My Little Dorrit story begins months before I ever launched myself on my current Summer of Dickens project. I was browsing in the library to see if there was a book on tape not by an author whose paperbacks could insulate a McMansion. I saw Little Dorrit.
“Oh. Little Dorrit. I’ll try that.”
There were five discs. I put in disc one.
“The watch,” an accented voice gasped.
Huh? I checked to make sure I was at the beginning of the disc. Again with the watch. Odd. I put in disc two. It appeared to be en medias res someplace else in the story. On disc three I heard about the watch again. Same with discs four and five.
I made a little note that disc one was not the beginning of the novel and that discs one, three, four and five were identical. I took it back to the library. They routed a different copy of the book-on-tape to me. But the different copy had the same errors.
“Look,” I said. “Can you send me all the copies in the system to me? I’ll check them all and report back.”
I love my library.
There were five copies in the system, all exactly alike. The librarian at my branch looked up their history.
“Here’s the really odd part,” she told me. “This book-on-tape has been checked out 40 times. Did anyone listen to it?”
Hmm. Hard to say.
As a result of this experience I knew that a *watch* figured in the story. The watch was part of a mystery that along with a few odd characters and minor story lines kept me reading. On the whole, though, the novel didn’t appeal to me. I am tired of Dickens’ angelic females who sacrifice their lives to care for men who haven’t bothered to grow up. I went through this with Nell and her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop. Hell, I went through it in my own life, which is partly the source of the irritation with reading about it. But rather than going into a diatribe about the patriarchy, I’ll note a few of the things that intrigued me in Little Dorrit as I meander through a synopsis.
The Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Up until about 1860 when a man became insolvent and couldn’t pay his creditors, he could be arrested and imprisoned. It left his family hostage to pay the outstanding bills and secure his release. The family could live in the prison and they could come and go as they liked. Only the debtor himself could not leave. Dickens had a lifelong preoccupation with debtors’ prisons. His own father had been sent to the Marshalsea Prison during Dickens’ boyhood and Dickens would breakfast with his family there before he went off to work (at age 12) in a blackening factory.
“Little Dorrit” (her given name is Amy and I found the appellation of “Little Dorrit” irritating to the nth degree although clearly it was meant to be endearing) is called the Child of the Marshalsea because she was born in the prison, her father, William, having been there for some 20 plus years. A grown woman when the story opens, Amy thinks of the prison as home. She lives with her father and goes out every day to work.
It’s supposed to be the great irony of the novel that Amy is the only character who is not imprisoned in some way. In the 19th century it hadn’t occurred to enough people that women were imprisoned by Western culture from the moment of their birth. Don’t get me started. I will concede that Amy is the only character who appears to be content with her life. On the other hand, the novel was written by a 19th century male. Don’t get me started.
William Dorrit’s freedom is secured and he is let out into Society as typified by the Merdles. Now Mrs. Merdle is an old friend—so to speak– of mine because Lord Peter Wimsey called all his many Daimlers “Mrs. Merdle” and I have read all of Dorothy Sayers’ novels. Mrs. Merdle is a formidable, haughty woman. I don’t remember that Lord Peter’s Daimlers shared those qualities but I’ve about exhausted all there is to say about his Daimlers so I’ll leave them and Mrs. Merdle aside.
When William Dorrit quits the Marshalsea Prison he opts to take his family abroad and leave his shame behind in London. To get to Italy where the Dorrits eventually take up residence, they traverse St Bernard Pass from Switzerland and stay in the alpine hostel originally founded by Augustine monks in the middle ages. The St Bernard breed of dog used to be bred right there by the monks. The dogs really did save people lost in the snow but I think the little canteen of brandy around their neck was a Walt Disney invention. All this time I had the St Bernard vaguely mixed up with Heidi so it figures that I thought the barrels on the dogs’ necks contained chicken soup.
William’s freedom is secured by the efforts of Arthur Clenham and Pancks, one of the novel’s most colorful supernumeraries who, by badgering the Circumlocution Office, finds the error that caused Dorrit’s original insolvency. William cuts himself and his family off from Arthur as too painful a reminder of his old Marshalsea life and of course Amy as the dutiful, 19th century, angelic Dickens’ heroine tries to comply. Arthur and Amy become star-crossed and tongue-tied; neither is able to express feelings of love for the other.
English society, headed by Mrs. Merdle, decamps to Venice where William finds it a different sort of prison. Amy spends much of her time alone, looking at Venice from a window or alone in a gondola. Although not happy in Venice she was at least doing what she wanted to do even though people noticed and people talked.
While Mrs. Merdle holds court and sway in Venice, Mr. Merdle stays quietly behind in London making himself rich by investing other people’s money– including Arthur Clenham’s– rather in the style of Bernie Madoff. When his bubble bursts and financial ruin overtakes everyone he has ever breathed upon, Mr. Merdle commits suicide in what was the most shocking surprise–to me–in the story.
In a final, rather delicious irony, Arthur Clenham ends up in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Amy, with money she received because Arthur traces a clue from a *watch* belonging to his father, pays his creditors and gets him out. The two of them are married in St George’s Church right next to the prison.