I was under the impression that I was reading Little Dorrit for my September bookclub. I read the first 600 pages at great speed, thinking that I only had 10 days to rocket through it. Then I accidentally bumped into one of my group at the library a few days before the appointed date. She was wondering around clutching a copy of the book. I scoffed: You're never going to read that in time! I said. She looked confused: I've got a month yet, she said. Oh no, I said, feeling a little smug, it's on Saturday.
But no. No, the group isn't meeting until the second week of October after all. I forgot that we were having an August/September break this year. It was probably my idea, to give people more time to read Little Dorrit! Anyway, it means that I've read next month's book well ahead of time, which is a first. Usually I'm distracted by something else and end up cramming it in at the last minute.
If not for the demands of group reading I don't think I would have read any more Dickens this year. Although it's the bicentennary of his birth, I felt that I'd had more than enough with Nicholas Nickleby back in January. I wasn't as keen on that book as I'd been on Great Expectations and Bleak House, and so my enthusiasm for the Great Victorian was in abeyance. It was one of Dickens' earlier novels and full of chaos, like a toddler with excess energy. Reading Little Dorrit, a later novel (the latest I've read so far) has been an instructive comparison. It carries on many of the same themes - here again is the towering rage about poverty and greed; and also the parade of poor parenting skills - but the style, the voice, has a dark maturity. Gone is the irreverant humour of the earlier book. The Lillyvicks and Pumblechooks, Cheerybles and Fezziwigs, are notably absent; and although Little Dorrit has a villain figure not unlike Ralph Nickleby or Wackford Squeers, the pitiless murderer Rigaud is more difficult to laugh at. The frozen Presbyterian repression of Mrs Clennam and her business partner, the wife-beating Jeremiah, even more so. When it was first published in 1865, it was criticised in reviews as a lesser work, precisely because it is so un-Dickensian. He had become his own measure of excellence, especially comic excellence. The disappontment didn't last, and now Little Dorrit is considered one of Dickens' 'major' novels, alongside Great Expectations, Hard Times, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.
The story opens abroad, in a dank prison in Marseilles, where two men sit awaiting trial for very different crimes: one for murder, and the other for price fixing. The prose is dense and treacly, almost moralistic, and the contrast of the burning sun and the dark basement cell - both equally punishing - sets up one of the dichotomies of the novel. It isn't clear what role the prisoners will play in the story, because quickly the scene shifts to a group of middle-class tourists in quarantine waiting for a ship back to England. Amongst them is our 'hero' (if we apply the term loosely), Arthur Clennam, a forty year old businessman who has spent the last 20 years in China. He is returning to England following the death of his father, who implied nefarious goings-on at home while on his deathbed. Arthur has hurried back to London to confront his mother with a mysterious pocket watch inscribed with the letters 'DNF': Do Not Forget.
Also amongst the tourists are the comfortable Meagles family with their daughter 'Pet' and foundling servant Tattycoram, and the haughty Miss Wade. It wouldn't be Dickens if all of these characters weren't somehow woven into the plot eventually. But before we can spend too long with any of them we cut to London where Arthur arrives at his derelict childhood home to find a quiet mouse of a girl working for his paralysed mother as a seamstress. Curiosity piqued - he notices she hides her food rather than eating it - he follows her, only to discover that she lives in the infamous Marshalsea Debtor's Prison, where her father William Dorrit has been incarcerated for over 20 years. 'Little Dorrit' as the young woman is known has a fame of her own as the 'Child of the Marshalsea', having been born and spent all her life there.
Imprisonment is a key theme of the story: the prison at Marseille and the Marshalsea (interesting phonetic connection between the two) are obvious and actual prisons, but it becomes clear that nearly every character in the book is labouring under some kind of restriction. Some, like Arthur's disabled mother, are physically trapped in their houses; while others, like Arthur's soon-to-be business partner Daniel Doyce, have been stymied by bureaucracy; and still others are confined by poverty, disease or mental illness. Arthur himself is repressed by a sad lack of affection as a child, and by the disappointment of an early love affair. Nobody has freedom of movement; the atmosphere is as stifling as the smoggy London streets that Dickens always describes so perfectly.
The cogs and wheels of this world is the Circumlocution Office, a fantastical department of governmental bureaucracy, which exists solely to make sure that nothing gets done. Arthur first butts up against this behemoth while trying to discover the root of William Dorrit's debt, and later attempts to overcome it again for the sake of his business partner who has an invention to patent. In both cases the office, staffed by legions of the legion Barnacle family (put down a flag anywhere in the Empire, Dickens says, and a Barnacle will stick to it), does its utmost to confuse, obfuscate and ignore the issue. It is a biting satire of what Dickens saw to be the shocking inaction of the politics of his day. I wasn't surprised to discover that Little Dorrit was written during the Crimean War.
The eponymous heroine is undoubtedly the least interesting character in the book. She is a typical Dickensian 'Angel in the House': small, meek, self-sacrificing and disconcertingly childlike. I thought Esther in Bleak House was infuriatingly good and sweet; Little Amy Dorrit made my teeth ache with her unearthly kindness and absolute self-abnegation. She has grown up taking care of her father, who has become self-important and delusional in his prison home, as well as her feckless, greedy older siblings. She shows incredible foresight as a child, apprenticing herself to a seamstress who spends some time in the prison in order to arm herself for work in adulthood. Despite the weakness of her father's moral compass she has a natural inclination for everything that is moral and just. She is so good that, like a daughter of the Old Testament, she prefers her humble life of poverty and service to one of wealth and comfort. No prizes for guessing that she is justly rewarded in the end.
Arthur Clennam is worth chewing over a little longer. He is older than the average Dickens hero, but in the same position as a Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield. At the start of the novel he is just embarking on a late journey into adulthood, after an extended dependency on his father. He is an adult in many ways - a capable businessman, a polite conversationalist, a moral Christian - but he has the emotional maturity of a teenage boy. While he mournfully declares that he is an old man, past the age of romance, he behaves more like a fifteen year old boy, crushing on the first available pretty girl he meets. This attachment leads him into the failing of jealousy, which he is soon compelled to overcompensate for; meanwhile the woman that he really loves and who really loves him is entirely overlooked.
I find Dickens' conception of romance rather dubious. I wouldn't look to him for a model of a healthy Victorian relationship and Little Dorrit conforms to type. Conforms and excels. The final denouement left me entirely cold. Let's not beat about the bush: Dickens' perfect heroine is a child sized angel, quiet, sweet, small and petite who might, on occasion, be mistaken for a twelve year old. She remains the same, even as Dickens' heroes age in line with the author. The age gap doesn't bother me but the implied power dynamic of the relationship here is disconcerting to say the least. It does detract slightly from what would have been an otherwise delightful and powerful reading experience. There is a new philosophical tone to the angry morality of the earlier novels; there is something like a spiritual and social ideology emerging that I hope is explored further in the later books. It is almost as though Dickens has cross-polinated with George Eliot, creating an eccentric, compelling hybrid.