Little Dorrit

I wanted to hold off on London for a while. It’s my home – why write about somewhere I know so well, and am often trying to escape, when I can focus on Nottinghamshire? But then a spanner was thrown into the works, as spanners are wont to do, when I read Little Dorrit.

My friend recently told me about a habit she’s got into whereby, come autumn, she’ll hunker down with a classic she’s not read before and make the shorter days and colder nights that much more cosy. This year we decided to do it together, and have a book club for two. Our choices were Felix Holt, the Radical (my suggestion – it’s set in the Midlands) and The Way We Live Now (her suggestion). After much wrangling and vetoing we settled on Little Dorrit: the only one we could agree on, plus we’ve both grown up and now live close to where it’s set. We started it a month ago and finished last night; luckily for us a new “Little Dorrit” café’s just opened up minutes from my work, so we’re heading over for a jacket potato and a chinwag next week.


For me, one of the best things about reading this was my total ignorance about it before I started. Little Dorrit is not considered one of the “greats”, and hasn’t streamed into popular culture in the same way as, for example, Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. With these novels, many people will have met the characters (Miss Havisham/Fagin/Bill Sykes) and plot before they pick up the book. We covered Dickens in one week at uni: a time I remember vaguely as being spent shut up in a dark library at 2am, crawling through Bleak House with a gin and tonic in a can. But I digress – the point is I didn’t know what the book was about, or even who Little Dorrit was. This is nice, because everything comes as a surprise – you’re not waiting for the twist you know is coming. LD was first published in 19 monthly instalments between December 1855–June 1857, a style of publication well-suited to, or responsible for, Dickens’ sprawling, incidental sub-plots and numerous characters. Much like a modern-day Eastenders, keeping people interested means high drama, and more cartoonish elements need to be included – Dickens doesn’t disappoint: a bloody suicide, at least one murder, a mad old aunt with Tourette’s, banking scandals, a poisoned dog, two sets of twins, workhouses, a lesbian sociopath, never-ending elocution lessons, quarantines, dangerous liasons, blackmail and paralysis.

The story begins in Marseilles, in a prison cell inhabited by two convicted men, then shifts to Arthur Clennam, who’s been living in China and is returning to London to see his mother. We encounter, in typical Dickensian style, at least 15 different characters before we come to the Marshalea Prison: the home of Mr Dorrit, his son Tip and daughters Fanny and Amy.  

Mr Dorrit has been imprisoned in the Marshalsea for 23 years, and Amy – Little Dorrit – was born there. Over time, he has become the self-styled “Father” of the prison, its longest-residing inhabitant or “Collegian” (ironically, the prison resembled an Oxbridge college) and wears the title with an alternating sense of pride and deep shame. He relies upon Amy for everything and she’s happy to comply, but receives no recognition. When Clennam notices her working as a seamstress for his mother, and feeling dubious about why this might be, he follows her home. The pair strike up a friendship, Clennam tells his mother he won’t be joining the family business and instead sets up shop with a disgraced inventor, Daniel Doyce. The first half of the novel is entitled Poverty, and describes the stark divide between the kind of life Clennam could have chosen – that of dark, political machinations at his mother’s business with relative comfort, and the life he opts for instead. It shows the tedious bureaucracy of the so-called Circumlocution Office in town (“Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart”) – headed up by the revered, blustering Barnacle clan – a place where “how not to do it” is the ticket to promotion, legislative forms are endlessly passed around between its members and nothing gets done. This contrasts with the harsh lifestyles endured by Londoners without the merit of an established family name, whose rents are extracted mercilessly to overblown, shysterish landlords. Through some scantily explained digging and wild coincidence, Clennam and his friends discover that Mr Dorrit is in fact the lost heir to an enormous fortune, and so begins the novel’s second half, Riches.

Much of the action takes place in Southwark, as well as Twickenham, Holborn, Covent Garden, and later France and Italy. Since the 14th century, the Marshalsea operated as a privately run prison primarily for debtors, but it also housed people accused of sedition – Ben Jonson (Volpone, Bartholomew Fair) was jailed here in 1597 for his quickly suppressed play The Isle of Dogs. When Dickens was 12, his father was incarcerated at the prison under the Insolvent Debtor’s Act 1813, for owing £40 (about £3,000 today) to a baker. The younger Dickens was forced to leave school and work in a boot-blacking factory; Dickens’ mother and sister lived in the prison (as was the custom), and he portrays it for the most part as a community. For Little Dorrit, the prison is home – unthreatening, orderly and familiar: though there are frequent historical reports of the torture meted out within its walls, of starvation and a general sense of helplessness, these aren’t made explicit in Dickens’ story. Nothing much remains of the Marshalsea today; its southern wall is still intact, and the John Harvard library stands above the original grounds.

London itself was much smaller at Dickens’ time of writing; it is not uncommon, for instance, for Clennam to happen upon people he knows as he walks through the city (something pretty rare nowadays even in suburban areas). Twickenham, now part of London itself, is described as a tranquil countryside oasis. For a history-of-the-capital boff, the book’s a real treat: Little Dorrit spends the night in the church of St George the Martyr (on the corner of Marshalsea Road) after being locked out of the prison one night, and she eventually gets married there. During his father’s imprisonment, Dickens lived in the attic of a house belonging to the vestry clerk of St George’s, on Lant Street (very cool because a] I live about 30seconds from it and b] it’s also the setting for Sarah Waters’ thieves’ kitchen in Fingersmith). One of the two Marseilles prisoners, John Baptist Cavalatto, is taken to St Barts hospital after being hit by a mail coach (before the founding of the NHS in 1948, hospitals were traditionally viewed as undesirable – only the very poor would be taken to them, the upper classes employing private physicians). LD is often seen standing on the “Iron Bridge”, contemplating the water – this is Southwark Bridge, originally known as Queen Street Bridge, which opened in 1819, two years after Waterloo Bridge. Tattycoram, a maidservant taken in by a kind older couple and whom Arthur tracks down when she runs away (another plot strand), is born at the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, and Bleeding Heart Yard, a cobbled courtyard off Greville Street in Farringdon, is where Doyce and Clennam work on Dan’s invention.

I visited the Dickens museum last week for my 25th birthday (#party) – it’s close to the old Foundling Hospital and Bleeding Heart Yard in Holborn. At three floors high and incorporating Dickens’ wine cellar, the desk at which he wrote all his novels and a fantastic letter to his doctor about an ongoing flatulence problem, it’s well worth a visit for the more shamelessly dorky fan. The most moving section was, for me, the top-floor nursery, which the curators have decorated with a replica of the Marshalsea’s prison grates. The house is beautiful, spacious and looks to have belonged to a loaded member of Victorian gentility rather than a self-made author. By placing these dirty iron prison bars in the children’s room, Dickens’ own upbringing is starkly, poignantly recalled. Dickens’ father relied upon his son all his life, much as Little Dorrit’s does in one way or another until his death. Even amidst the success, the finery and the acclaim, this novel demonstrates the prisons – both literal and metaphorical – which can blight a life and must not be forgotten even when fortunes are changed. “You talk very easily of hours, sir!” says Mr Dorrit, on hearing of his long-awaited release. “How long do you suppose, sir, that an hour is to a man who is choking for want of air?” 

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