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Dickens’ Little Dorrit: A review

English authorsCorruption; inept officialdom; capitalism, the pretensions of social class and status:  few elements of Victorian life seem to escape Dickens’ scrutiny in Little Dorrit. 

Published in monthly instalments between 1855 and 1857, first reactions from the critics were not very favourable. They completely overlooked the social critique element  and focused their attention instead on what they considered an unnecessarily incoherent plot and insubstantial, two-dimensional figures.  Fortunately the mid twentieth century saw a revival of interest in the novel and a significant shift in attitude. In fact attitudes shifted so far that George Bernard Shaw claimed Little Dorrit was a more seditious text than Marx’s Das Kapital while  George Orwell declared that “in Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.”

Much of Dickens’ ire in Little Dorrit is focused on government bureaucracy. He brings it to life with the wonderfully imaginative  invention of the Circumlocution Office. It’s a government department run entirely it seems by the incompetent and the inept (ring any bells???). Its sole purpose is to frustrate and obstruct anyone who has the temerity to ask for information or assistance. Forms need to be filled in just to request permission to fill in more forms to ask for an appointment.(the Soviets learned a thing or two from the Circumlocution Office methinks).

marshalseaSome of his greatest anger is directed at debtors’ prisons such as the notorious Marshalsea in which people who owed money were imprisoned until they repaid their debts.  It was an impossible situation because they were not allowed to work so had to rely on family or friends to help pay bills and to provide food and clothing.  Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter  Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls, becoming a true child of the Marshalsea.

But even in prison the appearance of gentility and the gradations of class and status must be maintained.  The Marshalsea inhabitants  refer to themselves as “collegians” rather than prisoners; Papa Dorrit pretends ignorance about the fact his daughters go out to work every day to put food on the table, and openly solicits financial gifts from visitors, masks their true nature by calling them  “tributes”  and ‘testimonials’. As his status within the prison rises and he becomes the longest-serving resident, so his consciousness of his status increases, going into orbit when he is released upon discovery  that he is in fact a very wealthy man.

What Dickens shows is the personal cost of such esteem for one’s position in life. Mr Dorrit is so blinkered by his sense of his own importance that he fails to connect with the one person who loves him without question – his daughter Amy. Though she has loved him without question for decades, cared for him and undergone personal suffering so that he would be spared, he does not recognise the debt he owes her.  Instead he subjects her to criticism over petty mistakes and castigates her when she doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome and adopt the trappings of the family’s new-found wealth.  Does he repent on his deathbed as characters do in so many novels?  I won’t spoil the plot by disclosing that; you’ll just have to read the novel yourself.

The Dorrits are a far cry from the epitome of the happy loving families found in Dickens’s earlier works. None of the families in Little Dorrit actually fit that particular description being neither loving nor happy. They’re all rather dysfunctional in fact. When Arthur Clenhome, one of the book’s good guys, returns to London from China where he ran the family business for twenty years  he gets as much of a welcome from his mother as if he’d just returned from a weekend in Brighton.

Like most of Dickens’ big novels, the plot does require attention to keep all the threads intact but this book isn’t anywhere as complicated as Bleak House. It also relies on a remarkable series of coincidences – the first two characters we meet in a prison in France not only turn up again in London many many chapters later and somehow manage to play key roles in the plot. But it wouldn’t be Dickens without coincidence would it. Nor would it be Dickens without a wildly extravagant female character. Just as Dombey and Son has the dippy Miss Lucretia Tox, and Martin Chuzzlewit has the drunken nurse Sarah Gamp, in Little Dorrit Dickens serves up the garrulous Flora Finching to entertain with her gushing and breathless simpering talk of nothing in particular. A brilliant invention.

So in case you haven’t twigged by now, yes I did enjoy this book. And yes I would definitely read it again.

Sunday Salon: A Dickens of a Week

sundaysalonIt took nineteenth months for the first readers of Dickens’ Little Dorrit to get to the end of the story. Fortunately I don’t have to wait a month for the next instalment but even so this is not a book that can be read quickly, nor do I really want to since I’m enjoying it so much. It’s a relief after trying and failing miserably to read two other Dickens novels that are also on my  Classics Club list (namely Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House).

Dickens has been in and out of favour many times since the 1840s. F R Leavis even left him out of The Great Tradition, his 1948 seminal work examining the works of authors he considered the greatest of English writers. He didn’t rectify the omission until 197o when he published Dickens the Novelist. One frequent criticism levied at Dickens is that was he created stereotypes rather than fully rounded characters; another is that all his plots really come down to the same thing: ‘love and be loved’; George Orwell complained that even Dickens’  much vaunted social criticism was over-rated since he never offered any real solutions to the problems he highlighted.

There’s a degree of truth in all those complaints but for me they overlook two things  — one is that this is an author who is a master of the complex plot.  He can be verbose sometimes especially when he wants to have a rant at a social injustice or when he gets carried away with his descriptive powers. But he assuredly knows how to tell a good story; one that makes you want to keep reading if only to find out what happens next.

English authorsAnd secondly, this guy has a superb ear for patterns of speech, using them to create characters that may not be fully formed but are so wonderfully larger than life , they linger in the memory well after the book is closed. In Little Dorrit, we have some fine examples. There’s the French murderer Rigaud, whose evil eye makes others tremble and the downtrodden servant Affery Flintwinch whose very odd dreams give clues to some of the nasty secrets in her mistress’s house. But the prize for the most comic character of all goes to Flora Finching, a gone to seed widow who mistakenly believes she is still a young, and highly attractive young girl and who simply cannot shut up. To hear her stream of consciousness speeches is to experience the verbal equivalent of the Japanese Bullet train.

The withered chaplet my dear,’ said Flora [to Arthur], with great enjoyment, ‘is then perished the column is crumbled and the pyramid is standing upside down upon its what’s-his-name call it not giddiness call it not weakness call it not folly I must now retire into privacy and look upon the ashes of departed joys no more but taking a further liberty of paying for the pastry which has formed the humble pretext of our interview will forever say Adieu!’

Phew. I’m glad I don’t have to share my home with her………..


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