Charles Dickens, “Little Dorrit”

Man, I hate crying on the subway. I was just sniffling gently and seeping tears, but you feel so exposed. And slightly embarrassed. Oscar Wilde famously wrote that “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” [Warning: Wikipedia quotation, so possibly incorrect]

I am so torn about this. On the whole I despise emotional manipulation in books; I’d rather hold myself aloof like Wilde. Yet somehow in the hands of Dickens or Trollope I gladly give way. The passage that got to me here was one in which Little Dorrit thanks Arthur Clennam for having paid her horrible brother’s debts.  She trembles, kisses his hand, etc. etc. She weeps, I weep.

What puzzles me is the alacrity with which I suspend my normal rules for this guy. Amy Dorrit is one of the legion of self-effacing Dickensian girl-children whose submission is their greatest glory. Yuck. But I find myself excusing his attitude because… because that’s the way he is. Because he’s Charles Dickens, and the weird woman-thing is part of the package. It goes along with the riproaring sweep of the plots and characters, the sneaky humor, the smoke and grime and the sensory overload (another thing I usually can’t bear).

For instance, here he is describing some of the hangers-on at the Marshalsea debtors’ prison.  “Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking around the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbrokers. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on door-steps 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.”

Good heavens! Look at the way he piles it on in that last sentence, drawing out detail upon detail, through the drafty hallways, touching on the faded ink, to the beautiful dactylic rhythm at the end: “great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.” It’s a whole tiny little novel, tacked onto a cough! I don’t know, maybe this is just love. You accept the flaws as the mirror of the strengths.

It’s a huge book and I’ll probably post a few more times on it. Yes, I was inspired to pick it up by the PBS series which is nifty (no problems with Matthew MacFadyen, dear me no).  It’s odd to be reading so close to seeing it on TV but not detrimental to either, I find. The forms are so different that the series is like a mere fishbone as compared to the living fish. It has its own elegance, but not the same multifarious fascination.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
This entry was posted in anglophilia, classic, Victoriana. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Charles Dickens, “Little Dorrit”

  1. Pingback: Patrick O’Brian, “The Reverse of the Medal” « Book Group of One

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