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.


Faye said...

Dear John,
I think your summary and critical appraisal is spot on and now, that i am halfway through Little Dorrit, I feel bold enough to make an initial reply. I am enjoying the reading very much. Your last par about the benefits of reading a big Dickens novel like this is a judgement i totally agree with .
Whilst enjoying it very much I needed to put it aside several times to finish off other committed readings I was undertaking but everytime i pick it up again I can find passages to smile about - paragraphs to marvel at..

You mentioned Flora as bringing out the comic presentation very well - I agree - her speeches are actually great comic pieces of writing. Her visit with the amazing Mr. Fs Aunt to Arthur in his engineering office is perfect theatre , I reckon. I agree also that she is poignantly drawn - moreover her characterisation adds a more complex quality to Dickens sensitivity of the female let alone humanity.

Whilst Amy herself maybe relatively saintly there are few simply good people in this rambling novel and I continue to revel in the breadth of humanity portrayed here.

Having seen the wonderful television production just recently there is little to surprise in the plot but then plot continuity in this novel is hardly the main reason for reading it .

For me, this novel ,more than any other Dickens i am familiar with, illustrates the style of publishing so favoured by Dickens and other Victorians - the episodic , monthly parts coming out in the newstands. I can sense that episodic approach in this book - whereas in say , Bleak House or Great Expectations , that is not the main feeling I have .

However having said that I dont mean to give the impression it is less enjoyable for me - it is just a different type of Dickens reading experience.

I find I am concentrating on the writing more - and I love it . I think Dickens enjoyed writing its parts - perhaps with a tongue in cheek. i was interested in your comment that some critics are arguing this is amongst the finest of his novels and I think i can understand vaguely that.

Once again - I think the critique you have given us is so good - I would love to talk about this book for hours. I hope we can encourage other readers to taste this wonderful writing of Dickens the Master. thank you


John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. Apparently Dickens loved theatre. In his later years he devoted huge amounts of time and energy to giving public readings from his books, and apparently he really threw himself into making the readings dramatic performances. He used to emerge exhausted from them. In private life he loved amateur theatricals, games of charades, etc. I think as you suggest one can see this love in 'Little Dorrit': there are often characters and scenes one can readily imagine on the stage.