Sunday 18 November 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 12 - "Little Dorrit"

Dickens portrait by Ary Scheffer (Nov. 1855)
Despite all of the success and adulation he continued to receive for his literary work and his public activities, and despite the personal satisfaction he got from his artistic growth as an increasingly serious novelist, Charles Dickens at this time was not a happy man. Something fundamental was gnawing at his gut. He felt trapped by his past – caught in a troubling vision of his life that kept coming back to haunt him. And he was growing ever more dissatisfied with his domestic situation – unhappy with his wife and bothered by constant problems with his children and his siblings.
Dickens had finished Hard Times in August, 1854. He took a year off before getting started on his next novel. During that year-long hiatus from serious writing, he continued with the same kinds of activities that he’d been involved with for the last few years: producing his weekly magazine, Household Words, planning amateur theatricals involving family and friends, doing public readings for charity, and making regular trips back-and-forth to France.
Dickens was back in England in December, 1854, from a holiday in France, in order to prepare for his second round of Christmas-time public readings, undertaken again to benefit several charities that he supported. The use of privately-organised foundations and institutions to support charitable enterprises was very important during the Victorian era, and most public figures engaged in activities designed to help the poor and disadvantaged. Dickens had inaugurated public readings from his books during the Christmas season of the previous year – and that first experience had been a resounding success. On December 19 of this year he did a performance in Reading for the Literary, Scientific and Mechanics Institution; two days later he was in Sherborne on behalf of the Literary Institute there; and, just after Christmas, he was up north in Bradford for the Temperance Educational Institution, doing a reading in front of 3,700 people at St. George’s Hall. Since these were all done during Christmas time, Dickens used A Christmas Carol for all three readings.
One innovation of this season’s readings was an invitation to the audience from Dickens to respond freely to his work – whether with tears of sorrow, or shouts of laughter. They should not feel inhibited by the formal situation, he told them. The audiences would erupt into applause when he made this announcement. And they certainly took him at his word, much to Dickens’s delight – he loved the immediacy of the feedback, and the readings became more dramatic and theatrical as time went on.

The brothers - William and Frederick Dorrit in the Marshalsea Prison yard
Also during December, Dickens was busy organising the annual Twelfth Night play for his family at their London home, Tavistock House. This year he produced a version of Fortunio and his Seven Gifted Servants a fairy-tale play written in 1843 by J. R. Planché. His friend, writer Wilkie Collins, participated as an actor in the performance. More amateur theatricals came in May, 1855. Dickens had just begun work on the first chapter of the new novel, but it wasn’t going well. He abruptly postponed further work on the book and threw his full effort into a new theatrical production – a sentimental melodrama written by his close-friend Wilkie Collins called The Lighthouse. Among the cast were some of his loyal accomplices: the playwright Mark Lemon, the artist Augustus Egg, and the play’s author, Wilkie Collins.
In the New Year of 1855, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne visited England. He made note of the current critical opinions of Dickens that he read in the press. The general public may still have adored him – especially his lower-class and middle-class readers – but he was not to the taste of the literati. They generally preferred William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair (1848). Blackwood’s Magazine pointed out sniffily that “it is the air and breath of middle-class respectability which fills the books of Mr. Dickens.” And the novelist Anthony Trollope – only three years younger than Dickens, but very early into his own writing career, at this time – dubbed him “Mr. Popular Sentiment”.

At the beginning of February, Dickens noticed that Gad’s Hill Place was for sale. This was the house that his father, John Dickens, had pointed out to Charles, when he was still a small boy. They had walked by the place together when the Dickens family were living nearby (close to Rochester). Dickens’s father had told Charles that it was the sort of reward that might come to a man of success. He had passed the place often during walks between Rochester and London – and always remembered what his father had said. He remarked to his colleague W. H. Wills – his editorial assistant on Household Words – that “the spot and the very house are literally ‘a dream of my childhood’.” He made some enquiries. It wasn’t actually a particularly impressive house – nowhere near as grand, for example, as his current London home at Tavistock House. It was what it stood for that fired his imagination. He made plans to visit and examine the house just three days after his initial enquiry.

Dickens's love in his late-teens, Maria Beadnell
But he got side-tracked from that plan by another dramatic memory of his past. Out of the blue he received a letter from Maria Beadnell – the young woman he had courted back in his late teens, when he was working as a parliamentary reporter. He had been infatuated by her, but she eventually rejected him. Dickens had been deeply humiliated by the rebuff – he thought it was caused primarily by his lack of social position. Maria’s letter was a message of fond reminiscence to her former suitor – now a famous author. Dickens was surprised – and strangely moved – by this unexpected communication. He described his response as a “softened emotion” caused by thoughts of his ardent youth – and a realisation that the wound she had caused him was now buried deep in the past. The more he thought about her, the more impassioned he became. He exchanged a couple of discreet messages with her from London. But soon he was back in Paris again, and from there he sent her a series of lengthier, and more intense, messages. It seems evident, in hindsight, that Dickens behaviour was driven by a deep unhappiness, an intense dissatisfaction with his wife Catherine. He arranged a clandestine meeting with Maria. As soon as they met, after so many years without seeing each other, all his romantic longing evaporated. The youthful beauty of Dickens’s memory was long gone. As Georgina, Dickens’s sister-in-law, bluntly put it later, “She had become very fat and quite commonplace.” As often happened with Dickens, the reality did not match his imaginative vision. He broke off contact with Maria as quickly as he could decently manage it. But only a few months later, Dickens revisited this disappointing experience by introducing a character into his new novel based on Maria Beadnell. Her name was Flora Finching; and she is depicted as an affected, loquacious, sentimental fool. Recalling his own disappointment, Dickens describes the very first encounter that his middle-aged protagonist, Arthur Clennam, has – after twenty-odd years – with  his former sweetheart, Flora: “Clennam’s eyes no sooner fell upon the subject of his old passion, than it shivered and broke to pieces.” Although he softens the portrait of Flora (Maria) later in the book, it is clear that the shock he felt about the discrepancy between his imagination and the reality pushed him to respond cruelly. He must have known she would read his latest book – especially after their recent rendezvous; but as was often the case with him, he only really cared about his own attitudes and needs. Given that, however, Dickens does make her one of the few positive characters in the book, and the reader cannot help delighting in many of her astonishing monologues.

Gad's Hill Place near Rochester (a photo of mine from a visit in 2009)

Later that year, in November 1855, Dickens decided to buy Gad’s Hill Place. He had finally seen it in detail a few months before. He paid £1,790 for it – paying by check on a Friday (his lucky day, he said). He thought of it initially as an investment – he planned to continue living in Tavistock House in London – and intended to rent it out.
Dickens had begun Little Dorrit in May, but when he found the going difficult, he put the work aside to concentrate on amateur theatricals. His friend and confidant, John Forster, thought that Dickens was experiencing “a drop in invention”; but the key problem, as usual, was finding a leading theme for the novel – what he called a “guiding idea”. And then he had it: a group of travellers would meet in the port of Marseilles, France; they are held in quarantine there for some time, and then move on to pursue their own lives. The story would show future connections amongst the travellers. Some of them are soon back in London. One of them meets Amy Dorrit, ‘Little Dorrit’, and discovers that she and her family live in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison.
But Dickens was still not sure exactly where this story was going. It certainly wasn’t as carefully planned out and structured as some of his more recent works. The second number of the serialised novel took him three months to complete. His work was interrupted further by his sitting for portraits by Paris-based artist Ary Scheffer and his brother Henri. [Ary’s portrait is featured at the beginning of this review]. Dickens sat for these portraits simultaneously during November. He found the whole process very tedious, and to top it off, as he wrote to John Forster, “I do not discern the slightest resemblance, either in his portrait [Ary’s] or his brother’s”. Finally, at the beginning of December, the first monthly issue of Little Dorrit was published. His publishers, Bradbury and Evans, mounted a big publicity campaign: they put up 4,000 posters around the city; and they printed an incredible 300,000 handbills! Dickens described the response to the first instalment as “a brilliant triumph”. The print run was increased for the next issue to 35,000 copies.

Wrapper of first instalment (Dec. 1855)
Little Dorrit was published, as usual, in nineteen monthly instalments (the last being a double-issue, sections XIX and XX) between December, 1855 and June, 1857. It was divided into two Books – “Poverty” and “Riches”. It was a neat division: the first half dealt with the Dorrits’ life cooped up in the Marshalsea Prison; the second followed their exploits after being release from the prison. This was Dickens’s fifth novel published by Bradbury and Evans – he had been with them now for just over a decade. The new book was illustrated, as usual, by Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’). Each issue was priced at a shilling – except for the last, which, as a double issue, cost two shillings.

As was often the case with Dickens, certain topical events were picked up and used in his new novel. The satirical chapters aimed at government bureaucracy (the ‘Circumlocution Office’ represents HM Treasury) reflected his disgust with the appalling incompetence with which the government was running the Crimean War. Thousands of soldiers were dying of disease and malnutrition because of the lack of supplies, the lack of medical facilities, and the lack of clothing that could protect the troops from the extreme cold. He saw this calamity as another example of the failure of the system – exposing again the callous stupidity of the political aristocracy running the country. He hated Parliament; it was a glaring emblem of the current failure of representative government. Another contemporary event that caught his imagination was a dramatic bankruptcy that rocked the financial system in London. A prominent financier – John Sadleir – committed suicide near Jack Straw’s Tavern on Hampstead Heath, after a long series of financial improprieties. For Dickens, this incident was further proof of the corruption of the entire financial system. He introduced this theme into Little Dorrit in the figure of Mr. Merdle, a popular and socially-prominent financier, who – it turns out – is running a type of Ponzi-scheme.
Dickens’s constant trips back-and-forth to France (usually Paris and Boulogne) indicate his growing disenchantment with London. It was no longer his city. He would soon move permanently to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He noticed the physical ugliness of the city more and more. And he felt oppressed by the corruption he sensed at all levels of its society. Little Dorrit is a sustained attack against the current state of English society – its government, its legal system, its bureaucracy, its financial system, and its aristocracy. Dickens also seemed to be avoiding London because of a growing dissatisfaction with his wife Catherine. In May, 1856, for example, when he came back to England from yet another visit to France, he stayed for four days at the Ship Inn in Dover, rather than return immediately to the family home at Tavistock House. His wife’s family (the Hogarths) were staying there and he just didn’t want to deal with them. And in many ways it was Catherine’s sister, Georgina – who had come to live with the Dickens tribe in 1841 as a fifteen year-old, in order to help raise the children – who now ran the household, because of her sister’s physical frailty and diffident attitude.

Looking north at the original wall of the Marshalsea Prison (my photo from a 2012 visit)
The key symbol and dominant theme of Little Dorrit is the prison. The book’s opening chapter is set in a prison in Marseilles, with two characters (one French, one Italian) who quickly drop out of the story, only to return later on. Also in Marseilles are a group of travellers being held in quarantine. And, then, back in London we meet the Dorrit family, who have been living for twenty-odd years in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Some characters are physically incarcerated. But there are many more characters in this book who have imprisoned themselves: they are constrained materially; they are trapped psychologically; they are restrained emotionally. They are invariably caught in a web of their own making.
And this theme of imprisonment surely reflects Dickens’s own life. He felt trapped in an increasingly unhappy marriage, and trapped in a life dominated by a whole host of family and professional obligations. He was also helplessly trapped in thoughts of the past – prompted especially by Maria Beadnell and Gad’s Hill Place. But were these memories a form of escape, or another kind of mental constraint? Two versions of the situation Dickens found himself in can be seen in the two innocent protagonists of the novel – Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Arthur is an unhappy middle-aged gentleman who feels that his life is already pretty much over. His emotional-life has been severely scarred by an unhappy childhood that was dominated by a cruel mother. He is a good man, but trapped by emotional constraint – still influenced by his mother’s tyrannical Calvinism. Arthur Clennam is something new in a Dickensian protagonist. Dickens’s ‘heroes’ are usually rather insipid ciphers; but Clennam is a more complicated man. He is self-critical and reflective – someone who has been buffeted by life, and who knows it. It’s hard not to see that this is Dickens pondering his own disappointments. And Clennam is the dominant point-of-view for the novel’s narrative arc. Amy Dorrit is also an innocent character. She may be imprisoned physically in the Marshalsea, but she is seemingly free of psychological and emotional damage. She represents a kind of perfect Christian religiosity – untouched by the degradation and corruption around her. If Arthur Clennam suggests Dickens’s own current, middle-aged plight, then Little Dorrit represents another ideal version of Dickens’s ‘innocent’ childhood. But, of course, he, unlike Amy, was deeply affected – fatally warped – by his brush with the debtors’ prison.

Northern wall of the Marshalsea  - all that's left of the entire prison (my photo from a visit in 2012)
At the time Dickens was writing Little Dorrit, the Marshalsea Prison had not been in operation for some thirteen years. It was closed in 1842 – all of the inmates were moved to other locations on November 19. Curiously, Dickens did not visit the site of the prison, located on the south side of the Thames in Southwark, whilst he was writing about it. He preferred to rely on his memories and his imagination. But just before the long novel was finished, he made a trip to the place on 5 May, 1857. In the Preface to the 1868 edition of the book, Dickens recalled that visit:
Some of my readers may have an interest in being informed whether or no any portions of the Marshalsea Prison are yet standing. I myself did not know, until I was approaching the end of this story, when I went to look. I found the outer front courtyard, often mentioned here, metamorphosed into a butter shop; and then I almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent "Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey," I came to "Marshalsea Place": the houses in which I recognized, not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose in my mind's eye when I become Little Dorrit's biographer ... .
It’s instructive to consider William Dorrit, Little Dorrit’s father, another fictional portrait of John Dickens, Charles’s father. Charles had already created a fictional version of his father with Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield. Micawber had been a delightful, loquacious, good-natured character – who, despite his continuously improvident ways, was defiant and optimistic in the face of his troubles. William Dorrit – the Father of the Marshalsea (thanks merely to his seniority in the place) – is a much less likeable and positive character. He is a dithering, obsequious man. He is anxious to uphold the dignity of his family, but when they attain their freedom, he becomes a snob and a spendthrift. In Amy’s relationship with her father, we have yet another Dickensian instance of a sweet, innocent daughter sacrificing herself on behalf of an ineffectual and emotionally-exploitative father, or grandfather.

Mrs. Clennam, Flintwich and Arthur Clennam
Little Dorrit is the second of Dickens’s late-career London trilogy. It is his so-called ‘dark period’, when his novelistic art turns away from the exuberant comedy of his earlier work and takes on a sadder, rather cynical hue. These three books are set in a capital that is not only physical ugly, but also rife with moral and institutional corruption. His earlier books were a lot more fun. He would revel in the grotesqueries and absurdities of his exaggerated characters, and usually end his novels with a sense of benign conciliation. Not any more. His later novels are much more structurally sound. They show a better connectedness between the characters and the plot. The humour is less playful now; it often has a sharp, satirical bite. Not many happily-ever-afters here, despite the obligatory wedding involving the two protagonists.
Dickens was a sad and troubled man. He was unleashing much of his anger and hatred with the way things were in this novel. Little Dorrit is full of negative figures that he depicts in a harsh and straightforward way. Many of the characters are pretentious snobs. Most of them are imprisoned by their class prejudices and their yearning to climb the social ladder. They lack an honest response to life – everything is contrived, everything is a scheme. In one heart-rending scene, William Dorrit even lectures his blameless and upright daughter, Amy, about her social inadequacy. She is the one family-member who has remained unsullied, loyal, and upright. Her father is now a horrible snob, living off money he never earned. He tells her that she needs to develop a “surface”; she needs to assume a persona, a front, a mask. She needs, he says, to develop a sense of pride that is commensurate with the family’s wealth and rank. She accepts the rebuke without a word.

Blandois and Cavalletto in Marseilles prison
There are things in this novel that don’t work. The character of Blandois (aka Rigaud, aka Lagnier) is a smooth-talking scoundrel – but there is too much of the melodramatic villain in him – the devil incarnate – to  make him credible. The premonitions and ominous dreams of Affery Flintwich, who works as maid in Mrs. Clennam’s house, are also rather over-the-top. Miss Wade, on the other hand, is a more interesting case. She has a cold-hearted indifference that grates – when it’s laid on thick it reminds us of the over-drawn drama of Edith Dombey. But her championing of the disaffected maid Harriet Beadle (‘Tattycoram’) implies a lesbian relationship, although Dickens doesn’t depict it as such. And what do we make of Mr. Meagles? He is a retired banker, full of Pickwick-like benevolence. But there is something too patronising about him, and his attitude doesn’t ring quite true.
But it is the character of Little Dorrit that raises the most questions. In some ways, she can be dismissed as a typically exaggerated Dickensian heroine – too sweet, too insipid, too unbelievable. And most modern readers would see her like that – a highly unreal figure. But, as Irving Howe argues in his introduction to the Everyman Library edition of the novel, Dickens is after something more than a realistic character. What Dickens is up to, he says, is to portray a figure of “perfect goodness”. He almost achieved that before in his portrait of Samuel Pickwick. But that was a more benign world. The world of Little Dorrit is full of pretense, deceit and corruption. Amy Dorrit, by contrast, is mild and selfless. Instead of seeing her as innocent because she is inexperienced, and sentimental because she lacks grit, see her as simply good. Her goodness, Howe suggests, is a state of being. And, as such, it is presented to the reader as a tremendous contrast to nearly everyone around her. She is an adult, but she seems so childlike. She is the ultimate Christian example of goodness, because there is no dogma, no institutional affiliation, no formulaic ethic. She is good by virtue of her love and compassion. And she stands alone - there is no appeasement between her and the world around her. So how do we react to a person like that?

The monthly issues of Little Dorrit continued to sell well throughout its run. By the end it was selling close to 30,000 copies. But the reaction of critics was not generally kind. It was treated pretty much as a failure – another step in the author’s sad decline. Some of the negative response was the result of irritation with Dickens’s politics; some of it was the typical phenomenon of knocking an idol off his perch; and some of it was sheer snobbishness – the literati still objecting to this hero of the middle and lower classes. Blackwood’s Magazine succinct review called it “twaddle”. Nothing new, then; Dickens’s later work was invariably given a cool reception.

Not from me, though! Little Dorrit is a fascinating read. This was my first time with the novel – as was my recent exposure to Bleak House. Despite the critical acclaim accorded to the latter book (many consider it Dickens’s best), I much preferred Little Dorrit. It’s more of a page-turner. The themes are more relevant. The writing is less complex and arch. And the protagonists are more interesting and gripping. I got the sense that Dickens, himself, was more fully involved with this story. He was working through some complex emotions – using his incredible imaginative power to deal with deeply difficult problems in his private life. Trying to escape the prison that continued to hold him.

Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit get married

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Dickens was to start again, read through all of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. So this is the twelfth of a series.]

Next: A Tale of Two Cities

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Little Dorrit by Irving Howe (1992); "Introduction" to Little Dorrit by G. K. Chesterton (1907); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]


  1. Great review Clive. memories of the Marshalsea and Gads Hill.

    One of the things that has struck me reading Little Dorrit, is all the connections and allusions to Dickens own life and experiences.( I know he does this in all his novels) You mention,Maria Beadnell, one link to Dickens past and intimate own life and the similarites to Flora, Arthur Clennam's fling from his youth. Dickens really went to town with Floras way of speaking. It's a wonder she had time to breath. Does she pause at all? Dickens must have created the longest sentences ever that weave about in convoluted ways for her. Was Maria Beadnell like that???? Dickens saved on full stops when writing Flora's dialogue anyway.

    Have good day,

    1. Thanks for your response, Tony.

      Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit" is reminiscent of Mrs. Nickleby, Nicholas's mother - rambling on interminably and getting lost in discursive tangents. Dickens is said to have based Mrs. Nickleby on his own mother, Elizabeth Dickens.

  2. What was the purpose of Rigaud/Blandois' role in the novel?

  3. Thank you for this well-researched and -written background piece. Something puzzled me about "Little Dorrit" and I'm wondering whether you can help me out. The issue is Miss Wade's producing a letter plainly directed to Arthur Clennam (it reiterates her description of Gowan as Clennam's "dear friend," for example} when he drops in on her uninvited in Calais. But how did she happen to have this letter ready and waiting to be produced for Clennam? It seems highly improbable that she would be moved to write it on the assumption that he would fortuitously appear out of the blue. I can't make it out. Do you have any thoughts? thanks