Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Shades of the prison-house…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Clennam returns from abroad following the death of his father, he is convinced that his father had done something in his past of which he was ashamed and wished his wife to make amends. However, Mrs Clennam is a cold, hard woman who had been long estranged from her husband, and she refuses to discuss the matter with Arthur. While in his mother’s house, Arthur meets the young woman he will come to call Little Dorrit, a seamstress in whom his mother shows a strange interest, and convinces himself that somehow she is part of this mysterious family history. 800-and-odd pages later, all will be revealed!

It’s always difficult summarising a Dickens novel, partly because they’re so filled with subplots that are often at least as important as the main one, and partly because the plot is often simply a vehicle for whatever aspect of society Dickens wishes to discuss. In this one, he has several targets: the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, the nepotism within the ruling classes and the resulting paralysis of Government, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, he produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror.

Little Dorrit and Maggy

Some aspects of this one worked better for me than others. I found his satirisation of the Circumlocution Office – the government department that specialises in How Not to Get Things Done – a little heavy-handed and repetitive, and to be honest, I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. This was at a time when Britain was the powerhouse of the world, so I’m guessing the industrial giants and imperial magnates of the time must have been able to Get Things Done despite government bureaucracy. The nepotism aspects and class-ridden society rang much truer, especially the idea that relatively useless people get powerful jobs merely by being the sons of powerful men. (Not much changes, except that today the same could be said about daughters…)

The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker’s. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.

The Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in which Dickens’ own father spent some time, is brilliantly portrayed, showing the ludicrousness of a system that imprisons people and refuses to release them until they can pay their debts, while also refusing to allow them to work to earn money. Mr Dorrit, the father of Little Dorrit and known also as the Father of the Marshalsea as its longest resident, is one of Dickens’ more unforgettable characters. A weak and pompous man, it’s easy to despise him, but Dickens lets us see beneath his carefully nurtured public persona to the deeply ashamed and vulnerable man beneath.

Mr Dorrit entertains guests in the Marshalsea

As is often the case with Dickens, the two major characters are among my least favourite. Arthur is another weak man and rather bland, though morally righteous, naturally. Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!

Fortunately the supporting cast is far more interesting. There’s Rigaud, the Frenchman who murdered his wife and is now mysteriously up to no good. John Baptist Cavalletto, the Italian, gives Dickens the opportunity to be scathingly and humorously perceptive about the way Brits react to immigrants within their communities.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

We have foppish younger sons and their scheming mothers, girls on the hunt for rich husbands, girls who are trapped into marriages by fortune-hunting seducers, and girls who resent their position in life to a degree that makes them turn on those who mean to be kind. Mrs Clennam is cold and vengeful, in the mould of a Miss Havisham, though not perhaps so memorable. But her servants are wonderful creations – the cruel Flintwinch and his downtrodden, bullied wife, who is so badly treated she finds it hard to know what is real and what is a dream.

Book 41 of 90

My favourite character of all, though, is Flora Finching. She was Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear. Dickens hints that Flora is well aware of her own silliness, that it’s an act, and he shows her to be kind and loyal to those she loves, or has once loved. Personally, if I had to choose between them, I’d rather spend my life with frivolous Flora than with droopy Little Dorrit! She speaks in a kind of stream of consciousness that is chock full of good-natured if unintentional humour…

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.

“Then it’s all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!”

Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law

The actual plot is a bit convoluted and the explanation is all done in a rush at the end, so that I had to read it twice before I fully got it, and even then it all seemed unlikely even by Dickens’ standards. But all the other stuff more than makes up for this weakness and, while this won’t challenge Bleak House for the top spot, it’s undoubtedly one of his greats.

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64 thoughts on “Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

  1. I’m not a fan of Dickens but even I find things to enjoy in Little Dorrit. I often find myself muttering about Circumlocution Offices, so although I think you’re right that it perhaps wasn’t so accurate at the time, sadly I think it’s become very true now!

    • Haha – yes, it’s just as well I read this before Brexit hit crisis point or I may well have thrown the book at the TV, and it’s a big book!! 😉 Not a fan of Dickens?? I’m clearly not doing my job right… I shall work harder… 😀

    • For some reason, I’d never read this one before either, but it is well worth it. You can go straight on to it when you finish the Shardlake books – you’ll be so used to long books by then, this one will seem like a novella… 😉

  2. I find Dickens really hard to read and it doesn’t always keep the attention from wandering….not that I’ve read that many I hasten to add 😉

    • I love Dickens but I can only read him in short bursts so it takes me weeks to get through one of his massive books. I guess I’ve read so many Victorian novels I’m kinda tuned into the style (plus I’m not that far off being a Victorian myself… 😉 )

  3. I’ve always loved the way Dickens’ characters just jumped off the pages, FictionFan – even the ones I didn’t like. I think that was one of his real gifts as a writer. And, yes, he used his ‘bully pulpit’ to talk about all sorts of social issues that other authors weren’t going near at the time. Little wonder you liked this one as one of his good ones – he knew how to do wit, too.

    • It’s his characters I love too – they may be caricatures, but he uses that kind of exaggeration to really highlight all the odd quirks and failings we humans have! Plus I just love the way he uses language – he sounds so distinctively himself, doesn’t he? You could never mistake a Dickens passage for someone else’s work. And yes, he can be funny, or serious, or angry, or sentimental – and I’m happy to go along for the ride… 😀

  4. Great review! Flora is quite the character. 😀
    I first read this as an undergraduate. I remember being resentful of its length. Since then, it has become my favorite of Dickens’ books.

    • Ha! I never think Dickens should be read to a time deadline – they should be savoured in short bursts! I loved Flora. Sometimes Dickens can be quite cruel to his comic characters, but there’s a warmth somehow in how he writes about Flora – she’s so much fun. For some reason, I had managed to miss this one up till now – glad I finally got to it!

    • For some reason, I hadn’t read this one before either, but it is well worth it! Nothing will ever match Bleak House for me though – the best book ever written! 😀

  5. Little Dorrit is one of my TBRs – really looking forward to reading now and Bleak House is probably my favourite of Dickens’s books.

    I think we’re stuck in the Circumlocution Office at the moment as Parliament seems to be excelling at How Not to Get Things Done.

    • I still love Bleak House best, but this one is up there amongst the top ones, I think, especially for the stuff about the debtors’ prison – I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it! 😀

      Haha – I know! It’s just as well I finished it before we reached full on mad crisis or I might have thrown the book at the TV during Prime Minister’s Questions. And it’s a big book… 😉

  6. My grandmother gave me a lovely leather-bound collection of all Dickens’ works when I was a young girl, so they’re on the shelf whenever I want to read one. I’ve only read a handful and this is not among those. Perhaps when I’m needing something to read (ha!), I’ll grab this one. Then again… Bleak House is another I’ve always wanted to read.

    • Oh, you are lucky! I’ve always wanted a leather-bound set! I’ve been collecting the Nonesuch editions over the last few years though, so now at least I have most of the main ones in a matched set, rather than a bunch of mismatched tatty old paperbacks! This one is well worth reading, but Bleak House is the best book ever written in the entire history of the English language… just sayin’ 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 Ha, I know! I felt that passage could have been written today without really changing a word, which is kinda disappointing. I’d love to know what Dickens would make of our current politics in both Britain and America!

  7. I know I haven’t read this one, but 800 pages?? Oh, my, that practically makes me swoon! Dickens doesn’t hold such a permanent place in literature for nothing, so it doesn’t surprise me you enjoyed this book as much as your review indicates. But I’d have to *love* something to stay with it for 800 pages, ha!

    • Haha – I know! But somehow I don’t mind with Dickens – there’s always so much going on in them. Plus just holding the book is excellent weight training! 😉

  8. Oh man I really need to read more Dickens! You’re right in that so much of what he writes about is applicable in today’s society, perhaps not as obvious but still there nonetheless. The problem with reading your blog is that I learn about so many classic books I want to read-but never seem to have the time for ;(

    • Ha! Just get rid of the husband and kids and you’ll have plenty of time for the classics! 😉 It’s a bit sad that we don’t seem to have moved on from Dickens’ time in a lot of ways, though…

  9. I should read this; I do enjoy Dickens. Even when he’s not great, he’s still very good. I remember hearing about the idea of debtors’ prisons when I was a kid and even then thinking they were ridiculous. How do you ever get out??

  10. Excellent review. Makes me want to revisit this-it’s been quite a few years since I read this. Flora was a really fun and likeable character, but I seem to have forgotten so many details.
    Bleak House is excellent as is Our Mutual Friend and I can never make up my mind which I like better. Last year I read BH and decided that was the one I liked; currently am reading OMF and loving that too so back to square 1 😛

    • That’s one of the joys for me – there’s so much in any Dickens novel that I can re-read them again and again and still find bits I’d forgotten.

      Haha – Bleak House is my favourite, but I’m like that with the rest. Last year, I was declaring Nicholas Nickleby the best, then before that I was claiming the title for A Tale of Two Cities… 😉

      • True. Nicolas Nickelby was one of the first I read of Dickens and I absolutely loved it. In fact, it was one of the first ‘classics’ I found myself thoroughly enjoying. You’re right, each time one reads one, one finds new details or things which one didn’t remember. With the exception of Great Expectations, I pretty much enjoy all of his books.

        • Funnily enough, Great Expectations is my least favourite too, mainly because I was forced to study it at Uni and it got analysed to death, totally destroying my ability to get lost in the story. I had the same problem with most of the books I read at Uni, this being why I gave up English Lit at the end of the first year.

          • For me, the main reason for disliking it is that I really couldn’t feel any sympathy for or connect with any of the main characters — Pip in particular — which made me not really care about what would happen to them.

            • Oh me too- I did feel for poor Joe, Magwitch too. I meant more in terms of the main characters. Of course there are books that I’ve enjoyed even when I don’t like the MCs like He Knew He Was Right by Trollope.

            • I think it maybe depends on whether the author intend you to like them. I reckon Dickens expected his readers to like Pip, so it doesn’t feel as if it really works, whereas if a main character is deliberately unlikeable then that can be enjoyable in its own way…

            • True. With Pip it was kind of odd, because I could understand him acting the way he did with Joe, etc (even if I didn’t approve)–it is a very human reaction, yet it made me dislike him.

  11. You have prompted me to refesh myself on the chronology of Dickens’ publications. I’m reading them in order, more or less, including the re-reads. Currently on Martin Chuzzelwit and I’m tempted to jump to a reread of David Copperfield when I finally wave goodbye to Martin. I feel the need for a well-known favourite. But what I really wanted to check was where LD comes in relation to Bleak House – neither of which I’ve read – and I see that BH will be first! Hurrah! But sandwiched between the two is Hard Times – the book that turned me off Dickens for decades…. Gulp 😖 Never mind, at the rate I’m progressing it will be years before I have to face up to it. It feels important to find any silver linings going these days 😂😉

    • Haha – yes, silver linings are in short supply! Like everything else might be soon… 😉 Well, I’d jump straight to Bleak House – the best novel ever written! It’s years since I read Hard Times, but I seem to remember enjoying it, though I wouldn’t rank it up there as one of the greats. But then, I nearly always enjoy any Dickens novel – it’s the writing that gets me, and the quirky characters, and I can tolerate any other weaknesses for those. I also thoroughly enjoyed Martin Chuzzlewit when I re-read it a couple of years ago – one I’d almost completely forgotten from my first read way back in my teens or twenties.

      • Oh, I am enjoying it. Got to love M Todgers and the Pecksniffs 😂 Dare I take the humungous leap and go straight to Bleak House? Possibly – I might never reach it at all at the rate I’m going if I stick to the chronological list. There again, having it in the distance is an excellent carrot!

  12. Well Bleak House is my favourite too but I did enjoy this, you make an interesting point about the circumlocution office. I never questioned it, I just read it as the repetitive wheels of commerce – but of course, you’re right, it’s all oddly wrong for it’s time. I’ve recently watched this and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with Flora!

    • I think I’ve been reading so much Victorian science fiction and colonial literature recently that it’s made me very aware of how fast everything was advancing at that period, so somehow the circumlocution office jarred. All the other books suggest the government was actually pushing for new inventions and industries. Maybe Dickens had had a bad experience with the government or something…

  13. I really enjoyed the BBC’s 2008 miniseries, starring the lovely Claire Foy and one of my personal favourites Matthew Macfadyen, but I have yet to read the book. It is on my Classics Club list. 🙂

    • I still haven’t watched that miniseries, which is odd because I used to watch all the Dickens adaptations. Something distracting must have been happening in my life, or maybe it clashed with some other programme I was addicted to. I must get hold of it.

  14. What a thorough review FF! I read this last year and enjoyed it more than I expected, especially when I realized Little Dorrit was a girl. For some reason I picked this up because it was Dickens and went in to reading it without knowing anything. Regretfully, I wrote a very short note about it in my book journal and fear my review won’t be so good because I have waited so long. It’s one on my CC list so I still have it tagged as review to write. Flora got on my nerves honestly but her aunt I thought was much funnier. Maybe if I watch the movie it will refresh my memory! When I watched David Copperfield it all came flooding back. DC is my favorite Dickens to date although I still have several left to read.

    • I think it’s one that tends to get overlooked quite often. I don’t think it’s his absolute best, but it’s close! When I leave it too long to write a review of a classic, I go to Wikipedia and read the plot summary and that’s usually enough to remind me of what I liked and didn’t. Ha! I liked the aunt too, but I did find Flora entertaining! I think partly because I once heard Miriam Margolyes “do” her so I could hear her voice in my head while I was reading. I love David Copperfield, except for the part with Drippy Dora (so mean of me… 😂) but Bleak House is my favourite book of all time – best book ever written! If you haven’t read it yet, you have a treat to look forward to… 😀

      • I have several Dickens on my shelf, including Bleak House, so that’s some to choose from although I’ve been wanting to reread Great Expectations because I don’t remember it at all

        • Unfortunately, Great Expectations was destroyed for me by being made to analyse it to death at University – one sure way to kill the magic! But it does have some wonderful characters, like Magwitch the convict and Miss Haversham…

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