Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

In June and July 2010 a dramatisation of the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit was shown on Australian television. The dramatisation was the work of Andrew Davis, famous in part for his dramatisation of Jane Austin's Pride and prejudice. Being based on a far more sombre work, Davis's Little Dorrit inevitably lacked the grace and good humour of his version of the Austin novel, but it produced several hours of very watchable television in a lavish production which generally adhered closely to the novel (though there were some fairly minor changes: Mrs Merdle, for example, is last seen in the television series amusingly planning a 'midlight flight' along with the daughter-in-law she despises, carrying what portable property she can salvage from the financal wreckage of her husband's bank. In the novel she settles into genteel poverty, accepted by High Society as a victim of a villainous husband.)

The novel originally appeared in monthly parts in 1856-57, when Dickens (1812-70) was at the height of his powers, but we encounter it now in a long volume (of over 850 pages in the Penguin edition). It was relatively unpopular when first published, being widely criticised for its somber tone and excessively complicated plot. More recently, however, several critics have argued it is among the finest of Dickens's novels, and even his best work. One doubts, nevertheless, that it is among the better loved or better known of his novels.

The novel is set, mainly in London but also in France and Italy, about 1825. The plot is elaborate, and the novel is in a real sense a mystery story. The plot opens in a prison, and prisons, particularly the London debtors's prison, the Marshalsea, figure prominently. Amy Dorrit, 'Little Dorrit', the eponymous heroine, initially appears as the daugher of a longterm Marshalsea prisoner. Imprisonment is in fact a major theme of the book, and we see that in all sectors of society, from high to low, among good and bad, people are prisoners. Little Dorrit's father and brother, Arthur Clennam, the novel's hero, and the villainous Rigaud, alias Blandois, are among those who are literally prisoners at one stage or other, but the fabulous wealthy financier Merdle, who generally holds himself as if he were being taken into custody, is clearly a prisoner of his own dishonesty and deception, and the fanatical religious puritain Mrs Clennam (who appears to be Arthurs' mother until late in the novel) is a prisoner both of her ill health, which apparently keeps her confined to one gloomy room, and of her gloomy and vengeful religiosity.

A great range of social classes and categories of people appear in the novel, and this vivid richness is one of the pleasures of reading it one hundred and fifty years after it was written. Dickens shows, sometimes in ways that stretch credulity, that quite unlikely people are related, sometimes by family ties, more often by sharing a common fate (as when the crash of the Merdle bank brings down high and low). The novel can indeed by sombre, particularly in its first half, sub-titled 'Poverty' and largely set among those living hand to mouth in the bottom rungs of society, but it can also be highly amusing and entertaining. The pretensions of those who pride themselves as being 'Society' are amusingly satirised. A well-known feature of the novel is the 'Circumlocution Office' a far more biting satire on the civil service of the time, presented as existing only to prevent anything useful being done in Britain and to feather the nests of the extended Barnacle family that controls it. (Opinions will probably differ, but for this reader the Circumlocution Office satire was rather heavy-handed and soon became unfunny and unconvincing.)

One cannot long consider the novel Little Dorrit without considering the character Little Dorrit. A small, frail young woman in her early twenties she is very much in the tradition of Dickens's blameless, meek and gentle, pure and noble heroines. We are told ad nauseum how small and how good Little Dorrit is. One might describe her as saintly, except that most real saints seem to have relatively flawed personalities by comparison (and, except in one melodramatic scene near the end, when she is confronted by the puritanical Mrs Clennam and utters some banal pieties, Little Dorrit is not portrayed as religious). The unrelentingly sentimentality lavished on Little Dorrit is probably a stumbling block for most modern readers, and given that other novelists of the period, such as the Brontes and George Eliot, were able to give their readers far more human female characters, it probably reflects Dickens's willingness to pander to the sentimentality of his mass audience (and perhaps his own curious ideas about ideal womanhood). It must also be said that the melodramatic ending of the novel is far from convincing, even if we take into account the belief of time in the reality of coincidence in human life.

Reading Little Dorrit is a major project, and not always an easy one. Dickens's prose is unfailingly graceful, except when he deliberately mades it otherwise for effect (as in Flora's amusing but also somewhat poignant monologues), but his sentences can make demands on us to which we are not now accustomed, and the sentimentality is offputting. But one does feel in the presence of a major work, and moments of real enjoyment are far from rare.

"Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje with commentary by Faye Lawrence

Michael Ondaatje is well known for his Booker winner, the novel "The English Patient". . As well as being a very successful novelist he is a noted poet, literary editor, academic and film maker. Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka , in 1943 , moved to England with his mother and attended senior school there before migrating to Canada. He became a Canadian citizen in the 1960s where his literary talents have been recognised with many awards. He lives in Toronto.

"Running in the Family" , published in 1982 , is a memoir about his family in Sri Lanka which reaches back and forwards over several generations to tell a highly personal , yet historically and culturally fasinating story . It has all the hallmarks of a poet and imaginatve novelist - wonderful imagery, incredible story-telling , atmosphere you can feel, emotion and humour. Ondaatje tells how he was drawn to travel to Sri Lanka to re-connect with his family and his roots by a "the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto". The memories , smells and sounds of Sri Lanka called him . He writes of "wanting to touch them (his relations) into words".

A special feature of this lyrical , explorative memoir is the story of Sri Lanka itself . The physical, cultural and historical background is beautifully , often humourously and graphically portrayed. One is constantly reminded of the physical surroundings - heat, rain, floods, cool shade, wonderful animal life , colonial architecture , spices, tea plantations , winding roads, jungle , plants, flowers etc.

In this sensual setting we hear equally wonderful stories about recent generation family members no longer alive .The recollections by friends and relatives of the authors father and maternal grandmother and both amazing and touching. The Grandmother is depicted by relatives as an Aunty Mame character with a penchant for picking flowers from friends or public gardens and presenting them as gifts. The stories are gleaned from family members and friends recollections as the author travelled around and visited many places in this small and vibrant island which he knew as a child - and in the hands and mind of the poet novelist they take on a fictional/family legend quality of sometimes alarming and always entertaining qualities .

Interwoven with the more fanciful, entertaining family stories is the authors visceral , dreamlike recollections , reconstructions and analyses of the family history going back some centuries but mostly looking back at two previous generations. At times the reader can be puzzled by the multiple story tellers Ondaaatje is employing in the narrative - however it tends to fall into place as you go along . I was confused at times but delighted overall and found the style and technique added to the character of the relatively small memoir - aptly so about a small but altogether fascinating country.

I was intrigued by the historical vignettes about Sri Lanka which come through the memoir via the family background. You get a tantalising view of the colonial past and the multicultural legacy of centuries and centuries of migration , conquest and assimilation - often via poets or writers of the past. I dont mean to give the impression that there is an attempt to chrionicle this long, fascinating history but the author in talking of his family connections going back centuries does offer some intriguing insights into its nature , its difference, its fascination for locals and foreigners.

There is one particular chapter "Don't talk to me about Matisse" which delighted me with the literary refrences and feel for the place. In this chapter the author writes of an ancestor Dr William Charles Ondaatje, a Tamil, who was a Director of the Botanical Gardens in the mid 19th Century "who knew at least fifty-five specimens of poisons easily available to his countrymen" and wrote them up in journals. D.H. Lawrence found Ceylon very difficult and in typical style strongly wrote of his feelings and distaste. Michael Ondaatje comments in this context "Heat disgraces foreigners" The lyrical , often sad Ceylonese poetry quoted contrasts with these observations. The line"Dont talk to me about Matisse" comes from such a poet.

"Running in the Family" then is not the usual run- of- the- mill family memoir .The reader goes on the explorative journey with the author and picks up a lot of information on the way about this multicultural , unique part of Asia with which Australia has many close connections - not only from this difficult current time but of the past 50 or so decades .For instance I was motivated to follow up on the Sri Lankan Cultural groups and found from my google search that Melbourne has a large community of citizens of Burgher origin from Sri Lanka - folk with some Dutch background . Yasmine Gooneratne , a Professor at Macquarie University ,and a fine novelist in her own right is mentioned in the book as supplying information and background. Sri Lanka is then more than just a sum of its parts - it is a significant and influential part of our world. Michael Ondaatje in his exploration of his heritage has opened this up to me. I hope it met his needs in finding his roots.