Little Dorrit is one of the longest of Charles Dickens’s novels. It is the story of Amy Dorrit (the titular Little Dorrit) and Arthur Clennam, who befriends her. Little Dorrit’s father, William Dorrit, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison before her birth, and there she was born. When she was eight years old, her mother died and Little Dorrit took over the care of the family — her father, her older brother, Tip, her sister, Fanny, and her father’s brother Frederick. She contrived to get her sister taught dancing and she herself learnt sewing, enabling them to earn a living. The story begins when Little Dorrit is twenty-two.
At this point, Arthur Clennam — “a grave dark man of forty” — returns to England from China where he has been for more than twenty years serving in his parents’ business. His father died in China, and Arthur is returning to the imperious, severe Mrs. Clennam. He leaves the family business and goes into partnership with the inventor Daniel Doyce. Before he died, Arthur’s father tried to allude to a wrong done that needed reparation, but Mrs. Clennam refuses to cast any light on the mystery and Arthur remains uneasy under it. At his mother’s, Arthur meets Little Dorrit, who sews for Mrs. Clennam. Wishing to help her, Arthur befriends her.
Through an acquaintance of Arthur’s, Mr. Pancks, it is discovered that Little Dorrit’s father is heir-at-law of an immense fortune, and, thus, he is finally released from prison, and the family goes abroad. Unlike the rest of her family, who easily turn their snobbery into different channels than before, Little Dorrit is unable to put her past life behind her. Fanny finally marries a long-time admirer, Edmund Sparkler — step-son of Mr. Merdle. Of Mr. Merdle it is said that everything he touches turns to gold. Shortly before his sudden, untimely death, Mr. Dorrit invests all of his money with Mr. Merdle. Mr. Clennam also puts his company’s finances in Mr. Merdle’s hands. When Mr. Merdle commits suicide and is revealed as a fraud, the Dorrit children are left with no inheritance and Mr. Clennam is imprisoned for debt — in the Marshalsea prison. Thus Little Dorrit returns to the Marshalsea — to care for him.
Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit are both likable characters — good, interesting, complex, and sympathetic. Their affection and growing love for each other is very natural and well portrayed. I think they would make a very happy couple. When Dickens’s describes their married life as “a modest life of usefulness and happiness,” I have no trouble believing him. They are easily the best characters of the book and carry the story well.
There were some interesting contrasts presented in Little Dorrit. For example, Amy’s father is imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt while Arthur’s mother is confined to her room by paralysis.
One particularly thought-provoking contrast emphasized is that between Little Dorrit herself and Minnie (Pet) Meagles, a young woman Arthur falls in love with soon after his return to England. Pet is just that — her parents’ pet. She is beautiful, kind, charming, and spoiled. Daniel Doyce, a friend of the Meagles’ tells Arthur, “May be also, that she is too young and petted, too confiding and inexperienced, to discriminate well.” (Book 1, Ch. 26). This pinpoints the Meagles’ failure. While their daughter is very charming, she has been petted, babied, spoiled, to the point that she does not have good judgment. This causes one of the Meagles’ greatest regrets — the marriage of their daughter to Henry Gowan, a lackadaisical and inconsiderate, though superficially charming, young man. The Meagles try to separate Gowan from their daughter, but since they had not taught her discernment and strength of character, she falls for him. While Gowan loves Minnie, he does not have the depth of character and tenderness that she possesses and their marriage fails to be fulfilling to Minnie, though she hides his faults from herself.
In contrast to Minnie, Amy has “force of character and self-reliance”. As a child, she finds a milliner to teach her sewing and a dancing-master to teach her sister to dance. She contrives for her family, thinks for them, and watches over them. Despite her small stature and her great poverty, Little Dorrit has a strength of mind that Minnie unfortunately lacks. One of the first things that Mr. Clennam notices about Amy is “the weak figure with its strong purpose” (Book 1, Ch. 14). How different from the rich, spoiled Minnie!
I found it interesting that Dickens commends Little Dorrit for working as a child to help her family when her father is in debt. Dickens himself felt shame in the same position — a shame he portrayed in David Copperfield. Young Charles Dickens was ashamed of being pointed out — yet Little Dorrit is even more pointed out and set apart. She is pointed out as having been born in the debtors’ prison. She is, in fact, known as the “Child of the Marshalsea”. In David Copperfield, young David is humiliated by working with low people — one of his companions has a father who is a bargeman, another is the son of “a waterman, who had the additional distinction of being a fireman”. David said, “No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship” (David Copperfield, Ch. 11).
In Little Dorrit, this shame (or “spirit”, as Fanny considers it) is portrayed as snobbery. In chapter 31, Little Dorrit walks old Mr. Nandy to the Marshalsea to visit her father. Her family is horrified that she would be seen in public arm-in-arm with him, for Mr. Nandy lives in the workhouse. Fanny cries, “Oh, you … Common-minded little Amy! You complete prison-child!” Little Dorrit, on the other hand, knows no shame in associating with and helping the poor, the weak, and the lowly. In one scene in the Marshalsea near the end of the book, Mr. Meagles points Little Dorrit out to Tattycoram (a girl the Meagles took in as a child from a Foundling Hospital):
“You see that young lady who was here just now …? Look. The people stand out of the way to let her go by. The men—see the poor, shabby fellows—pull off their hats to her quite politely …. I have heard tell, Tatty, that she was once regularly called the child of this place. … A doleful place to be born and bred in, Tattycoram? … If she had constantly thought of herself, and settled with herself that everybody visited this place upon her, turned it against her, and cast it at her, she would have led an irritable and probably an useless existence. Yet I have heard tell, Tattycoram, that her young life has been one of active resignation, goodness, and noble service.” (Book 2, Ch. 33).
Little Dorrit reminded me of the verse where Jesus commands his disciples to “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Though she is “Worldly wise in hard and poor necessities, she was innocent in all things else. Innocent, in the mist through which she saw her father, and the prison, and the turbid living river that flowed through it and flowed on.” (Book 1, Ch. 7). She is a very forgiving young woman, too. Though, when it is revealed to her, she tells Arthur of what Mrs. Clennam did to his real mother (part of the mystery which Mrs. Clennam refused to reveal to Arthur), she doesn’t tell him that Mrs. Clennam also suppressed a legacy to Little Dorrit herself — something that (at that point) only affected herself.
Duty is a subject explored a little. Mr. Meagles tells Tattycoram, “Shall I tell you what I consider those eyes of [Little Dorrit’s] … to have always looked at, to get that expression? … Duty, Tattycoram.” (Book 2, Ch. 33). In an entertaining contrast, when Fanny engages herself to the rich and well-connected Edmund Sparkler, Mr. Dorrit “bestowed his blessing on her, as a child brimful of duty and good principle, self-devoted to the aggrandisement of the family name.” (Book 2, Ch. 15). Arthur Clennam has a sense of Duty comparable to Amy’s (although Arthur’s sense of responsibility is laudable, this passage also portrays Dickens’s faulty belief that you get to heaven by good works):
“The shadow of a supposed act of injustice, which had hung over him since his father’s death, was so vague and formless that it might be the result of a reality widely remote from his idea of it. But, if his apprehensions should prove to be well founded, he was ready at any moment to lay down all he had, and begin the world anew. As the fierce dark teaching of his childhood had never sunk into his heart, so that first article in his code of morals was, that he must begin, in practical humility, with looking well to his feet on Earth, and that he could never mount on wings of words to Heaven. Duty on earth, restitution on earth, action on earth; these first, as the first steep steps upward.” (Book 1, Ch. 27).
Amy’s very name — “Little Dorrit” — draws attention to a similarity between her and another of Dickens’s heroines — Little Nell (of The Old Curiosity Shop). Like Little Nell, Little Dorrit from a very young age becomes the caretaker of the person who should have been looking after her. Little Nell understandably makes some mistakes in how to best do this, and so does Little Dorrit. She chooses to conceal from her father the fact that she works, playing along with his fantasy that he is still a “gentleman” (according to his definition).
“[T]he more dependent [Mr. Dorrit] became on the contributions of his changing family, the greater stand he made by his forlorn gentility. With the same hand that he pocketed a collegian’s half-crown half an hour ago, he would wipe away the tears that streamed over his cheeks if any reference were made to his daughters’ earning their bread. So, over and above other daily cares, the Child of the Marshalsea had always upon her the care of preserving the genteel fiction that they were all idle beggars together.” (Book 1, Ch. 7)
Of course, Mr. Dorrit wasn’t really fooled, but he was content to pretend that he didn’t know that he was living off his daughters’ labor and therefore had no need to thank them for their exertions. This deception forces others upon Little Dorrit. To leave her father, she pretends to be out visiting, or for other forms of recreation. Once she tells Mr. Clennam, “I pretend to-night that I am at a party.” She adds, “I hope there is no harm in it. I could never have been of any use, if I had not pretended a little.” (Book 1, Ch. 14). I have no problem with her imagination and resourcefulness — a little pretending can sometimes relieve a hard situation — but I think that it would have been better for her father (and for her) to not live a lie. It fed his worst points.
While Amy and Arthur are the main characters in Little Dorrit, it is populated with Dickens’s usual numerous array of diverse characters — some dull, some funny or otherwise interesting. Fanny was probably my favorite minor character. She is a humorous, flamboyant, ambitious, petulant girl. The scene where she tells Mrs. General (a companion her father procures for his daughters after he comes into his fortune) off is hilarious (Book 2, Ch. 15)! Though it isn’t a praiseworthy ambition, Fanny’s determination to oppose Mrs. Merdle in everything (paybacks for the way way she treated Fanny previous to her becoming rich) is amusing through being carried on in Fanny’s own spirited, vivacious way. “And the dancer, Amy, that she has quite forgotten—the dancer who bore no sort of resemblance to me, and of whom I never remind her, oh dear no!—should dance through her life, and dance in her way, to such a tune as would disturb her insolent placidity a little. Just a little, my dear Amy, just a little!” (Book 2, Ch. 14).
“Mr F.’s Aunt” was another amusing character, with her groundless, but implacable resentment toward Mr. Clennam, resulting in forceful and waspish, but entertaining, little quips. Her niece, Flora Finching, was formerly engaged to Arthur before being separated from him by their parents. When he returns to England, he finds her fat and garrulous, but absurdly determined to renew their former romantic ties. Her lengthy run-on paragraphs, while perhaps too numerous, are diverting. Also in the semi-comic line is Mrs. General, who tries (unsuccessfully) to “varnish” Little Dorrit, and give her a “surface”. She tells Amy not to call Mr. Dorrit “father”:
“Papa is a preferable mode of address … Father is rather vulgar, my dear. The word Papa, besides, gives a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism are all very good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable, in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company—on entering a room, for instance—Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, prunes and prism.” (Book 2, Ch. 5).
Though Little Dorrit is unable to obtain the desired polish, Fanny profits more from Mrs. General’s lessons, though affecting not to, as in this charming little exchange:
“’I should think so,’ observed Miss Fanny, with a toss of her head and a glance at her sister. ‘But they would not have been recalled to our remembrance, I suspect, if Uncle hadn’t tumbled over the subject.’
‘My dear, what a curious phrase,’ said Mrs General. ‘Would not inadvertently lighted upon, or accidentally referred to, be better?’
‘Thank you very much, Mrs General,’ returned the young lady, ‘no, I think not. On the whole I prefer my own expression.’ This was always Miss Fanny’s way of receiving a suggestion from Mrs General. But she always stored it up in her mind, and adopted it at another time.” (Book 2, Ch. 5)
Mr. Clennam’s mother (or, rather, his step-mother, as she is eventually revealed to be) provides a contrast to the lighter parts of the book, with her gloomy, distorted religion — justifying her revenge as righteous retribution. Mr. Merdle, the embezzler, was well-drawn. His uneasiness and insignificance is contrasted with the people who fawn over him — “the golden wonder” — because of his wealth. Even he has his moments of irony, however, as when he facetiously assures Fanny that Mrs. General won’t get anything from Mr. Dorrit’s will. “Oh dear no. No. Not she. Not likely.” (Book 2, Ch. 24).
As in all of Dickens’s novels, one must ignore his sentimentality in Little Dorrit to enjoy it as much as possible. It didn’t detract from the story too much, however. I enjoyed reading Little Dorrit (once I finally got around to actually doing it!) — I found it to be one of Dickens’s most interesting novels.
I read Little Dorrit June 4 – July 8, 2013.
Illustrations by J. Mahoney.