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.