• Print

Dorrit Without Politics

Little Dorrit

a film directed by Christine Edzard, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

In a political riposte addressed to Chesterton, Shaw wrote: “The bond of sympathy between Mr. Sidney Webb and myself is that we were both brought up on Little Dorrit. No use coming Dickens over us.”1 Little Dorrit was Shaw’s favorite work by his favorite novelist (a profession he aspired to himself when most under Dickens’s influence). He ranked Dorrit even higher than Great Expectations because of its scathing social analysis:

One of the greatest books in the English language is Little Dorrit, and when the English nation realises it is a great book and a true book there will be a revolution in this country. One of the reasons I am a revolutionist is that I read Little Dorrit when I was a very small boy.2

A mere plot summary, leaving out secondary characters, does little to explain Shaw’s respect for the novel’s politics. Here is the story according to the Oxford Companion to English Literature:

William Dorrit has been so long in the Marshalsea prison for debtors that he has become the “Father of the Marshalsea.” He has had the misfortune to be responsible for an uncompleted contract with the Circumlocution Office (a satirical portrait of the government departments of the day, with their incompetent and obstructive officials typified in the Barnacles). His lot is alleviated by the devotion of Amy, his youngest daughter, “Little Dorrit,” born in the Marshalsea, whose diminutive stature is compensated by the greatness of her heart. Amy has a snobbish sister Fanny, a theatrical dancer, and a scapegrace brother, Tip. Old Dorrit and Amy are befriended by Arthur Clennam, the middle-aged hero, for whom Little Dorrit conceives a deep passion, at first unrequited.

The unexpected discovery that William Dorrit is heir to a fortune raises the family to affluence. Except Little Dorrit, they become arrogant and purse-proud. Clennam, on the other hand, owing to an unfortunate speculation [encouraged by the swindling financier Merdle], is brought in turn to the debtor’s prison, and is found in the Marshalsea, sick and despairing, by Little Dorrit, who tenderly nurses him and consoles him. He has meanwhile learnt the value of her love, but her fortune stands in the way of his asking her to marry him. The loss of it makes their union possible, on Clennam’s release.

With this man theme is wound the thread of an elaborate mystery. Clennam has long suspected that his mother, a grim old puritanical paralysed woman, living in a gloomy house with a former attendant and present partner, Flintwinch, has done some wrong to Little Dorrit. Through the agency of a stagy villain, Rigaud, alias Blandois, this is brought to light, and it appears that Mrs. Clennam is not Arthur’s mother, and that her religious principles have not prevented her from suppressing a codicil in a will that benefited the Dorrit family.

Anyone leaving Christine Edzard’s movie adaptation of Little Dorrit will have even fewer revolutionary urges than the reader of that summary. Though the film she wrote and directed takes six hours, to be shown in two parts, she obviously felt she had to leave some things out. From the Shavian point of view, she left out the main thing: revolution. Dickens looks easier to dramatize than he is. Often an adapter faces the problem that fiery circles of vivid characters surround a central pair of lovers who are as dull as their antagonists are flamboyant. That is particularly true of Little Dorrit, since there can hardly be a duller set of lovers than Amy Dorrit (who will not speak her love) and Arthur Clennam (who does not know he has any to speak). Edzard faces this problem directly, and decides to put some life in the lovers, touching them up with half-confessed ardors and sheering off a layer or two of the gargoyles that tend to overshadow them in the original. Derek Jacobi plays Arthur in a winningly dithery way and is given more vigor when seen “through Amy’s eyes” in Part Two. This concentration on the lovers’ mutual regard seals out other characters and reduces the time available for their appearances. Dickens’s principal achievement, the picture of an entire society, is sacrificed to a private love story.

John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson have traced the evolution of Dorrit from a first concept called Nobody’s Fault, with a leading character who regularly causes mischief and then attributes it to Providence.3 This figure never showed up in the novel, since Dickens concluded that there are social forces to blame, not simply one man’s folly. Edzard revives Dickens’s abandoned scheme to give a larger resonance to her essentially private story, clumsily making unnamed quarrelers repeat in different circumstances the question “Who’s to blame?” and the answer “It’s nobody’s fault.” Then, turning Amy Dorrit into a social critic near the end of the movie, she has her say, “Everybody’s to blame,” only to qualify that sappy statement by saying everybody involved in Merdle’s financial speculation was to blame—which claims both too much and too little about the social responsibilities of the varying figures in the novel.

Some of the characters Edzard excises, presumably for being too “extreme,” are the French villain Blandois, the comic Italian Cavalletto, and a mysterious Miss Wade who comes to possess the evidence for Mrs. Clennam’s commercial perfidy. Yet Lionel Trilling, in his justly celebrated essay on the novel, finds Blandois “perhaps the single best index of the degree of complexity with which Dickens views society in Little Dorrit,”4 and I think an even stronger case can be made for the indispensability of Miss Wade.

Butt and Tillotson in Dickens at Work noted that Miss Wade exists in Dickens’s notes for the novel from the very outset, along with the binding image of imprisonment that was constant in his different sketches.5 He thought of sending Miss Wade to prison, and her father might have been the Providence-invoking fellow.6 The Miss Wade who survives in the novel is fatherless, and more a connoisseur of misery rather than the cause of it. Her autobiographical letter to Arthur Clennam is a Kafkaesque monologue that could stand on its own as a psychological study. Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster criticized it on those grounds, but Dickens thought he had been able to “make the blood of the book circulate through it.”7 Modern critics agree that he did.

Miss Wade is a kind of emotional hunger artist. Put at a disadvantage by her lack of parents, she takes every effort by others to help her as a suggestion of the helper’s superiority. No charity is pure enough for her, but part of a conspiracy of kindness to make her look more dependent on others. Her striving for independence has put her in a prison more absolute than any of the literal prisons in the story. Like Giotto’s Invidia, she has a serpent for a tongue, which comes out of her mouth only to bite her in the forehead. She has a spirit other characters in the novel aspire to—throwing off the bonds of social deference or interdependence, they isolate themselves in various illusions or pretensions. They escape the physical bars of prison by enclosing themselves in chains of fancied status, removing themselves from others, putting themselves above them, unaware of their real attitudes. For William Dorrit, in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison, the escape is into a fancied post as “Father” of the Marshalsea and protector of its “collegians.” So comfortable does this inner prison become that he cannot cope with life when he is set free from the outer bars of the Marshalsea.

Miss Wade does not become inhuman because her very letter of self-explanation is a confession that she is not above the opinion of others. Nor is Amy Dorrit at the opposite pole from Miss Wade, as might at first appear. In order to protect her father, Amy has to foster his illusion, taking as much care of his pretended status as any normal child would of actual family status. This involves her in self-deception, as it indurates him in his own fantasy. Only when his pretense becomes transparent to others does Amy try to protect his real dignity by admitting the truth—as when she begs Arthur not to go through the charade of giving her father monetary “testimonials.” Amy is the victim of status even when she has no real status to boast of. She is a shadow sister of Miss Wade, needing a prison of illusions; only her world holds a father as well as her self—and ultimately it holds, in Arthur, a lover.

Removing a character from one of Dickens’s later novels does not mean simply the loss of one person. One loses all the influence that one character exerts on others in the tightly fitted worlds created by Dickens Edzard removes Mrs. General, the harsh widow who becomes the Dorrit children’s governess when William is released from the Marshalsea and travels abroad as a rich gentleman. Mrs. General becomes the children’s warden, imposing a regime of manners on them far more restrictive than anything they experienced in the Marshalsea. But her more important role, toward the end of the novel, is as the object of Mr. Dorrit’s new illusion: he builds castles in the mind around the idea of marrying Mrs. General. He schemes to get little Amy married off, to clear the way for his own union with Mrs. General. Without that motive, some of Mr. Dorrit’s cruelty is taken from the story.

Chesterton did not like Dorrit, and had nothing useful to say about it; its acrid vehemence did not fit his picture of a predominantly jovial Dickens. But he was right to be shocked by the ruthless way Dickens used his father as a model for the selfish William Dorrit.8 Dickens père had earlier been the model for Wilkins Micawber, who was lovably irresponsible. Now Dickens takes seriously the cost to others of his own father’s impractical ways. Besides removing Mrs. General, Edzard does other things to soften the image of Dorrit. For instance, when Dorrit tries to push his daughter on the prison keeper’s son, in order to guarantee the keeper’s continuous favors to him, Edzard cuts the scene and makes it seem like a mere passing fancy rather than a careful maneuver on the part of Dorrit. The result is a partial reMicawberizing of Dorrit, a return to the comic and sentimental, with none of the savage touches that revolted Chesterton. Alec Guinness plays the part given him with all his genius. When he is told he can leave the Marshalsea, the play of emotion on his face is a masterpiece of wordless acting. But a silly dear has been substituted for the sinister Dorrit, and the peculiar upbringing of Amy has been partly normalized.

In moving the entire novel toward the conventions of a love story, Edzard makes both Amy and Arthur less passive than they are in the novel, blunting the social anger Shaw found in it. Amy is one of the pure little women who suffer in Dickens—not quite a Little Nell (whom Shaw called “a sort of literary onion, to make you cry”); but not, either, the “Beatrice” Trilling wants to make of her.9 It is clear Dickens meant for her to be his picture of a saint. But saints believe in something higher than a deluded father—in God, or Art, or Science. Shakespeare’s Isabella, like his Portia, believes in justice. Desdemona believes in fidelity, and not only of the marital sort; she has the larger loyalty that makes her plead for Cassio, though it distresses her husband. Amy Dorrit will do nothing that might distress her father. She would certainly never tell him the truth, like Cordelia. Dickens could not really create a saint, for the reason Shaw recognized: “The appalling thing about Dickens, the greatest of the Victorians, is that in his novels there is nothing personal to live for except eating, drinking, and pretending to be happily married.”10 Mark Twain had the same limitation. Joan of Arc was his Little Dorrit.

Then why did Shaw think the novel such a masterpiece? Not because of the lovers, but for the depiction of the system that has victimized them—the English class system, the deference to and protection of status, the reservation of government to noble idiots, the patronage system that promoted the unmerited, the unconfessed connection between politics and commerce. For all Miss Wade’s hatefulness, there is a kind of tragic nobility in her refusal to show deference to anyone. The readiness of others to defer is what paralyzes English society in Little Dorrit. Even the likable people, such as the Meagles family which befriends Arthur, are awed by those “above them”—they let their daughter marry a wastrel artist because his family seems to have greater standing than theirs.

No character is superfluous here, since it is precisely the play of mutual deception among them all, up and down the social gamut, that weaves the novel’s structure of oppression. Blandois is not only evil himself, as Trilling notes, but the occasion for revealing evil in others. Henry Gowan, the artist who belittles others with ironic praise, promotes Blandois in society as an affront to more worthy people—and because his wife, the daughter of Mr. Meagles, is afraid of the man. Nowhere does Amy Dorrit come to life so convincingly as when she and Gowan’s wife both intuit that Blandois has poisoned the Gowan’s dog.

Miss Wade’s bitterness calls out to the sense of ill treatment in Tattycoram, the adopted servant-daughter of Mr. Meagles, who shows that he can be as infuriatingly patronizing to Tattycoram as he is deferential to any member of the Barnacle family. Affery Flintwinch, with her fear of ghostly noises in Mrs. Clennam’s house, is the only one who realizes that the physical structure is actually falling down throughout the novel. Superstition sees what all the calculators in that house cannot.

John Baptist Cavalletto begins as an Italian stereotype and ends as a refutation of the stereotype. He is a hard-working employee at the Clennam and Doyce factory; and, when it comes time to track down Blandois, Cavalletto has the range of skills and acquaintances to accomplish that. (Arthur, helpless in so many ways, is particularly feckless as a sleuth.) Cavalletto’s easy adaptability means that he is the only character who does not really need to be translated in order to be understood by everybody, though Mrs. Plornish undertakes that most needless of tasks:

“Come into the happy little cottage, Padrona,” returned Mr. Baptist [Cavalletto], imparting great stealthiness to his flurried back-handed shake of his right forefinger. “Come there!”

Mrs. Plornish was proud of the title Padrona, which she regarded as signifying; not so much Mistress of the house, as Mistress of the Italian tongue. She immediately complied with Mr. Baptist’s request, and they all went into the cottage.

“E ope you no fright,” said Mrs. Plornish then, interpreting [to] Mr. Pancks in a new way, with her usual fertility of resource. “What appen? Peaka Padrona!”

“I have seen some one,” returned Baptist. “I have rincontrato him.”

“Im? Oo im?” asked Mrs. Plornish.

“A bad man. A baddest man. I have hoped that I should never see him again.”

“Ow you know im bad?” asked Mrs. Plornish.

“It does not matter, Padrona. I know it too well.”

“E see you?” asked Mrs. Plornish.

“No. I hope not. I believe not.”

“He says,” Mrs. Plornish then interpreted, addressing her father and Pancks with mild condescension, “that he has met a bad man, but he hopes the bad man didn’t see him. Why,” enquired Mrs. Plornish, reverting to the Italian language, “why ope bad man no see?”11

Mrs. Plornish delights the reader, but only with another variant of the social patronizing that poisons almost every relationship in the book and undergirds the complacency of England’s rulers. Even the home of that admirable worker, Plornish, affects the inefficient officiousness of palaces and government departments. Mrs. Plornish, with her linguistic skills, is a little Circumlocution Office all to herself. Even the funny parts now do political work.

Dickens wrote the novel in the middle of the 1850s when the mismanagement of the Crimean War and the coverup of that mismanagement were coming to light. The inventor Arthur Clennam goes into partnership which has invented a new weapon, but the Circumlocution Office will not give him a patent for it—Dickens’s comment on the nation’s ability to manage its military duties. (Edzard sentimentalizes here, too, making the invention a safety device to save the lives of factory workers.) Dickens was deeply involved in his friend Austen Henry Layard’s attempts to reform the government’s departments; he grew furious when reform committees turned into exculpatory bodies, reflecting the corruption they were meant to expose. The perpetual bafflement of reform in the novel is what makes revolution seem the only recourse.

Dickens knew what destructive forces that would loose—the spirit of Miss Wade, the spirit of the French mob in his next novel, A Tale of Two Cities. But even that might be better than the slow social torture of all the good men and women in Little Dorrit, better than the success of fawners upon power who wield power as the reward for their fawning. Even Arthur, having served twenty years in his father’s commercial ventures in China, knows he has victimized others—he returns from his service, as Orwell did from Burma, convinced that the whole commercial system is rotten. This feeling is channeled through the melodramatic image of his supposed mother’s trafficking with the villainous Blandois; but Dickens’s rage is more general than that directed at particular targets in the novel, and the story’s entire energy is derived from that rage.

Dickens shared with many of his characters a trait that makes them lively but dangerous—a constant irritability. They rub each other into extreme states. They rasp on each other, as Flintwich says of Mrs. Clennam’s action on him. A recurring figure is the person with unspecified grievances assaulting anyone who comes near—the stone-throwing boy in Edwin Drood, Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. In Dorrit, the figure is “Mr. F.’s Aunt,” who takes an instant and intense dislike to Arthur and heaps abuse on him every time he comes near her. She is like those figures who pass one on the street in New York, shouting obscenities at unspecified enemies. But what makes F.’s Aunt so terrifying is her concentration on one person, for no reason. (In Edzard’s movie, she shouts nonsense, for the most part not directed at Arthur.)

Dickens was not a programmatic revolutionary. As Shaw frequently remarks, he was a bit of a snob himself, ashamed of his lowly origins. But he was temperamentally at odds with social complacency (to which much of his early work has been conscripted). He almost obsessively hated imposture, and he thought the whole government an imposture during the 1850s. His Lord Decimus, a takeoff on Lord Palmerston, assures people that everything will go right if it is just left alone. His prescription is Ronald Reagan’s. Any reform bill

was as good as dead and buried when Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle rose up in his place [in Parliament], and solemnly said, soaring into indignant majesty as the Circumlocution cheering soared around him, that he was yet to be told, My Lords, that it behoved him as the Minister of this free country, to set bounds to the philanthropy, to cramp the charity, to fetter the public spirit, to contract the enterprise, to damp the independent self-reliance, of its people. The discovery of this Behoving Machine was the discovery of the political perpetual motion. It never wore out, though it was always going round and round in all the State Departments.12

The free enterprise to which Lord Decimus refers is the monopolistic structure built up by the insider trading, political deals, and endless takeovers of Mr. Merdle (a man himself imprisoned by his wife’s social pretentions, and especially by her overbearing butler). Before Merdle’s speculative empire crashes, destroying the business of Arthur and his inventor friend, Merdle’s idiot stepson is given a safe seat in Parliament. Dickens describes the return from Italy of this nineteenth-century Dan Quayle:

The land of Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Newton, Watt, the land of a host of past and present abstract philosophers, natural philosophers, and subduers of Nature and Art in their myriad forms, called to Mr. Sparkler to come take care of it, lest it should perish.13

That is the authentic note of the novel, and it is nowhere to be found in the movie, which is a soupy love story peopled at the edges with decorative oddities. Trilling thought that Arthur, joined to his Beatrice, entered a Paradise of “nonpersonal will in which shall be our peace.”14 But Dickens gives the lovers, at best, a shared recognition of helplessness before a victimizing world. The last sentence sends them back into London’s streets where the “noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.”15 The story ends, but not the anger.

  1. 1

    Shaw on Dickens, edited by Dan H. Laurence and Martin Quinn (Frederick Ungar, 1985), p. 117. In this fine collection, there are more references to Little Dorrit, “Dickens’s masterpiece among many masterpieces” (p. 46), than to any other novel. 

  2. 2

    Shaw on Dickens, p. 111. Cf. p. 90: “Little Dorrit [is] a story so great that it is hard to believe that it could have been written by the author of Copperfield and Bleak House.” And p. 74: “If you put Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend into the hands of an experienced man of the world who is deeply interested in social questions and behind the scenes in politics, he is startled by the penetration and accuracy of the study of English politics and the picture of governing class life which he finds there.” 

  3. 3

    “From ‘Nobody’s Fault’ to Little Dorrit,” in Dickens at Work (Essential Books, 1958), pp. 222–223. 

  4. 4

    Introduction to the 1953 Oxford Illustrated Dickens Little Dorrit, p. ix. 

  5. 5

    Dickens’s “Number Plans” are included in the Clarendon Dickens Little Dorrit, ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith (1979), pp. 806–828. Miss Wade figures twice on the first page (806) and heavily throughout. 

  6. 6

    Clarendon Little Dorrit, p. 809. 

  7. 7

    Clarendon Little Dorrit, p. xxxvi. 

  8. 8

    Introduction to Everyman Little Dorrit (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1908), pp. viii–x. 

  9. 9

    Shaw on Dickens, p. 100; Trilling, introduction to the 1953 Oxford Illustrated Dickens Little Dorrit, p. XV. 

  10. 10

    Shaw on Dickens, p. 113. 

  11. 11

    Clarendon Little Dorrit, Vol. I, chapter xiii, p. 561. 

  12. 12

    Clarendon Little Dorrit, Vol. I, chapter xxxiv, p. 395. 

  13. 13

    Clarendon Little Dorrit, Vol. II, chapter xv, p. 585. 

  14. 14

    Trilling, introduction to the 1953 Oxford Illustrated Dickens Little Dorrit, p. xv. 

  15. 15

    Clarendon Little Dorrit, Vol. II, chapters xix–xx, p. 802.