Little Dorrit really was a book of two halves. I started Book The First: Poverty back in January. I got to the end, put the book down, and left it on my bedside table for two months. Then, earlier this week, I picked it up partly out of guilt and partly as a desire for spring cleaning. This was a winter book and it isn’t winter anymore. Actually I could have pretended this was the plan all along as it turned out quite nicely – Book The Second: Riches was a completely different read greatly improved by a change of scenery.
This is a novel about the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, where Little Dorrit grows up after her father was imprisoned. Dickens was quite clearly against these institutions and is very sympathetic towards those in debt. Reading descriptions of people’s lives in there was quite touching, especially when there are so many comparisons with people’s situations today:
We are quiet here; we don’t get badgered here; there’s no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man’s heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man’s at home, and to say he’ll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money, to this place. It’s freedom, sir, it’s freedom!
I suppose parts of this sound similar to Bleak House, although that was concerned with poverty through inheritance, a lot of the events of the book were motivated by people’s chasing money. This isn’t the part of Little Dorrit that really grabbed me. Instead, it was the odd sensation of not quite understanding what was happening whilst being insanely annoyed about missing bits. A lot of this novel is about misunderstandings and being talked out of things. One of my favourite, heart wrenching kind of moments, is this:
If Clenman had not decided against falling in love with Pet; if he had had the weakness to do it; if he had, little by little, persuaded himself to set all the earnestness of his nature, all the might of his hope, and all the wealth of his matured character, on that cast; if he had done this, and found that all was lost; he would have been, that night, utterly miserable. As it was –
As it was, the rain fell heavily, drearily.
Starting Book The Second made me remember that there are many weird things going on in Little Dorrit. Instead of trying to understand them in the first book, I decided to ignore them. As a result of this, I spent a lot of time frantically turning pages trying to work out why it wasn’t making any sense. I’m intrigued whether this has happened to anyone else who has read Little Dorrit, or if it is just me (like I unfortunately suspect it might be): Did the dreams of Mrs. Flintwinch make any sense to you? Luckily, I had a kind friend to explain them to me but I fear it was too late! If you haven’t read this book think doppelgängers, secrets in boxes, hearing ghosts in old houses and alternate realities. But all wrapped up in a cloud of normality.
All in all, Little Dorrit was really hard work. The first half didn’t leave me wanting more and the second half confused me beyond all measure. It was challenging, had really excellent characters and once the finer points were explained to me I could appreciate its cleverness. Having a two month gap in between parts might not have helped me pick up the subtler details but I think I would have hated this book if I hadn’t. The general experience, good and bad, can be summed up in this quote:
Affrey, like greater people, had always been right in her facts, and always wrong in the theories she deduced from them.
Wise, very wise, Mr. Dickens.