Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for December 2020.

Little Dorrit
Charles Dickens

“Little Dorrit” is similar in its style and length to many other Dickens novels. Dickens chose to write in about 16-20 monthly instalments, and was paid for each one, so it benefitted him to be verbose.
          He is a good writer, but his style is of his time and I find it too longwinded. I described the book as reminding me of a pannetone Italian Christmas cake - acres of dry and dull sponge with the occasional piece of delicious fruit! Another member told me pannetone is meant to be dunked in an alcoholic drink, and this would certainly benefit Dickens’ work.
          The heroine is far too good to be true. I only read a quarter of the tome, but what I learnt about her subsequent behaviour from my fellow readers did not make me think better of her! Many of the characters are ‘stock’, and even more of them are totally unnecessary, adding nothing to the plot.
          800+ pages is too much to read in a month, even were it light and fluffy. I have suggested that if we ever try to read another Dickens, that we might try it the way the Victorians met it, in 20 monthly episodes. These books were, for them, the equivalent of Downton Abbey, or Upstairs Downstairs, and no-one tried to take it all in at once. I’m sure people back then discussed it over their tea, wondering if this character had any bearing on the story, and what would so-and-so do next.
          I do love Dickens’ saying that an old lady was now in a nursing home of sorts, with ‘many other old ladies of both sexes’. My Dad used to use this saying of some of his colleagues, but I didn’t know where it came from. Along with the ‘Yes Minister’ type descriptions of the Circumlocution Office, it was one of the pieces of candied fruit in the dry cake!

Madeline Stringe
Dublin Unitarian Church

Little Dorrit, more precisely Amy Dorrit, is the third child of William Dorrit who at the beginning of the story has spent 16 years in the Marshalsea debtors prison. In all that time he has done nothing to address the problems which has led to his illegal incarceration. Amy cares for her father and unknown to him earns the money to support them by doing embroidery outside the prison. It is while doing this work that she first makes the acquaintance of Arthur Clennman.
          As the story begins Clennmman is returning to London to his mother after spending 20 years in China in business with his father who has recently died. As he has passed through areas of the world where plague is raging he is quarantined in Marseilles. While in lockup he makes the acquaintance of two prisoners Rigaud awaiting trial for murdering his wife and Cavalleto, an Italian, accused of minor smuggling. Both of these characters will eventually make their way to London and play significant roles in the development of the plot.
          A host of other more minor characters assist in moving the story onward as well as becoming Dickens mouthpieces in passing harsh judgements on the extreme poverty and other injustices of early Victorian England. He reserves a special antipathy for the “Circumlocution Office” (The Treasury)
          From early on we sense that Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennman are going to end up together but it is only in the last, rushed instalment of the story that this happens. Before this William Dorrit. through the assistance of Mr. Meagles, has regained the wealth which had been unjustly taken from him, has taken his family and friends on a hugely expensive European trip, has become increasingly haughty. He looses his fortune again and dies.
          Arthur Clennman has also had financial ups and downs and has spent sometime in the same debtors prison where William Dorrit had lived for so long that he had acquired the title “the father of the Marshalsea”. As the story ends, a close acquaintance of Arthur, the inventor Daniel Doyce, pays off his debts and gives him back his job. Once free of prison Arthur and Amy get married.
          Like most of Dickens novels this is a very long read, 764 pages in the printed edition, I used in parallel with my Kindle. In all it took me thirty two hours to read the book. I am glad I read it and never found a sufficiently good reason to stop reading. It entertained me, gave me insights into life in early Victorian Britain and in London in particular and left me with the hope that the fictional characters Amy and Arthur attained the type of life together that Dickens foresaw for them in the final paragraphs of the book. After taking part in the book club discussion I am less negative about “Little Dorrit” than I was initially.
          I do find there is a certain sameness about reading Dickens. The underlying structure does not change much from novel to novel. For example “Our Mutual Friend” is very similar in structure to “Little Dorrit”. Lizzie, the heroine of “Our Mutual friend is much like Amy Dorrit, self effacing, reserved, at the beck and call of domineering parents but possessed of an inner resilience which allows them to gradually and calmly assert themselves . Somehow they both manage to triumph over all the adversities that impinge on their lives.
          Regardless of how we feel about Dickens’ novels they retain an attraction for readers more than one hundred and fifty years after Dickens’ death. Many of the stories have been adapted countless times as successful plays and movies and musicals. Good bookshops continue to stock many of the most popular of his books. Criticism of Dickens has ebbed and flowed since his death but his appeal to the general reader remains. He continues to be by far the most popular of Victorian novelists. People clearly find in his novels enjoyment and insights into the nineteenth century world in which he lived.

Tony Shine
Dublin Unitarian Church