Cover of serial Vol. 4, March 1856
|Illustrator||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Cover artist||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
December 1855 – June 1857
|Genre||Fiction, Social criticism|
|Publisher||Bradbury and Evans|
|Publication date||1855 in monthly format and 1857 in book format|
Little Dorrit is a serial novel by Charles Dickens, originally published between 1855 and 1857. It is a work of satire on the shortcomings of the government and society of the period. Much of Dickens's ire is focused upon the institutions of debtors' prisons, in which people who owed money were imprisoned, unable to work, until they repaid their debts. The representative prison in this case is the Marshalsea, where the author's own father had been imprisoned. Most of Dickens's other critiques in this particular novel concern the social safety net; industry and the treatment and safety of workers; the bureaucracy of the British Treasury (as figured in the fictional "Circumlocution Office" [Bk. 1, Ch. 10]); and the separation of people based on the lack of interaction between the classes.
Little Dorrit was published in nineteen monthly instalments, each consisting of 32 pages with two illustrations by Phiz. Each instalment cost a shilling except for the last, a double issue which cost two shillings.
Book the First: Poverty
- I – December 1855 (chapters 1–4)
- II – January 1856 (chapters 5–8)
- III – February 1856 (chapters 9–11)
- IV – March 1856 (chapters 12–14)
- V – April 1856 (chapters 15–18)
- VI – May 1856 (chapters 19–22)
- VII – June 1856 (chapters 23–25)
- VIII – July 1856 (chapters 26–29)
- IX – August 1856 (chapters 30–32)
- X – September 1856 (chapters 33–36)
Book the Second: Riches
- XI – October 1856 (chapters 1–4)
- XII – November 1856 (chapters 5–7)
- XIII – December 1856 (chapters 8–11)
- XIV – January 1857 (chapters 12–14)
- XV – February 1857 (chapters 15–18)
- XVI – March 1857 (chapters 19–22)
- XVII – April 1857 (chapters 23–26)
- XVIII – May 1857 (chapters 27–29)
- XIX-XX – June 1857 (chapters 30–34)
The novel begins in Marseilles "thirty years ago" (i.e., c. 1826), with the notorious murderer Rigaud telling his cell mate how he killed his wife. Arthur Clennam is returning to London to see his mother after the death of his father, with whom he had lived for twenty years in China. On his deathbed, his father had given him a mysterious watch murmuring "Your mother," which Arthur naturally assumed was intended for Mrs. Clennam, whom he and everyone else believed to be his mother.
Inside the watch casing was an old silk paper with the initials DNF (Do Not Forget) worked into it in beads. It was a message, but when Arthur showed it to the harsh and implacable Mrs Clennam, a religious fanatic, she refused to tell him what it meant and the two become estranged.
In London, William Dorrit, imprisoned as a debtor, has been a resident of Marshalsea debtors' prison for so long that his three children – snobbish Fanny, idle Edward (known as Tip) and Amy (known as Little Dorrit) — have all grown up there, although they are free to pass in and out of the prison as they please. Amy, devoted to her father, has been supporting them both through her sewing.
Once in London, Arthur is reacquainted with his former fiancée Flora Finching, who is now overweight and simpering. His supposed mother, Mrs Clennam, though paralysed and wheelchair-bound, still runs the family business with the help of her servant Jeremiah Flintwinch and his downtrodden wife Affery. When Arthur learns that Mrs Clennam has employed Little Dorrit as a seamstress, showing her unusual kindness, he wonders whether the young girl might be connected with the mystery of the watch. Suspecting his mother was partially responsible for the misfortunes of the Dorrits, Arthur follows the girl to the Marshalsea. He vainly tries to inquire about William Dorrit's debt in the poorly run Circumlocution Office, assuming the role of benefactor towards Amy, her father, and her brother. While at the Circumlocution Office he meets the struggling inventor Daniel Doyce, whom he decides to help by going into business with him. The grateful Amy falls in love with Arthur, much to the dismay of the son of the Marshalsea jailer, John Chivery, who has loved her since childhood; but Arthur fails to recognise Amy's interest. At last, aided by the indefatigable debt-collector Pancks, he discovers that William Dorrit is the lost heir to a large fortune, finally enabling him to pay his way out of prison.
The newly freed Dorrit decides that they should tour Europe as a newly respectable family. They travel over the Alps and take up residence for a time in Venice, and finally in Rome, displaying an air of conceit over their new-found wealth (except for Amy). Eventually, after a spell of delirium, Dorrit dies in Rome as does his distraught brother Frederick, a kind-hearted musician who has always stood by him. Amy, left alone, returns to London to stay with newly-married Fanny and her husband, the foppish Edmund Sparkler.
The fraudulent dealings (similar to a Ponzi scheme) of Edmund Sparkler's stepfather, Mr. Merdle, end with his suicide and the collapse of his bank business, and with it the savings of both the Dorrits and Arthur Clennam, who is now himself imprisoned in the Marshalsea, where he becomes ill and is nursed back to health by Amy. The French villain Rigaud, now in London, discovers that Mrs. Clennam has been hiding the fact that Arthur is not her real son, and tries to blackmail her. Arthur's biological mother was a beautiful young singer with whom his father had gone through some sort of non-marital ceremony, before being pressured by his wealthy uncle to marry the present Mrs. Clennam. The latter insisted on bringing up little Arthur and denying his mother the right to see him. Arthur's real mother died of grief at being separated from Arthur and his father; but the wealthy uncle, stung by remorse, had left a bequest to Arthur's biological mother and to "the youngest daughter of her patron", a kindly musician who had taught and befriended her – and who happened to be Amy Dorrit's paternal uncle, Frederick. As Frederick Dorrit had no daughter, the legacy went to the youngest daughter of Frederick's younger brother, who is William Dorrit, Amy's father.
Mrs. Clennam has been withholding her knowledge that Amy is the heiress to an enormous fortune and estate. Overcome by passion, the old woman rises from her chair and totters out of her house to reveal the secret to Amy and beg her forgiveness, which the kind-hearted girl freely grants. The former then falls in the street, never to recover the use of her speech or limbs, as the house of Clennam literally collapses before her eyes, killing Rigaud. Rather than hurt Arthur, Amy chooses not to reveal what she has learned even though this means forfeiting her legacy.
When Arthur's business partner Daniel Doyce returns from Russia a wealthy man, Arthur is released with his fortunes revived, and Arthur and Amy are married.
Like many of Dickens's novels, Little Dorrit contains numerous subplots. One subplot concerns Arthur Clennam's friends, the kind-hearted Meagles. They are upset when their daughter Pet marries an artist called Gowan, and when their servant and foster daughter Tattycoram is lured away from them to the sinister Miss Wade, an acquaintance of the criminal Rigaud. Miss Wade hates men, and it turns out she is the jilted sweetheart of Gowan.
The character Little Dorrit (Amy) was inspired by Mary Ann Cooper (née Mitton), whom Dickens sometimes visited along with her family. They lived in The Cedars, a house on Hatton Road west of London; its site is now under the east end of London Heathrow Airport.
Literary significance and reception
Like much of Dickens' later fiction, this novel has seen many reversals of critical fortune. It has been shown to be a critique of HM Treasury and the blunders that led to the loss of life of 360 British soldiers at the Battle of Balaclava. Imprisonment – both literal and figurative – is a major theme of the novel, with Clennam and the Meagles quarantined in Marseilles, Rigaud jailed for murder, Mrs. Clennam confined to her house, the Dorrits imprisoned in the Marshalsea, and most of the characters trapped within the rigidly defined English social class structure of the time.
Tchaikovsky, a voracious reader and theatre-goer when he was not composing, was entranced by the book, which he presumably read in Russian, French or German translation, and recommended it enthusiastically to his younger twin brothers Modest and Anatoly in his voluminous correspondence with them.
Little Dorrit has been adapted for the screen five times. The first three productions were in 1913, 1920, and 1934. The 1934 German adaptation, Kleine Dorrit, starred Anny Ondra as Little Dorrit and Mathias Wieman as Arthur Clennam. It was directed by Karel Lamač. The fourth, in 1988, was a UK feature film of the same title as the novel, directed by Christine Edzard and starring Alec Guinness and Derek Jacobi, supported by a cast of over three hundred British actors.
The fifth adaptation was a TV series co-produced by the BBC and WGBH Boston, written by Andrew Davies and featuring Claire Foy, Freema Agyeman, Bill Paterson, Andy Serkis, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Courtenay, Judy Parfitt, Arthur Darvill, Russell Tovey, Janine Duvitski, James Fleet, Ruth Jones, Eve Myles, Mackenzie Crook, Stephane Cornicard, Anton Lesser, Alun Armstrong, Sue Johnston, Emma Pierson and Amanda Redman. The series aired between October and December 2008 in the UK, in the USA on PBS's Masterpiece in April 2009, and in Australia, on ABC1 TV, in June and July 2010.
- page 52, Sherwood, Philip. (2009) Heathrow: 2000 Years of History. Stroud: The History Press ISBN 78-0-7509-5086-2
- Philpotts, Trey. "Trevelyan, Treasury, and Circumlocution." Dickens Studies Annual. 22, 1993, 283–302.
- New York Times Movie Review, 19 October 1935.
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