Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 3: Little Dorrit

Contemporary critical reception of Dickens' 11th novel was mixed, but in keeping with the gradual swing toward appreciation of the darker Dickens, it now stands as proof of his genius.

  • Share
  • Read Later

Her name is Amy, but she’s known as the Child of the Marshalsea. Before she was born, her father, William Dorrit, a gentleman, invested in a partnership that went bankrupt. He was brought to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison — just until things cleared up, he said, just for a week or so. His wife and two children joined him. They took a room, ordered a little furniture. Amy was born. Eight years later, her mother died. Mr. Dorrit’s hair went gray; time passed, and it went white. He was the prison’s oldest inhabitant. The turnkey called him the Father of the Marshalsea, and all who entered its gates paid him tribute.

In the summer of 1855, when Dickens was working on the early chapters of what would become Little Dorrit, a series of English banks collapsed and their proprietors were put on trial. London was gripped by a crisis of reckless speculation. The Marshalsea had been closed for five years, but Dickens knew it from three decades earlier, when his insolvent father was briefly imprisoned there. He conceived a novel of confinement and corruption, a web of debtors and creditors. He was going to call it Nobody’s Fault, but it soon became clear, in his mind at least, that it was somebody’s fault.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels—Number 5: Our Mutual Friend)

The Dorrits are the debtors, though several chapters pass before we meet them. Little Dorrit begins in a different prison, in Marseilles, where a murderer and scoundrel named Rigaud wrangles his release. It then moves to a ship arriving in England from the East, on board which a band of travelers including the Meagles family (father, mother, adorable daughter, temperamental servant) and a businessman, Arthur Clennam, are held temporarily captive by quarantine. This rollout of central metaphor and cast of characters creates an onslaught of first impressions typical of Dickens’ complex late novels. It can be overwhelming, and the best thing to do, in my experience, is succumb to the feeling of being a little bit mystified. Dickens is a master of pacing, and once you’ve cleared the first 100 pages or so, the Dorrits, the Meagles, Clennam and his bedridden mother and the vagabond Rigaud all settle into orbit. Before long the difficulty is not in following the story, but in tearing yourself away from it to eat and sleep.

Clennam, a disappointed man who worked away his youth for his parents’ firm, emerges as the novel’s hero. On returning to London from abroad and visiting his mother, a stern, stony old battle-ax with a lifelong allergy to maternal impulses, he sees Amy Dorrit, who does sewing work for Mrs. Clennam. He is intrigued by the quiet girl who sits like a shadow in his mother’s room and slips beneath the shadow of the Marshalsea’s arch each evening, and he begins to investigate the history of Mr. Dorrit’s financial trouble. This brings him into contact with the Circumlocution Office — one of Dickens’ most splendid and demoralizing creations — a branch of government bureaucracy whose unofficial motto, per Dickens, is “How Not to Do It.” The administrators of this lofty office, led by a family called the Barnacles, are harbingers of Kafka. Their appointed mission in life is to push papers around their desks and spectacles up their noses and perplex all who come to them for aid and clarity.

Little Dorrit is divided into two parts, “Poverty” and “Riches,” and the plot is an exercise in perfect symmetry, as if to correct the imbalance between those two states. I am a fan of symmetry, which in part explains my abiding affection for this book. But I am also a fan of Shakespearean tragedy, and for that I point you to Mr. Dorrit’s narrative arc. The climax of his plot is heart-wrenching and spine-chilling, theatrical and deeply moving, and it speaks to the power and limitations of human resilience in ways that resonate profoundly with our time.

Take heart, though — tragedy is not all Little Dorrit has to offer. The text is seasoned with strong comic characters (the aunt-in-law of Flora, Clennam’s childhood sweetheart, is a standout), and it’s criminally well-written, even for Dickens. I’ve spoken of his skill with metaphor; here it’s displayed on every page, not just in grand conceits like the prison but in descriptions and turns of phrase tucked away in the humblest of places. This is a description of Mr. Dorrit’s anxiety about his reputation: “His life was made an agony by the number of fine scalpels that he felt to be incessantly engaged in dissecting his dignity.” And this is our hero, storming the home of Mr. Tite Barnacle, head of the Circumlocution Office:

Arthur Clennam came to a squeezed house, with a ramshackle bowed front, little dingy windows, and a little dark area like a damp waistcoat-pocket, which he found to be number twenty-four Grosvenor Square. To the sense of smell the house was like a sort of bottle filled with strong distillation of mews; and when the footman opened the door, he seemed to take the stopper out.

Dickens was a writer and an editor, and in every sentence he pushes for the sharpest word, the most inventive, indelible image. For anyone in the word business, it’s an inspiration. Best-case scenario, it’s contagious.

Little Dorrit, which was Dickens’ 11th novel, won him more readers than any previous book. Contemporary critical reception was more mixed (some reviewers found it too gloomy), but in keeping with the gradual swing toward appreciation of the darker Dickens, it now stands as proof of his genius. Debtors’ prison — surely one of humankind’s worst ideas — was abolished in England by the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. The Marshalsea was mostly destroyed. But you can still see a fragment of the brick entrance arch in Southwark, London, and imagine the Child of the Marshalsea, basket on her arm, passing through the gate. As for debt and speculation, corruption and circumlocution, it would not surprise the author of Little Dorrit to see that they are with us every day.

We’ll take a short break and return with Number 2 on Monday. Meanwhile, look out for the Top 10 Non-Dickens Novels for Dickens Fans, coming up this weekend.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 4: David Copperfield

MORE: The Secret of Charles Dickens’ Enduring Success