Like many Dickens’ novels, Little Dorrit starts off kind of slow with different scenes, characters, and conversations that don’t seem connected. But if you’ve read much Dickens, you know everything is connected in his books and trust it will all make sense in time, and it does.
One of the early scenes involves a group of people in quarantine after a trip from China to England. One of them, Arthur Clennam, has been living and working with his father for several years. His father has died, and Arthur is returning home. He goes to visit his mother and to tell her he does not want to continue in the family business. He also says he has reason to suspect that his father has perhaps wronged someone without having a chance to make it right, and asks if she would know whom, so that Arthur can do this kindness for his father. His mother and her butler-turned-business-partner Mr. Flintwich takes great offense at the suggestion.
Arthur is in his 40s and his home has never been a happy one. His parents have never gotten along, and his mother is rigidly and unmercifully religious, seeing everything that happens in terms of God’s punishment.
Arthur notices what he thinks is a young girl doing needlework at his mother’s house, but when he looks at her more closely, he sees that, though she is small, she is actually a young woman. He notices that his mother treats her with a modicum of kindness, unlike how she treats everyone else, and wonders if perhaps this girl or her family are ones that his family or their business has wronged. He follows her as she leaves to try to find out more about her.
He discovers that her father has been in Marshalsea debtor’s prison for some 23 or so years. The girl, known to everyone as Little Dorrit, was born there. Evidently prison at this time, at least this prison, allowed inmates’ families to live with them and come and go. Little Dorrit’s (her given name is Amy) mother died years ago. She has an older sister who has learned how to dance and works in that way, and an older ne’er-do-well brother. Her father has the distinction of having lived in the prison the longest of anyone there and is regarded as “the Father of the Marshalsea.” What is odd about all the family except Amy is that they put on airs (later Amy’s sister remonstrates with her about embarrassing the family and their position by walking home with an old pauper).
Arthur tries to discover the details of Mr. Dorrit’s case to see if there is anything he can do to help the family. He goes to the Circumlocution Office – Dickens’ satirical treatment of the epitome of bureaucracy and red tape – and gets nowhere.
Book I of the novel is called Poverty; Book II is Riches, which tells you that the Dorrit family’s fortune changes, but not their character.
Amy has fallen in love with Arthur, but Arthur, although he comes to care for her deeply, calls her “my child” and seems to see himself as a father figure. Meanwhile, he is in love with a girl named Pet, whom he met on the trip from China, along with her family, the Meagles. He has become friends with her family and visits them often. But she loves someone else.
Along with these threads, there are a few more: two prisoners seen in the opening chapter show up in different perspectives later in the book; a Miss Wade who was also on that first ship from China is a bitter woman whose path crosses that of the Meagles, Arthur, and one of the prisoner’s many times; there are several businessmen who play key roles, some good and some bad; there are a couple of Society women who do the same; there is a convoluted mystery involving Arthur’s mother, her butler, one of the prisoners, and Little Dorrit.
At 800+ pages, there is a lot to this novel. It was originally published in monthly installments over two years in the 1850s. Dickens’ own father had been a Marshalsea prisoner. Most of his novels deal with some sort of social injustice, and this one touches on the plight of the poor, governmental inefficiency, and the falseness of high society. He says in the preface that the major investment failure in the book that affects many is based on an actual bank failure.
It’s a little hard to sum up in one sentence what the book is about, but, going by the title character, I’d say it probably has to do with a character who stays good and kind whether her circumstances are good or bad, whether people treat her well or poorly. When her father’s fortune changes, she “lay her face against his, encircled him in the hour of his prosperity with her arms, as she had in the long years of his adversity encircled him with her love and toil and truth; and poured out her full heart in gratitude, hope, joy, blissful ecstasy, and all for him.” She reminds me a lot of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, caring for a fairly foolish parent (or grandparent in Nell’s case), except she is older and wiser and comes to a better end. That is one gratifying thing about this novel: the good characters win out in the end, even though some of them go through some low spots and trials, and most of the bad ones get their just desserts.
Even though Dickens deals with serious issues, he sprinkles quite a bit of humor throughout the book. In one of the sections dealing with a high society dinner, and having commented often on the highly powdered wigs of the footmen, he says that at the dinner “There was so much Powder…that it flavoured the dinner. Pulverous particles got into the dishes, and Society’s meats had a seasoning of first-rate footmen.” In telling about a Mr. Pancks, who is sort of the man who gets things done behind the respected figurehead of his business, he describes him as a tugboat who pulls the big ship where it needs to go, and uses phrases harkening back to that metaphor almost every time he mentions him, like, “Pancks opened the door for him, towed him in, and retired to his own moorings in the corner” and “On taking his leave, Pancks, when he had shaken hands with Clennam, worked completely round him before he steamed out the door.” The family in charge of the Circumlocution Office are slyly named Barnacle.
There are also some very tender, poignant moments, as when Arthur, after accepting that Pet loves someone else, tells Amy that he’s too old now to think about love, and Amy doesn’t want to show her feelings toward him but is dying inside. Arthur had decided early on that it would be best not to fall in love with Pet, and there are several statements along the lines that, “It’s a good thing he made that pact not to fall in love with her,” but he actually had. Later, after Pet tells him she’s going to marry another and he’s alone again, he takes the flowers she had picked and given him and gently tosses them in the river, where his hopes and dreams float away with them. And another young man, coming to grips with a great disappointment, “the heart that was under the waistcoat…swelled to the size of a gentleman, and the poor common little fellow, having no room to hold it, burst into tears.”
A favorite moment late in the book is a confrontation between Arthur’s mother and Little Dorrit, in which the latter tries to convince Mrs. Clennam that she doesn’t have to punish herself for her wrongdoing:
“Even if my own wrong had prevailed with me, and my own vengeance had moved me, could I have found no justification? None in the old days when the innocent perished with the guilty, a thousand to one? When the wrath of the hater of the unrighteous was not slaked even in blood, and yet found favour?”
“O, Mrs Clennam, Mrs Clennam,” said Little Dorrit, “angry feelings and unforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you and me. My life has been passed in this poor prison, and my teaching has been very defective; but let me implore you to remember later and better days. Be guided only by the healer of the sick, the raiser of the dead, the friend of all who were afflicted and forlorn, the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities. We cannot but be right if we put all the rest away, and do everything in remembrance of Him. There is no vengeance and no infliction of suffering in His life, I am sure. There can be no confusion in following Him, and seeking for no other footsteps, I am certain.”
I mostly listened to the audio version wonderfully read by Simon Vance, but near the end I switched back and forth with the Kindle version, both because I was getting eager and impatient to see how everything came out, and I could read at times that I couldn’t listen. I’ve been trying to read some Dickens work that I was not familiar with, so I’m glad to have completed Little Dorrit in that vein. Though I can’t say this is one of my favorites of his, I did enjoy it, and Amy and Arthur are among my favorites of his characters. There was a BBC miniseries made of it in 2009 (starring Matthew McFadyen, who played Mr. Darcy in the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice, as Arthur) that I would love to see some time, but as it is several hours long, I’d probably have to break it up into segments as it originally aired. Here’s a trailer for that series:
Have you read Little Dorrit? What did you think?
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)