Saturday, 2 February 2013

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

I think I have already mentioned on this blog that I have a little tradition of reading a Dickens novel for Christmas, which started when I read my first (Bleak House) over the holidays some years ago. This year I reread one of my favourites, Little Dorrit, which is also one of Dickens’s lesser known novels. It is one of his later novels, and is one of the heftier tomes. In it Dickens tells a deeply personal story, and produces some of his best satire. He set the novel in the late 1820s and centred the story around the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Dickens own father was imprisoned here, a part of his childhood he was deeply ashamed of. Although the Marshalsea was closed by the time Dickens was writing, he still wished to address the injustice of locking up debtors at the whim of their creditors regardless of the size of their debt.

The titular character Amy, or Little, Dorrit, lives with her father in London’s Marshalsea Prison, where he has languished for decades. Once a rich man of property, he ruined his family, and his children have been brought up in prison; the youngest, Amy, was even born there. Elsewhere we meet the Clennam family: Arthur Clennam has recently returned to London from China where he and his late father were working for the family firm. His stern mother represents the firm in London, though she is housebound, never leaving her wheelchair. She is aided by the creepy Mr Flintwinch, her servant and eventual business partner. Arthur Clennam has been led to believe by his father that the family fortune may have been built upon someone else’s misfortune. When he comes home to find Amy Dorrit employed as a seamstress by his mother he suspects a connection. But he is not the only person on the trail - the villainous Rigaud is infiltrating their society, and blackmail is on the agenda.

As you can see, Little Dorrit is another example of a labyrinthine Dickens plot. It is also an excellent example of how Dickens at his best used plot to explore various ideas. Along with social inequalities and injustices, Dickens is particularly concerned with prisons: the Marshalsea, a jail cell in Europe, Mrs Clennam imprisoned in her wasted body, her chair and her house, but also those prisons that are entirely the constructs of our minds. Even if the walls are removed, Mr Dorrit can never be free of the effects of years of incarceration. Even the highest forms of society, Dickens shows, can be a form of prison - trapping its inhabitants in expectations.

I have already mentioned on my blog Dickens’s penchant for writing his heroines as dutiful, perfect housekeeping, self-sacrificing annoying little things. Little Dorrit is the epitome of these traits, devoting herself to her father way beyond the call of duty. For some reason I find her less annoying. I think partly because he also gives her a bit more substance than some of the other examples (like Little Nell, ugh). Once or twice she is able to make a selfish decision, i.e. the decision that is best for her, not her father. She is also so taken for granted by her family that I genuinely feel for her.

One of Dickens‘s cruellest, but also funniest characters is Flora, Arthur’s childhood sweetheart. They were deliberately separated by their families, and then by the twenty years or so Arthur has been in Asia. Flora is now a widow, and not quite the woman Arthur remembers
Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had became a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much.
As Arthur recoils from Flora, she is more than willing to throw herself at the man she once loved. It is cringe-worthy, and made worse by Dickens giving her just enough of genuine good meaning, especially in her behaviour towards Little Dorrit, to take the edge off caricature. Her character is beautifully conjured in her long ungrammatical speeches - a breathless gallop of thoughts, sorely lacking in punctuation.
Ask me not…if I love him still or if he loves me or what is to be or when, when we are surrounded by watchful eyes and it may be that we are destined to pine asunder it may be never more to be reunited not a word not a breath not a look to betray is all must be secret as the tomb wonder not therefore that even if I should seem comparatively cold to Arthur or Arthur should seem comparatively cold to me we have fatal reasons it is enough if we understand them hush!
The cruelty in this fabulous creation of Dickens's is that she wasn’t entirely a fabrication. As soon she appeared in print a Mary Winter (who had once been Mary Beadnell, Dickens’s first love from whom he was separated by family), recognised herself. It was not the first time she had inspired Dickens; she also appears in the youthful guise of Dora in David Copperfield. She had recently been reunited with Dickens and he obviously found her something of a disappointment. Dickens may be have been a great writer, but he could be savage to those who failed to live up to his expectations.

It may be 150 years since Little Dorrit first appeared in print, but much of it seems startlingly relevant today. After all, this Victorian London revolves around bureaucracy and money. The rich get richer, while those without are condemned to desperate lives, scrabbling to make ends meet. Dickens depicts what must be the first Ponzi scheme to appear in print, run by Mr Merdle. Merdle is the man of the moment, sought after by the fawning society glitterati, even as he desperately paddles to stay afloat, in a prison of his own making. The entirety of London is swept up in this ruthless pursuit of money. Mr Merdle’s bank is a sure bet, right up until the moment it collapses, revealing its customers have nothing more than castles in the air. In this post GFC world it seems we have not learned much; Greed rules eternal.

And what of the end? Oh yes, everything gets wrapped up nicely and neatly, with unexpected twists, coincidences, and a fair bit of schmaltz. If you like your conclusions neat, Dickens will give you that, but you have to put realism aside. The plot is only the bone, and around it Dickens gives us plenty of meat: memorable characters, metaphor and social critique. I have long been a fan of Dickens; despite his flaws, he deserves his reputation as one of the great novelists.

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