Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Little Dorrit

Duke Classics ebook
Though one of his later and darker novels, there is also much humour and exuberance here, and the storyline is easier to follow than that of the last two by Dickens I read, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend

In Book I (“Poverty”), Mr. Dorrit is confined to Marshalsea, the same debtor's prison that Dickens' father had been incarcerated in.  He and his daughter, Little Dorrit (born in prison), are visited by Arthur Clennam, whose generosity includes discreet financial assistance.

In Book II (“Wealth”) Mr. Dorrit enjoys unexpected riches, while other people are suddenly ruined, including Clennam, who ends up in Mr. Dorrit's former room in Marshalsea.  Now it is Little Dorrit who comes visiting.


Little Dorrit is about imprisonment. The book opens in Marseilles -- first in a jail, then behind walls where some travellers have been quarantined. The story moves on to London – first to a decrepit house where Arthur's mother has been confined to a wheelchair for years, then to the Marshalsea prison.

These visible forms of imprisonment are matched by self-imposed barriers. When Mr. Dorrit is set free, he remains trapped by his own pride and vanity. Arthur Clennam has been a prisoner in the family business for 20 years.  Miss Wade is a “self-tormentor,” caged by her own bitterness and resentment. The Circumlocution Office is a bureaucratic fortress with the power to enslave the unwary in its labyrinthine coils.

Marriage can be a prison too. Mrs. Clennam's sterile morality divides her from her husband and sends him into exile, while the Merdles and the Sparklers are bound together in arid unions based entirely on money and appearances. Mrs. Flintwinch is so bullied by her husband that her life becomes a nightmare. All are marriages of convenience.

Memorable Characters

Mostly they are villains. Chief among them is an arrogrant cartoon Frenchman named Blandois, who overflows with extravagant speech and gestures. He snaps his fingers at everyone and cries out “Holy blue!” at the drop of a hat. Somehow Dickens manages to make him sinister and comic at the same time.

Flintwinch is Mrs. Clennam's servant turned business partner.  He has a wry neck and twisted body, and moves like a “screw-machine that fell short of its grip.” His poor wife Affery is so bullied by him that she's forever throwing her apron over her head in fright.

Gowan is a careless fellow who excels at nothing except his own self-interest. His nonchalant and patronizing comments are superb, especially when he cloaks his disparaging remarks in words of praise.

Mrs. General is the companion that Mr. Dorrit hires for his two daughters while they are touring Europe. Her idea of genteel breeding is never to show an interest in anything unpleasant.  To be genteel is to have an impervious, highly polished surface, and Dickens has great fun when he refers to her efforts at “varnishing” the two young ladies.

My favourite character is the collection agent Mr. Pancks, who is compared to a steam-tug, constantly puffing and snorting and towing away other people:

Mr. Pancks, who was always in a hurry, and who referred to a little dirty notebook which he kept beside him (perhaps containing the names of the defaulters he meant to look up by way of dessert), took in his victuals as if he were coaling; with a good deal of noise, and a good deal of dropping about, and a puff and a snort occasionally, as if he were nearly ready to steam away.


Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam are the least interesting characters in the book. Little Dorrit is selfless to the point of sainthood, while the bland Clennam is more of a plot device than a character, linking up the Clennams, the Dorrits, the Meagles, and others. Though he spent 20 years in China, he shows no evidence of it, returning without souvenirs, anecdotes, or mannerisms.

Another problem is the age difference between hero and heroine. Little Dorrit is 22, yet petite enough to be mistaken for a child. Clennam, who is 40, frets about his age and often addresses her as "My dear child." Their first embrace is described as that of a father embracing a daughter. Since this is a prelude to a sexual relationship, the whole thing strikes me as rather creepy.

(There is an interesting sidelight to this in Dickens's own life. He met Ellen Ternan in 1857, the year he completed Little Dorrit. He was 45, she 18. Soon afterward, he left his wife and conducted a lengthy affair with Ternan. While he didn't meet her early enough for their relationship to influence the book, it's an odd coincidence, almost as though he were imagining, and perhaps justifying, a future involvement with a woman young enough to be his daughter.)

Then there are the usual things that modern readers tend to roll their eyes at -- an unexpected legacy, an overwrought death scene, a secret twin, and an improbably melodramatic event. The latter, which is intended to mirror the financial collapse brought about by Merdle's swindles, is the sudden disintegration of Mrs. Clennam's house. Dickens sets it up beforehand in various ways, but it's no more convincing than the spontaneous combustion of Krook in Bleak House

And wait a minute, how does the paralyzed Mrs. Clennam survive the collapse of her house? Well, just before the house falls apart she miraculously regains the use of her limbs, leaping to her feet and rushing out to Marshalsea prison. But seriously, having been wheelchair-bound for years, it's unlikely she would have made it to the door, let alone down the stairs.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that the narrative is easy to follow. That's true, except for the denouement, when Dickens launches into a lengthy explanation of the book's backstory. It's so convoluted that the Penguin edition I read includes a precis of it in the appendix.

Canadian Connection

For several years Dickens managed a house for "fallen" women called Urania Cottage.  One of the young women was Rhena Pollard, a headstrong girl with dark hair and dark eyes. She seems to have been the model for Tattycoram (an orphan taken on as a maid by the Meagleses). Pollard eventually came to Canada, where she married and settled down to a respectable life in Ontario.

Tattycoram is also the subject of a novel of the same name by Canadian author Audrey Thomas. Thomas has been nominated twice for the GG.

Mrs. Merdle's son, Edmund Sparkler, was born in "St. John's, New Brunswick."


After reading the book I watched the recent and most excellent BBC production of Little Dorrit. It was interesting to see how the book was shaped for the screen I urge you to see it. You can find out more at the following sites:

Jane Austen's World

Here's a review of Jenny Hartley's Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women. The book discusses the role of Dickens in running Urania Cottage.

I also discovered that there is a Dickens World in England. Wouldn't that be fun to visit!