I was drinking a soy latte at A La Caffeine, the chic coffeehouse for itinerant readers. And I was lost in the pages of Dickens’s Little Dorrit when one of the regulars dimpled at me, reminding me of Pet Meagles, the kind young woman with whom the hero of this dark novel is infatuated.
“I wish I had a Dickens novel to look forward to,” the regular said, adding she had read several of his books.
“You can always reread your favorites, you know.”
“Oh, I don’t like to waste my time rereading.”
I gasped with dismay, but have recently adopted a laid-back retro-‘70s attitude which precludes my jousting verbally with strangers or comparing my generation to the Millennials. Needless to say, I think rereading is one of the best ways to know an author. And who offers more on a second reading than Dickens, that most elegant, witty, and outrageously satiric of Victorian novelists?
That said, Little Dorrit may not be my favorite, but it is one of Dickens’s more serious novels, a dark fairy tale about prisons and freedom. Every character is imprisoned in some manner, whether in actual prison, by government bureaucracy, greed, or money or lack thereof. The diminutive heroine, Amy Dorrit, also known as Little Dorrit, has lived for 20 years in the Marshalsea prison with her family, because her father lost all his money and could not repay the debts.
Amy’s sheer determination and work ethic have pushed her siblings out of the prison nest to find work: her older sister is a professional dancer, trained by a dancer who was briefly at the Marshalsea; and their unreliable bother Tip works at odd jobs from which he is inevitably fired. Amy herself is a seamstress: her life changes when Mrs. Clennam, a harsh businesswoman who is imprisoned in a wheelchair, takes an interest in her and hires her to do sewing. Mrs. Clennam’s motives, alas, are not altruistic.
The Clennam family is one of the unhappiest of all of Dickens’s unhappy families. Mrs. Clennam’s son Arthur, who has recently returned from China, is gloomy, quiet, decent, and altruistic, but deeply unhappy at 40. He is mentally imprisoned by depression, partly because of his mother’s severity, which is born of religion, a great secret, and crooked business practices. He also is horrified by Flintwich, her servant and partner in crime, who lives in Mrs. Clennam’s house with his terrified wife, Affery. In this gloomy house, Little Dorrit is the only light. Arthur considers Amy a child, though he is paradoxically in love with Pet Meagles, who, like Amy, is 20. It doesn’t occur to him that Amy loves him.
Dickens’s humor is muted here, but there are many eccentric, endearing characters. Maggy, a 28-year-old woman who is “intellectually disabled” (what used to be called”mentally retarded”), refers to Amy as “Little Mother” and exclaims that she is ten years old. Then there is Tattycoram, Pet’s moody, angry maid, who is indignant that Pet has all the love and advantages and she has none. She is lured away by Miss Wade, another angry person who believes that others condescend to her.
My favorite character is Flora Finching, Arthur’s former fiancée, now the middle-aged widow of “Mr. F.” (Arthur’s mother broke up the match.) Arthur regards Flora as old and fat now, and is repulsed by her flirting. (That’s middle age, Arthur! Too bad!) I adore Flora’s jumbled comic monologues, which surely inspired James Joyce’s monologues.
‘Dear dear,’ said Flora, ‘only to think of the changes at home Arthur—cannot overcome it, and seems so natural, Mr Clennam far more proper—since you became familiar with the Chinese customs and language which I am persuaded you speak like a Native if not better for you were always quick and clever though immensely difficult no doubt, I am sure the tea chests alone would kill me if I tried, such changes Arthur—I am doing it again, seems so natural, most improper—as no one could have believed, who could have ever imagined Mrs Finching when I can’t imagine it myself!'”
I enjoyed Little Dorrit thoroughly. The only problem is that I prefer not to notice common tropes–it interferes with my common reading–and of course one does notice. Dickens’s novels are full of inheritances, ruin by speculation, orphans, altruists, dark Gothic secrets, grotesques, and marriage plots.
One can’t help but compare the sweet, helpful Amy Dorrit with Esther Summerson (Bleak House), the furious jilted Miss Wade with the furious Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Flora Finching with young silly Dora (David Copperfield)…and so it goes on.
What a great book! I’ll read it again in five or ten years. And I’ll enjoy it.