Thursday, 17 August 2000

Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit (1855)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 577

As in The Mill on the Floss, many of the characters in Little Dorrit are studies in different kinds of selfishness. There's the self-contained happiness of the Meagles, who don't realise the effect of the way they spoil their daughter on the foundling brought up to be her maid; there's the obsessive gentility pf William Dorrit and his eldest daughter; there's the thoughtless carelessness of Ned Dorrit. There is also a selfless heroine in Amy Dorrit, like Eliot's Maggie Tulliver.

The story which these characters act out, along with the hero, Arthur Clennam, is one of the most formless in Dickens, even the point at the end when everything is meant to be explained being curiously incoherent. Essentially, when Arthur's father dies, he returns from abroad to the mother whose hardness had driven them away. He is strangely struck by the young girl employed by her as a seamstress, in an uncharacteristic act of charity. The girl is secretive about her origins, but he discovers that she is the daughter of one of the inmates of the London debtors' prison, the Marshalsea. Clennam decides that her family must be the victims of some sort of injustice perpetrated by his father's firm, so he sets out to help them as much as he can.

The lack of definition to the plot is part of the general air of melancholy listlessness in the novel, established in the very first paragraph after the story moves to London - "gloomy, close and stale...melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, seeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency". This is of course appropriate in a novel whose central image is that of a prison; the dreariness and hopelessness of the Marshalsea infects almost the whole novel. The early chapters set in the south of France are the only ones to escape this; even the other scenes set in Switzerland and Italy later have something of the prison about them.

The Marshalsea is the main centre of the novel, with prisons being used as metaphors throughout. People in debt were put into a debtors' prison until they were able to repay what they owed until about the middle of the nineteenth century. The regime was more liberal than that for a criminal incarceration, but the prisons were generally hopeless places; many prisoners had no way to pay off their debts. The mood is far more sobre than in Great Expectations, the other Dickens novel in which imprisonment has a major part to play.

The other important institution in Little Dorrit is the Circumlocution Office, a government body devoted to "how not to do it". It is the embodiment of the inflexibility of a bureaucratic government, the inertia of a Civil Service opposed to anything new. It is full of men who has positions in the Office because of family and society connections rather than through merit and ability of their own. It is an easy target for satire, and Dickens clearly loses interest in it after a while.

Though there are passages to treasure, and Dickens' genius for portraying small characters is fully present, Little Dorrit is one of his more unsatisfying novels. The spirit of the prison is so strong that its grim drabness is the major impression produced by the novel, and not even Dickens can overcome what he has so powerfully created.

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