Monday, 5 October 2015
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1855-7)
Much more enjoyable on second reading than it was on the first, Little Dorrit brings to an end Dickens' "Socio-Political" trilogy (the first two being Bleak House and Hard Times). Though I prefer the former two, there is still plenty on offer here in Dickens' tale of "rags, riches and misfortune", as it was billed by the BBC when they adapted it for telly in 2008.
Once more, some of the greatest parts of the story lie in Dickens' marvellous writing style. The opening chapter in a baking Marseilles prison is astonishingly atmospheric, and contrasts brilliantly with the following chapters back in dull, grey London - though this time in two new locales, the forbidding Marshallsea Debtors' Prison and the gloomy Bleeding Heart Yard. A sizeable chunk of the story is also spent in Rome, Venice and in an Alpine chalet - not locations we particularly imagine as being intrinsically Dickensian.
The characters are good, if not quite up to the standards of the most recent books. Little Dorrit herself I remembered from the first time I read this book as being a saintly do-gooder who would never hurt a fly; she's not quite as over-the-top as that, mind, and has a good family dynamic as she is constantly reprimanded without cause, but she's far from Dickens' best lead character. Clennam - the only one who notices her - is, like David Copperfield but to a lesser extent, autobiographical; and although life is not always easy for him, his decency and integrity shine through consistently.
Dickens' savage social criticism is epitomised by the wonderful satire of the Circumlocution Office ("HOW NOT TO DO IT"), providing just the right backdrop for the villains - the insufferable Barnacle family and the swindling financier, "universally respected" Mr Merdle. The most fascinating characters are without doubt Rigaud and Cavalletto - two of the prisoners in Marseilles in Chapter 1 - who are in many ways Dickens' first serious attempt at a proper double-act. Their narrative is a great one, as the villainous yet charming Rigaud flees from scheme to scheme and Cavalletto continues to turn up at crucial moments to cast doubt on the true nature of "Monsieur Blandois".
Little Dorrit still drags slightly, for me, and I'm not sure it merits as many pages as it does. That said, it certainly builds in suspense and in the last few hundred pages there are some very exciting moments. The Great Man still had it.