Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Bird in the Cage

It seems one can hardly talk about Charles Dickens without addressing his reputation, his biography, his lifelong career, his oeuvre. No book stands purely on its own, but joins up with the others, like children with a strong family resemblance. In Little Dorrit, the writer’s habit of addressing social injustices and governmental and societal hypocrisies is here, as is his raggle-taggle bunch of characters, high and low, caricatures and miniatures. It seems impossible to say something about the book individually when one could just as easily say – that is well known. Dickens always did so-and-so. Was he habitual? I can hardly pass judgments on the man and the mind behind the novel as I know nothing other than what I read in the brief biographical sketch and the introduction to Little Dorrit. I will soon consult Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens which looks lovely (though Christopher Hitchens feels he left out a few necessaries). So let us assume that I know nothing much about Dickens (which is true). To make me feel like I am in company I will assume you don’t know much about Dickens and let us proceed with the book itself.

The novel opens on several close-quartered fronts: a sinister Frenchman and an Italian in a Marseilles prison, a group of passengers quarantined in Marseilles on their return to England from the East, and the Marshalsea, London’s debtor’s prison.

Little Amy Dorrit is the small and gentle youngest daughter of William Dorrit, heralded as “Father of the Marshalsea” because he is the oldest and the longest-staying resident. Little Dorrit was born in the prison and stays there to care for her father while her miscellaneous nasty brothers and sister are outside trying to make a living. Mr. Dorrit is very proud and in his captivity has assumed a grand persona: he welcomes new inmates, is much respected by all, and is given small “testimonials,” a euphemism for coins slipped into his palm. Mr. Dorrit would be horrified to find out that his daughters worked; he has ideas about the family’s station. So his family keeps up the ruse.

Little Dorrit works as a seamstress in the dark, crumbling house of Clennam. This is where Arthur Clennam, son to the widowed, chair-bound Mrs. Clennam and one of the passengers quarantined in Marseilles, arrived home from decades in China, meets Little Dorrit and is immediately intrigued by her character and her situation. He feels instinctively that his father, who expired abroad in much distress, passing a watch back to Mrs. Clennam with the inscription “Do Not Forget,” may have been an instrument in the Dorrits’ ruin. Mrs. Clennam is a stony Calvinist of the fires-of-hell-and-torments-of-earth breed; she raised her son with an iron fist and lives in the firm conviction of the righteous. She refuses to answer his questions and so Arthur Clennam follows Little Dorrit to the Marshalsea and is introduced to the world that comprises not only the prison and its management, but the impoverished neighborhood and its residents, the rent-collecting idiosyncratic “grubber” Mr. Pancks, and the serenely beneficent Patriarch Mr. Casby who, as it turns out, is the father of Arthur’s childhood sweetheart, Flora, who in the interim of twenty-odd years is no longer the girl he remembers.

Mr. Clennam is intrigued by the sweetness and gentleness of Little Dorrit, a girl bred in such poverty and ruin, who cares for her family with so little thanks (they being not “insensible for what she did for them; but…lazily habituated to her”, that he resolves to help her in some way.

Like Bleak House, Little Dorrit has its foundations on a secret that will out; a secret we may suspect has to do with Little Dorrit and (given Mrs. Clennam’s resistance) the house of Clennam. As in Bleak House, this secret is vulnerable to exploitation and the machinations of the sinister Frenchman we met in the Marseilles prison, a murderer who goes by the name of Blandois whose moustache – when he is especially sinister – “went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his moustache.” Throughout the novel is the stage-villainesque indication of evil and malicious intent.

But this is a fat novel and runs to 860 pages. There is far more to be captured here, both in character and in occasion: we meet Mr. Clennam’s passenger friends, the Meagles, their daughter Pet (of whom Mr. Clennam is determined not to think romantically), and their foundling child/maid Tattycoram (once Harriet), the coldly disturbing Jane-Eyre-gone-bad Miss Wade, who preys on Tattycoram, Pet’s sarcastically amiable and amateur suitor Henry Gowan and his high connections (the Barnacles). There is Daniel Doyce, an inventor, friend to Mr. Meagles and Arthur Clennam’s new business partner.

And Little Dorrit’s sister Fanny, a spirited and a petulant dancer, pursued by a young man with the fantastic name of Edmund Sparkler whose highest compliment to a person is to say that she has no “begod nonsense about her.” Fanny frequently has no nonsense about her, Amy has no nonsense about her, and Sparkler’s mother, the Bosom as Dickens calls her, has no nonsense about her. Although the characters tire of hearing Edmund’s epithet, I must say I never did. (Perhaps I have no nonsense about me?)

The Bosom, Mrs. Merdle, is married to Mr. Merdle, the Man of the Age. Everyone in town buzzes about Mr. Merdle’s wealth, his millions, and his banks but he is a withdrawn and shrinking character. A man who is much demanded at parties and gatherings, Mr. Merdle has nothing to say, and shrinks his hands into the cuffs of his sleeves. Yet, we must keep our eye on Merdle; we feel that he might be significant.

The Dorrits undergo good fortune and bad; there is a great change and separation of characters, and (as we might hope for and expect) a joining together of them at the end. This is a broad novel with much melodrama and pathos, but no shortage of indignation and comedy.

Dickens’ sharp satire of the ineptitude of English bureaucracy in his fictional Circumlocution Office, managed by the country’s reigning class of the Barncle family, is something out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (This chapter, infamous chapter X, Containing the Whole Science of Government, caused quite a stir at the time of publication.) In this office the dictum is HOW NOT TO DO IT. “Upon my SOUL, you mustn’t come into the place saying you want to know, you know,” a man advises Arthur Clennam, investigating Mr. Dorrit’s creditors.

Little Dorrit was published in its entirety in 1857, not yet eclipsing the first half of the Victoria’s reign, and yet Mrs. General sums up the personal philosophy of the Victorians succinctly: “When free from the trammels of passion…when occurring with the approbation of near relatives; and when cementing the proud structure of a family edifice; these are usually auspicious events.”

In other words: dispassion and duty. Duty to one’s family and to society. Prunes & Prisms. With a surprising change of circumstance, cementing the proud structure of the family edifice becomes the Dorrits’ new credo, painful to Little Dorrit who cannot sweep under the rug her attachment to the Marshalsea and its people. The novel examines the influence of imprisonment upon the psyche (Dickens' father was once in the Marshalsea for debt) and this is explored in the character of Mr. Dorrit, so long imprisoned and unable to escape its taint, in Mrs. Clennam, imprisoned in her paralysis and secrets, and in Little Dorrit, who subverts the meaning of the prison and who calls it home.

The novel is not without melodrama, without easy thrills, or without heavy-handed fortune changes, well-timed deaths or neat resolution, but it is a deeply felt imaginative work of idealism, indignation, honesty and vitality. Little Dorrit may be an ministering angel, but she is infinitely more preferable to Austen’s Fanny Price. I enjoyed the whole thing without distraction, and find it far superior to Bleak House and Great Expectations.

(And DO watch the 2008 miniseries. It may be hours and hours long, but it is worth every hour.)


Merenia said...

Thanks for such a comprehensive and eloquent review. I am inspired for both the novel and the new bio.

Shelf of One's Own said...

Thanks, Merenia. (And don't forget to watch the miniseries. It's progresses very closely to the book. Plus, it has Andy Serkin with a ferociously - almost campy - French accent.)