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.…
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