Monday, December 18, 2017
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LITTLE DORRIT” by Charles Dickens (first published in monthly parts December 1855 – June 1857; first published in book form 1857)
Back in February 2012, when I gave a public lecture in the Auckland Central Library to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, I stated that I had over the years read all of Dickens’ novels with the sole exception of Little Dorrit. Later I realized that this wasn’t quite true, as I had not read Barnaby Rudge either; so Barnaby Rudge is waiting for me to conquer some other day. But recently, recuperating from an illness that had me hospitalised for a month, and having much time on my hands, I at last got around to reading Little Dorrit.
What a wonderful and what an infuriating experience it was! Little Dorrit renewed my acquaintance with some of the things I love about Dickens and many of the things that irritate me. Written between 1855 and 1857, it came in Dickens’ work after Bleak House (his second greatest novel) and before Great Expectations (his masterpiece). Apparently it was immensely popular on its first appearance. In fact its monthly parts sold in much greater numbers than the monthly parts of David Copperfield. But nowadays, I believe, “the common reader” (i.e. everybody except academics and specialists) tends to rank Little Dorrit, with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend as one of Dickens’ heavier, gloomier and more challenging novels – and hence to be avoided when you have the option of frolicking or melodramatising with Vincent Crummles or the Artful Dodger or Quilp or Mrs Leo Hunter or Sidney Carton or Betsy Trotwood instead. Little Dorrit is also one of Dickens’ longest novels (800 pages in the Penguin edition and nearly 1200 pages in the larger-print Complete Works of Dickens, both on my shelves).
As always, let me orient you with the briefest of plot summaries.
Although Dickens drew on more recent events for some of his inspiration, the novel is set in the late 1820s, thirty years before Dickens was writing, at a time when large numbers of people (including Dickens’ father) were still being incarcerated for debt. The practice had largely died out by the 1850s and the Marshalsea debtors’ prison had been decommissioned.
After 20 years working in India, Arthur Clennam, in his early 40s, returns to England with a heavy sense of family guilt. Before his late father died, he said some things which suggested that the Clennam family may have been responsible for the financial ruin of the Dorrit family. But when, back in London, Arthur Clennam asks his vindictive, puritanical, widowed mother about this, she angrily denies any knowledge of the matter. Nevertheless, the Dorrits are imprisoned in the Marshalsea. The old widower William Dorrit has been there for over 23 years, and so is known as “the Father of the Marshalsea”. He lives in prison with his older children “Tip” (Edward) and Fanny, and with his younger daughter Amy, aged 22, who was born in the prison and is known through most of the novel as Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam socialises with the Dorrits, tries to alleviate their circumstances and tries to find out how their fortunes can be restored. It is soon evident to the reader (but apparently not to Arthur) that Little Dorrit is in love with Arthur. At the end of the first of the novel’s two long parts, entitled “Poverty”, William Dorrit’s wealth is suddenly restored to him and he and his family leave the prison.
In the second part, entitled “Riches”, old William Dorrit is now immensely wealthy and, with his family, does the Grand Tour of the Continent. Arthur Clennam for some time has his eye on another woman (and is sometimes pestered by a woman in whom he is not interested). But in Little Dorrit’s long absence, Arthur begins vaguely to realise how much he values her and how emotionally attached he has become to her. The crisis comes very late in the novel. Arthur Clennam himself is financially ruined, and ends up in the Marshalsea prison. Little Dorrit visits him there and becomes his loving nurse when he falls sick. After first testing his integrity (he is not interested in her for her money), she declares her love openly and he declares his. Dickens rewards them, of course, by having them marry.
It turns out that, as Arthur suspected, his vindictive mother was involved in some very shady business, but it was not what Arthur thought it was. (The denouement of the novel which reveals this is very complicated. At the end of the 1967 Penguin edition which he edited, John Holloway feels compelled to add an appendix explaining to readers, who haven’t understood the text, what Mrs Clennam has been hiding.)
As far as “plot” goes, Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit are the core of this novel. But anybody who has read Little Dorrit will realise what a travesty my synopsis so far has been.
In the first place, in terms of the novel’s ideas and morality, old Wiliam Dorrit is at least as important as Arthur or Amy. In jail, in poverty, “the Father of the Marshalsea” still has absurd pretensions to gentility and nobility. He regards himself as a gentleman and the other inmates of the Marshalsea as his social inferiors. When they charitably help him by giving him money, he pretends that this is his due as “Testimonials” to his superior character and social class. He refuses to recognise that his two daughters really support him by going out to work – Fanny by going on the stage and Amy by being a seamstress. (His son “Tip” is a nitwit who cannot stick to any job.) In Old Dorrit, Dickens is attacking the false-genteel and the life-long delusions class distinctions bring; for once he is out of jail Old Dorrit absurdly pretends that he has never been so degraded as to be a prisoner, and he loses his temper with one member of his circle who mentions his imprisonment. Yet he cannot escape from what has formed him. Just before Old Dorrit dies, in one of Dickens’ great coups de theatre, the old man’s mind breaks down in front of the assembled guests at a banquet and he addresses them as if they are his fellow prisoners in the Marshalsea. His mind is still imprisoned. Indeed, by its lust for money and status, and by its pretensions, conventions and falsity, all of society is depicted as one large prison in this novel. As I opined in my comments on this blog about Our Mutual Friend, the imagery of fog in Bleak House and the imagery of the river and the dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend are not carried through consistently in those novels. But in Little Dorrit the imagery of prisons and imprisonment is as insistent as a drum beat. The novel opens in a prison in Marseilles. Mrs Clennam is an invalid and speaks of her condition as an imprisonment. The Marshalsea dominates much of the action. When the Dorrit party visit a monastery on their Grand Tour, some interpret it as a prison. And in the second part of the novel, Little Dorrit repeatedly sees the sights of Europe as being less “real” than memories of the Marshalsea. Many scholars have pointed out that, before he began writing this novel, Dickens planned out carefully every turn of the plot and every relationship between characters. “Society-as-prison” was an intentional part of this plan.
Apart from Old Dorrit and the imprisonment motif, the other reason not to reduce this novel to Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit is the obvious fact that it has a large cast of characters and many, many subplots. There is Arthur’s entanglement with the Meagles family and his partnership with the inventor Daniel Doyce. There are the malign schemes of the French criminal Rigaud (who often goes by the alias Blandois) and the innocence of his sometime companion, the Italian Giovanni Battista Cavalletto. There is the Casby family which includes the widow Flora Finching. There is Miss Wade and her odd relationship with the Meagles’ ward Harriet (nicknamed “Tattycoram”). There is the millionaire financier Merdle and his circle. And of course there is a host of comic or grotesque supporting characters, typical of this author, such as young John Chivery, son of the turnkey at the Marshalsea, who is hopelessly in love with Little Dorrit; or Mrs Clennam’s scoundrelly and scheming servant Flintwinch. It is also typical of Dickens to include a feeble-minded “holy innocent” in the form of Little Dorrit’s companion Maggy, a grown woman with the mind of a ten-year-old. (For other such lovable innocents, think of Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, Mr Dick in David Copperfeld, or, I understand, Barnaby Rudge himself.)
Dickens had a habit or reducing his minor characters to one particular tic or peculiarity. This habit is well on display in Little Dorrit. Pancks, the rent-collector for Mr Casby, is always introduced puffing and moving determinedly forward like a tug-boat. “Mr F’s Aunt” speaks in non-sequiturs and furious outbursts (“There’s milestones on the road to Dover.”). Mrs Merdle’s parrot ironically interrupts her conversations. Affery, evil Flintwinch’s long-suffering wife, “dreams” things rather than witnessing them. The criminal Rigaud is rarely mentioned without some reference to his moustache becoming entangled in his nose.
There is one major character in this novel who seems more like the full-blown comic caricatures of Dickens’ earlier novels than the more sombre leading characters he produces here. This is Flora Finching. She is the woman with whom Arthur Clennam thought he was in love when they were both in their early twenties, and before he went to India. When he meets her (she now widowed) twenty years later, she is eager to resume their attachment. But he finds the charming and beautiful young woman of his memories has become a fat and foolish middle-aged woman still trying to woo Arthur as if she were a coquettish teenager. Analyse the humour of the Flora Finching scenes, and you will find that it is essentially very cruel. After all, seen objectively and without Dickens’ caricature, Flora’s only fault is to have grown older and to no longer match Arthur’s nostalgic memories. (All biographers now point out that Flora Finching was based on Maria Beadnell, an old flame of Dickens’ youth whom he met years later and judged to be a fluttering, twittering fool.) Yet, cruel or not, Dickens’ humour is very funny. Flora speaks in endless stream-of-consciousness sentences which are probably the most inventive monologues in the Dickens canon since Mr Jingle’s verbless utterances in The Pickwick Papers. [Note of interest – the role of Flora Finching was played in Christine Edzard’s 1987 film of Little Dorrit by the formidable British actress Miriam Margolyes. As a feminist, Margolyes said this character would have made her very angry if she were not laughing so hard – so infectious is Dickens’ humour even when he is being cruel.]
I said near the beginning of this overlong notice that Little Dorrit renewed my acquaintance with some of the things I love about Dickens and many of the things that irritate me.
It is now time for me to draw up my balance sheet.
When he does it well, Dickens’ descriptions of place are still dazzling. To give one example from early in the novel, when Arthur Clennam (in Part One, Chapter 3) comes back to his mother’s home after twenty years, Dickens sets the scene on a grim, cheerless English Sunday (strictly ruled by observance of the Sabbath, unlike Continental Sundays). It is almost Kafkaesque in its menace and certainly foreboding.
When Dickens lets rip with direct satire, his observations are as fresh as if they were penned yeaterday. His great invention in Little Dorrit is the Circumlocution Office, a huge government department run by incompetent career civil servants, whose main function is to oppose and hold up any progressive or humane measure by finding ways “how not to do it”. As I read the Circumlocution Office passages, I couldn’t help wondering if it had been studied by the writers of the 1980s British sitcom “Yes, Minister”, in which the main function of civil servants is to block whatever elected government ministers want to do. In the characters of Mr Merdle and his arriviste followers, Dickens makes a savage attack on those who fawn on millionaires simply because they are rich through sharp investments, regardless of whether they have contributed anything to the public good. As often as not, such plutocrats turn out to be swindlers and frauds, as Merdle does. Apparently Dickens based this character on a contemporary case, but one can think of modern parallels in our neoliberal age. Then there is Mr Casby, the type of a man who pretends to be a benefactor of the poor, but whose main aim is to squeeze poor people for their rents.
One of Dickens’ best pieces of social criticism in this novel is his attack on Calvinist hellfire morality, in the person of horrible Mrs Clennam, whose fervent religion seems to consist mainly of her calling the wrath of God down upon her enemies. This is balanced in the novel by Little Dorrit who, in the closing chapters, quite specifically reveals that her sense of charity and public service is based on adherence to the forgiving Jesus, as opposed to the perversion of Christianity which Mrs Clennam represents. Dickens, who often satirised fervent Evangelicals and who had no major attachment to organised religion, never came closer to articulating an underlying Christian morality.
Another major element which I admire in this novel is the more nuanced characterisation of the major characters than is evident in many of Dickens’ earlier novels. Here there is a subtlety and a roundedness to the chief characters, the best of whom are allowed to have their faults and the worst of whom have their redeeming features. To give some brief and inadequate examples: Arthur Clennam is a decent, admirable man, but Dickens has the insight to see that much of his romantic interest in Meagles’ daughter “Pet” (Minnie) is fuelled by his jealousy of “Pet’s” successful suitor, the charlatan artist Henry Gowan. Meagles himself seems set up in the opening chapters to be the type of a foreigner-hating English chauvinist. Yet, despite bowing to convention and fashion on occasions, he is essentially a decent and well-intentioned man.
Most interesting to me is the character of Miss Wade. If we read Part Two, Chapter 21 carefully, we find Dickens coming as close as a Victorian author could to implying that she is a lesbian. Dickens frames her as a sinister figure, in the way she encourages the Meagles’ discontented ward Harriet (“Tattycoram”) to run away from the Meagles, and then takes control of the girl. Yet when Miss Wade confronts Mr Meagles in Part One, Chapter 27, we can’t help noticing how right she is when she points out that the Meagles have patronised Harriet, belittled her and made her feel a slavey. Later, Dickens inserts a chapter of self-confession by Miss Wade, allowing us to understand how she has become the person she is.
Yet, for me, there is the debit side of this novel.
As in all Dickens’ long, serially-published novels, no matter how well-planned in advance they may have been, there are times when the author seems to be dragging matters out simply to keep readers hooked for the next instalment. In Little Dorrit he titillates readers by showing us loaded guns which aren’t fired until we have ploughed through what would now be the length of an ordinary novel – so there are long and wearisome waits for the payoff. For example, the evil Rigaud is introduced in the very opening chapter, but we do not hear of him again until Chapter 11, and it is an even longer wait to discover what he has to do with any other major character in the novel. Similarly, the relationship of Miss Wade and “Tattycoram” is introduced in the novel’s second chapter, but it does not surface again until Chapter 27.
Dickens does not here perpetrate on readers the narrative trick that infects the main plot of Our Mutual Friend, but there is an element of what I would call “evasion” in this novel. Important things are simply not explained. In a thoughtful long essay on Dickens which he wrote in 1939, George Orwell praised Little Dorrit for introducing Dickens’ most credible, non-caricatured working-class family (the family of the jobbing plasterer Plornish). But he also pointed out that Dickens’ real knowledge of industry and technical processes was very limited. So in Little Dorrit we have a big issue made of Daniel Doyce’s great invention, the development of which is held up by the obfuscating Circumlocution Office. Apparently the invention is so novel that it will change the nature of industry, and Arthur Clennam goes into partnership with Doyce to advance it. Yet we are never told what exactly this invention is. And if it seems unfair to accuse a novelist of not being able to come up with a new technical invention, it has to be noted that it is never even made clear in what general area of industry this invention would be useful. Just as “evasive” is the sudden reversal of fortune near the end of Part One (Chapter 35), where the good Pancks proves that Old Dorrit is heir to great wealth. How is it that, over the 23 years of Old Dorrit’s imprisonment, nobody ever discovered this obvious fact before, or that Old Dorrit wasn’t aware of it himself – or at least got somebody to investigate the possibility? It simply suits Dickens’ plot that this improbability happens when it does. It is to me as irksome as the convenient (but highly symbolic) accidental death of the criminal Rigaud in the final chapters, when Mrs Clennam’s house collapses on him. It has been shown that Dickens carefully prepared for this event by consistently throughout the novel describing Mrs Clennam’s house as unstable, creaky and decaying. Even so, it is too neat a way to polish off a villain.
What I find most alienating in this novel, however, brings me back to the matter of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit themselves. I understand that Little Dorrit is meant to represent the charity, altruism and goodness that contrast with a corrupt, imprisoning, money-driven society. I understand the concept of the “meta-novel” working by symbols rather than strict realism. But, to put it crudely, Little Dorrit is too good to be true – and her goodness is of a sort which may have appealed greatly to Victorians but which is much harder for us to swallow. I find myself agreeing with the critic George Wing, who spoke of her “naïve sanctity”. On one level, the youngest of three siblings who cares for her aged (and deluded) father is reminiscent of Cordelia looking after, and ultimately forgiving, King Lear. But then the whole point about Cordelia was that, in the very opening scene, she told her father forthrightly the truth about himself – that he was relying foolishly on flattery. Little Dorrit cares devotedly for her aged father, but she never tells him the truth. Indeed she participates in the fiction that he is not being supported by his daughters’ work, and thus sustains his class delusions. There is about her a dire submissiveness. Of course the left hand should not know what the right is doing. Of course Little Dorrit should be modest enough not to boast of her acts of charity. But this submissiveness really serves only to perpetuate her father’s snobbery and self-importance. I grant that I am making a 21st century judgement here, but there were times when I wished (anachronistically) that she could be more assertive, more frank, less of a symbol than a real person.
And then there is that matter of her relationship with Arthur Clennam. Remember Arthur (the same Arthur who ridicules another woman for having grown to his own age) is in his 40s – as was Dickens when he wrote this novel – and Amy Dorrit is in her early 20s, thus half his age. I am not decrying May and September love, but Arthur Clennam’s attraction to Amy plays to the image of the strong, protective older man and the younger, fragile child-woman whom he protects. There are for me too many details such as the following (from Part One, Chapter 32): “He saw her trembling little form and her downcast face, and the eyes that drooped the moment they were raised to him….” Yes, the trembling little form (for her littleness is always emphasised) of a silent-movie heroine. Typically, Amy swoons and is carried out of the prison by Arthur Clennam when she learns that her father has had his fortune restored. In Book Two there is some mitigation of this fragile image when Dickens gives us a few chapters consisting of the letters Amy writes to Clennam from Europe, and we get to see a more mature mind revealed. Even so, my crude and evil-thinking mind sees reflected in all this the middle-aged Charles Dickens deserting his middle-aged wife (who had borne him ten children) and setting up a teenaged actress as his mistress. Little Dorrit is an older man’s idolisation of his lost youth.
Oops! I’ve crossed a line here, haven’t I? I’ve started passing judgements on the author rather than on the book, which is a very naughty thing to do. I plead that I was driven to it by the fact that I am as repelled from the figure of Little Dorrit as I am impressed by the figure of Lizzie Hexam in that much less satisfactory novel Our Mutual Friend. Back in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling said that Little Dorrit was “one of the most profound of Dickens’ novels and one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century.” On thematic grounds there might be reason to agree with this verdict. But on aesthetic grounds it does not reach the heights and the eponymous character is unbelievable.
Cinematic footnote: For many reasons, Little Dorrit is one of the least-filmed of Dickens’ novels. Basic research tells me there were three film adaptations way back in the silent era, and there was a German film adaptation in 1934. BBC television has serialised it only once or twice (most recently in 2008). Apart from this, the only film adaptation for the big screen was Christine Edzard’s 1987 film which I saw on its first release. It was organised as two separate three-hour parts, Edzard’s inventive idea being that one part told the story from Arthur Clennam’s point of view, and the other part covered the same events from Little Dorrit’s point of view. It had a very large cast of familiar British actors (Derek Jacobi as Clennam; Alec Guinness as Old Dorrit etc.) Now that I have read the novel, however, I realise that even its six hours were not enough to include all of Dicken’s subplots. The important plot concerning Rigaud and the plot concerning Miss Wade and “Tattycoram” were completely absent.