, and wicked to take up with Miss Wade who is, herself, the narrator thinks, wicked. On the contrary, I think she’s a splendid character and though her sense of injustice is dismissed as bad temper, again I think she has every right to be resentful. Like Mrs Clennam, she is a very strong woman, but unlike her moneyed counterpart, she cannot be seen as a a heroine. (Nevertheless, queer theorists for decades must have enjoyed deciding her relationships with Tattycoram and Henry Gowan.)
I was speaking of villains earlier. Pet, it could be reasoned, gets very harsh retribution for her actions against Tatty by being infatuated with Henry Gowan and, against her parents’ wishes, marrying him. Gowan is slimy; Arthur takes a dislike to him from the first moment he meets him, but unfortunately, he cannot come out and say that he thinks Gowan will beat his wife (which he almost undoubtedly does; Dickens would not have shown Gowan beating his dog for no reason). So Pet, as far as we can tell by the end of the novel, will have a miserable life until her husband dies, rather like Isabella Linton in Wuthering Heights. But even worse than Gowan is his mother. This is Dickens’ third point, which he drives home boldly. Society is evil in Little Dorrit. Mrs Gowan and Mrs Merdle are symptomatic of the falseness and rot. Mr Merdle is the financial wizard of the age, but watch what happens when he tumbles. The sections on Society are the only boring bits of the book. From our vantage point, such a criticism is not really new (though that doesn’t stop it from still being true) so the endless satire gets a bit wearisome. (Though the section about the Noble Refrigerator is hilarious.) The satire goes further with the Circumlocution Office, which does what it sounds. Our heroes get literally lost within its workings, and by the end of the book, the Tite Barnacle family has crushed the noble spirits of Doyce and Clennam. As villains go, the Barnacles haven’t even got the grace to be funny.
Further to villains: Mr Casby is the landlord of Bleeding Heart Yard, and everyone believes him to be benevolent. He is hiding behind his rent-collector, Mr Pancks. Pancks is a great character. He doesn’t seem like much at first, but he is one of the characters who actually changes and grows. Pancks, at the least at the beginning of the book, believes that man has no business but to do his business—which is business. He is the great capitalist, not Casby, nor Merdle: he advises Arthur to make as much money as he can honestly. Yet Pancks allows himself to be influenced by Arthur and Amy; he in fact instrumental to the reversal in the Dorrit family fortunes that happens in the second half of the book. He ends the book by asserting his moral superiority to Casby, after having suffered pride before a fall through no fault of his own—except his own blindness by greed. That second half of the book introduces another villain, Mrs General, who should really be an object of compassion. However, as she is another personification of the emptiness of Society, we can feel nothing but disgust for her. “Fanny has force of character and self-reliance,” she tells Mr Dorrit. “Amy, none.” Finally, there is the most obvious villain, a literal moustache-twirler named Rigaud, played with great panache on TV by Andy Serkis. And Rigaud is disconcertingly evil. Yet, unlike the rest of the characters, we see no reason for him to be such a bad man. In creating such a rich portrait of a sociopath, Dickens forgot to give him motivation. It is merely enough for him to be French!
There are dozens of other wonderful characters as well. Edmund Sparkler, the delightful idiot suitor of Fanny; Flora, Arthur’s middle-aged ex-fiancée, a silly woman to be sure but with a heart of gold; Mr Rugg and his plaintiff daughter; Old Nandy the pensioner; the formidable Mr F’s aunt, one of Dickens’ most bonkers creations; the love-sick but utterly honorable and adorable Young John Chivery, the turn-key of the Marshalsea; the list goes on. The book’s characters are a strong point; the pacing for the most part is admirable, given it was a serial novel; it is wittily written but also with its heart and mind constantly in the right place. The ending is a bit of a deus ex machina, and Amy, it can be argued, does not change—indeed, she causes many of the characters to change around her. Arthur calls her a vanishing point. I think Dickens just about gets away with the ending because of its symbolic impact (as well as the fact he seems to invoke the phantasmagoric just there, adding a dash of Poe!). What is clear is that they just don’t write ‘em like this anymore. I think it would be impossible, frankly, given our distractions these days.
The edition I read has an introduction by scholar Irving Howe, and while it was interesting, I had to disagree on a few of the points he brought up. Like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Amy (Little) Dorrit has had a reputation as a dull heroine. Like Fanny, Amy is good. Howe argues that she is so pure that she is actually an ideal, and we have to treat her like Dickens’ ideal in order to reconcile ourselves to her character. I disagree. Amy is unselfish to an astonishing agree, very self-sacrificing, meek and self-effacing almost to the point of having no self; at least I think that’s what critics must believe. But she does have a self, and in moments like her silent reverie over the Iron Bridge, she proves she is not an automaton to Good. She must have her days when she would like to retort to Fanny; she must have days when she loses her patience with her indulged father. Dickens just hasn’t ever let us see those days. “ ‘Sometimes it has been rather hard to live . . .but I think not harder—as to that—than many people find it.’
‘That’s well said! . . . That’s the truth! You are a good, thoughtful girl. You are a grateful girl, too, or I much mistake you.’
‘It is only natural to be that. There is no merit in being that.’”
Howe also seemed to suggest that Arthur and Amy fell in love just because they were shell-shocked. Again, I don’t agree. Mark Damazer, the force behind getting Life and Fate to BBC Radio, revered the love story between Viktor Shtrum and Marya Sokolova, saying it was one of the unsung love stories of the 20th century. I don’t quite agree (!) but I do think Amy and Arthur’s love is a great unsung affair. It isn’t passionate, but it is touching and beautiful, especially because it remains unexpressed for a long time. This gives way to an extraordinary moment in Dickens: Amy saves Arthur. Girls don’t often get to do this kind of thing in Victorian literature. What has set Arthur apart as a hero is that he knows that he has had the kind of upbringing he has, and yet in being aware of it, he is able to cast it off. He is able to hold it at arm’s length at the beginning of the novel and say, “I want more out of life.” Yet, he does his best to do his duty by his mother. He is dutiful to a fault regarding the other people in his life—Daniel Doyce, Pet Meagles. He is not wholly good and makes mistakes.
As much as maybe we would have wanted to see Arthur’s life in China (that’s a fan fiction in the making), or perhaps would have wondered how the novel would have turned out told from Fanny’s perspective (which could have easily been achieved; with a slight skew in POV, she is gutsy enough to be the heroine of some novel, just not this one), Dickens has, in a sense, stuck to what he knows. There are adventures in Switzerland, Italy, and France, to give the novel piquancy, but they are fleeting because what Dickens really wants to explore is close at hand.
This is one of the best novels I have ever read, and I am looking forward to re-watching the mini-series.