Beware! this novel is of epic stamina sapping proportions, but a really worthwhile read for fans of the historical novel providing you can forgive the occasional long-winded passage as the author floats off into lengthy flights of fancy and waxes lyrical on some aspect of character, location or other subject matter. But don’t be put off, the storyline is a really interesting page turner, and any tedious distractions are more than compensated for by the author’s skill with words, characterisation and the marvellous subtle wit he infuses. The story is set mainly in nineteenth century London with some chapters following characters to Europe (Italy, France and Belgium), and overall it is a feel good tale of trials, tribulations, frustrations, failures, successes and sheer joy as it follows the fortunes of a diverse group of characters as they negotiate life’s unpredictable landscape. A plausible story of mystery and intrigue, a surprising rags to riches saga with dramatic reversals of fortune keeping the reader guessing until the very end, mostly involving interesting and likeable individuals and one or two real heroes, with just a few villainous or plainly incompetent and foolish protagonists. This novel is a most entertaining and uplifting read, a wonderful experience for a lively imagination and comes highly recommended concluding, as it does, in a most satisfactory manner as love blossoms and justice prevails.
William Dorrit: A debtor who serves more than two decades in the Marshalsea prison, with his wife and two children, a third, Amy being born there. The cause of his insolvency is unclear.
Mrs Dorrit: The wife of William Dorrit who gives birth to Amy whilst living in the prison and dies eight years later, still within its walls.
Frederick Dorrit: Elder brother of William, a musician fallen on hard times who earns a living by playing the clarinet in theatres.
Edward Dorrit: The couple’s eldest child, nicknamed Tip.
Fanny Dorrit: The couple’s eldest daughter, she is attractive and becomes a dancer.
Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit): Tender hearted, loving and resourceful who cares for her father during his incarceration and after his release.
Maggy: A young woman with learning difficulties befriended by Little Dorrit, whom she calls “little mother”, they are inseparable.
Gilbert Clennam: Deceased uncle of Arthur’s father and founder of the family business.
Arthur Clennam: A forty year old businessman back in England after the death of his father, with whom he had been running Chinese branch of the family firm.
Mrs Clennam: Arthur’s hard hearted stepmother, who runs the London branch family business, who conspired to send Arthur to work with his father in China, disapproving of his association with his then girlfriend Flora Caseby (later Mrs Finching).
Mr Jeremiah Flintwinch: Clerk, later business partner to Mrs Clennam when Arthur leaves.
Affery: Housekeeper to Mrs Clennam and Arthur in earlier days, later Mrs Flintwinch.
Ephraim Flintwinch: The twin brother of Jeremiah who lives in Antwerp.
Daniel Doyce: An engineer and inventor, he has a company based in Bleeding Heart Yard, he befriends Arthur Clennam who later becomes his business partner.
Mr Casby: A greedy landlord with properties in Bleeding Heart Yard who employs Mr Pancks as rent collector.
Mrs Finching: Daughter of Mr Caseby and former girlfriend of Arthur Clennam, now a widow.
Mr F's aunt: Aged eccentric who lives with Mrs Finching into her widowhood.
Mr Pancks: Rent collector for Mr Casby, despite his job title he is likeable, friendly and amusing, a good friend to the Dorrits and Arthur Clennam.
Mr Rugg: Mr Pancks’ landlord and attorney for Pancks and later the Doyce & Clennam partnership.
Mr Meagles: A retired banker who befriends Arthur Clennam.
Mrs Meagles: Wife of Mr Meagles and mother of their daughter.
Minnie Meagles (Pet): Daughter of Mr and Mrs Meagles, beautiful and idolised, survivor of twin girls.
Mr Henry Gowan: Feckless and heartless young aspiring artist, related to the Barnacles, he marries Minnie Meagles against both parents wishes.
Tattycoram (Harriet Beadle): Impetuous orphaned Maid to Minnie Meagles.
John Chivery: A turnkey at the Marshalsea Prison.
John Chivery Junior: His son who hopes to take over from his father as turnkey in due course, he is in love with Little Dorrit, but his love is unrequited.
Mr Merdle: A trusted, successful banker and financier.
Mrs Merdle: His wife “the bosom” and mother of Edmund Sparkler, his stepson.
Edmund Sparkler: Mrs Merdle’s son, an upper class half wit who gets a job at the Circumlocution Office after he marries Fanny Dorrit.
Mr Plornish: Plasterer a friend of Little Dorrit who lives with his family in Bleeding Heart Yard.
Mrs Plornish: His good hearted wife, friend to the Dorrits and later a shopkeeper sponsored by them.
Mr Nandy: Father of Mrs Plornish, who lives with his daughter's family.
Mrs General: Widow hired by the wealthy William Dorrit as governess for his daughters. Mr Tite Barnacle: Upper class gentleman from a titled family, a civil servant at the Circumlocution Office.
Mr Ferdinand Barnacle: A younger member of the noble Barnacle family working at the Circumlocution Office.
Rigaud: Also known as Blandois and Lagnier, a foreign villain with evil intentions.
John Baptist Cavalletto: A friendly and amiable Italian who has shared a prison cell with Rigaud, he lives in Bleeding Heart Yard after coming to England.
Miss Wade: A bitter and unfriendly acquaintance of the Meagles’ and Arthur Clennam, with a mysterious connection to Rigaud.
The story opens with Arthur Clennam in quarantine in Marseilles, having been with his father running the overseas branch of the family business in China, returning home to England after his parent’s death. Fellow inmates include the Meagles family, their maid Tattycorum and a mysterious lady called Miss Wade, none of the party are ill but the quarantine has been imposed due to their having passed through an area with a contagious disease epidemic. Also in Marseilles we are introduced to the two felons Rigaud and Cavalletto, whilst in prison and subsequently newly released.
The story moves to London as the period of quarantine ends where Arthur receives a rather chilly welcome from his stepmother, running the business in London with her henchman Flintwinch, the Meagles take up residence at their home in Twickenham and Miss Wade disappears into the shadows. A quick scene shift later finds us in the Marshalsea debtors prison where William Dorrit is serving a long term incarceration with his family, the circumstances of his debt remaining a mystery to everyone, apart from the man himself, presumably. Amy (Little) Dorrit the younger of the three children has been born in the prison, the older siblings Edward and Fanny moving there with their mother whilst still very young. Edward grows up to be a feckless waster but Fanny grows into an attractive but not very likeable young lady who trains as a dancer in the theatre whilst living outside the jail with musician uncle Frederick, also fallen on hard times. Young Amy the one bright spark in the family starts to earn money to keep father and the family in food by working as a seamstress with some of the local families, notably Mrs Clennam and later for Flora Finching nee Caseby. Over a period of time more and more characters are introduced and some very interesting interactions develop, in an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue with secrets buried just below the surface and suspicious people with evil intentions at large.
Throughout the novel reference is made on a regular basis to Mr Merdle, a wealthy banker and financier, he and his family feature quite prominently in the story with important people extolling his virtues, mainly his Midas touch in creating wealth for himself and his clients, giving him rather a god-like reputation within his social circle. The great man himself leaves most of the socialising to his dear wife, always referred to as Mrs Merdle or “the bosom” and his step-son Edmund Sparkler, preferring to devote all of his time to his financial affairs, some of which will prove fraudulent or more charitably reckless speculation, it’s not clear which but the consequences will have a profound effect of the lives of some of the other characters later in the story.
The author also seems fascinated and not over impressed with the workings of government at this time taking what I imagine is a rather unkind but probably justified critical and wonderfully satirical, look at the civil service in the form of his character’s encounters with the “Circumlocution Office”. Apparently set up to frustrate any initiative or enterprise which might compromise the office’s inertia and peaceful equilibrium, seemingly run by an assembly of incompetent and lethargic aristocrats intent on self interest, nepotism and patronage.
Apart from Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam is, I suppose arguably the most prominent character in the story and something of a hero. The two meet at Arthur’s step-mother’s house at the time of his homecoming and frosty reception, Amy is being employed by the wheelchair bound lady and is sitting in a corner quietly attending to her needlework. After several attempts to ease himself back into his new circumstances, he feels an unwelcome intruder, and his suspicions are aroused by his step-mothers unwillingness to engage in discussion, her abrupt manner and the apparent secretive and conspiratorial relationship between herself and henchman Flintwinch. Clennam is intrigued and impressed by Little Dorrit and after following her home to the Marshalsea, and discovering her situation he begins to wonder if his father’s business is in any way responsible for her father’s insolvency. William Dorrit himself doesn’t reveal the reason for his insolvency or the identity of his creditors and during an attempt to obtain information from the “Circumlocution Office” about his suspicions, Arthur meets Mr Meagles once again, who introduces him to Daniel Doyce an engineer and inventor, with office and workshop in Bleeding Heart Yard, on a mission to patent a device he has invented. Of course both petitioners are thwarted within the divine temple of ignorance and apathy, failures to be repeated several attempts later as the pair have obstacles thrown in their path at every turn. However, Clennam and Doyce get on well together, and are invited to visit the Meagles at their home in Twickenham where the pair become friends and regular visitors. Clennam is very much attracted to Minnie Meagles but she is already involved, much against both parents wishes, in some sort of relationship with loathsome artist Henry Gowan, a distant relation of the aristocratic Barnacles but without their wealth, a partnership doomed to unhappiness and privation. Arthur realises he has no future either with Minnie or in his own family business but he has impressed Doyce with his business acumen, drive and hard working approach, bringing an offer of partnership in his Bleeding Heart Yard enterprise, an alliance which turns out to be very successful. The Meagles however, fare not quite so well, not only do they lose their daughter to a ne’er-do-well but her maid too, when Tattycorum meets the Machiavellian Miss Wade again and comes under her influence. The maid is persuaded to leave her long term kind hearted benefactors who took her in as an orphan, to be the mysterious and malevolent woman’s companion, a decision made in a fit of pique which she may later regret.
At this time Mr Pancks, the rent collector, is engaged in his part time hobby which he calls “fortune telling” in which with the help of his landlord Mr Rugg, a lawyer, he investigates unclaimed legacies to discover their rightful heirs. Surprisingly he is pleased to inform the Dorrits that they are beneficiaries to a small fortune the source of which is not entirely clear, but presumably from a distant relative. This changes things dramatically and the family are released from prison and move to Italy, where William engages Mrs General to educate his daughters with elocution lessons of the “prunes and prisms” variety and the finer points of etiquette, and the family begins to mix in more desirable social circles, which includes the Merdles, the Meagles, the Gowans from time to time, and the less worthy sleazy criminal Blandois who has become a friend and follower of Henry. The new lifestyle suits William, Fanny and Edward down to the ground but both Amy and Frederick find adjusting to a life of ease and leisure more difficult. The sunny climes of Italy and several other considerations causes love to blossom, albeit somewhat in a one sided manner, between Edmund Sparkler and Fanny, Edmund being hopelessly besotted and the social butterfly romantically indifferent but seeing matrimony as an aspirational expedient, besides, part of the attraction would be the prospect of a power struggle with Mrs Merdle for supremacy in the home. As time passes and characters age, William and Frederick Dorrit eventually die abroad and Doyce and Clennam, despite their persistence, eventually despair of the “Circumlocution Office” ever granting them access to obtain the patent they need and Doyce goes abroad to develop his invention there.
Meanwhile back in London things begin to happen quickly when it becomes clear Mr Merdle’s financial empire had been built on hot air and dreams rather than sound collateral, leading to his own downfall and the financial ruin of his clients. Mr Merdle promptly takes his own life and with the breaking news it becomes apparent that William Dorrit’s estate, Mr Panck’s savings and Daniel Doyce’s assets along with Arthur Clennam’s were invested with the now discredited Mr Merdle. The company of Doyce and Clennam, now bankrupt, and the likewise penniless commercial director and manager of the engineering works in Bleeding Heart Yard, Clennnam, being solely responsible for the ruinous financial situation ensuing from the ill fated investments he made must now suffer the consequences. Of course the creditors close in and feeling the utmost guilt and remorse for his friend's losses and the demise of his company, Clennam is thrown into the notorious Marshalsea with which he had become all too familiar with in earlier times.
Languishing in prison Clennam blames himself, takes matters very much to heart and sinking into self reproach and despair, over a period of time becomes weak and ill. Mr Pancks too feels extremely guilty after highly recommending Mr Merdle as a safe pair of hands and cast iron repository for their hard earned assets, and begins to visit the prison on a regular basis. Others rally round too, John Baptiste Cavalletto whom Arthur has befriended since arriving in England, with Mr Meagles offering solace and advice and Mr Rugg legal services, and soon Little Dorrit reappears in London, returning to England to execute the will of father William along with Edward. Fanny already in residence in London with her husband and his mother, has unknowingly played a small part in facilitating the financier’s demise by unwittingly providing the means. Amy now becomes nurse and provider for Arthur and it soon becomes clear to the reader that despite the age difference, his desperate state of health and his inconvenient financial circumstances, that love is in the air, not that Clennam is in any fit state to pick up the all important signals. However Blandois, the evil crimininal has also appeared in London and worrying about his mysterious visits to the family home, Arthur dispatches Cavalletto to find the suspect miscreant and after much effort the villain is discovered and reluctantly brought to Arthur’s cell by his friend, although the subsequent interview is fruitless with little information forthcoming.
Back at Mrs Clennam’s home and business headquarters the long drawn out mystery is starting to unravel, after several visits from Mr Blandois it transpires he is blackmailing the wicked stepmother and with demands unaffordable and deadlines approaching things are coming to a head. Arthur’s great uncle Gilbert Clennam the founder of the family firm was responsible for splitting up the relationship of Arthur’s father and birth mother, a singer of apparently great talent being trained at the music academy run by her patron Frederick Dorrit, arranging his marriage to the stepmother and banishing Arthur’s mother to Antwerp under the care of Ephraim Flintwinch, Jeremiah’s twin brother. Gilbert later came to regret his unjust treatment of the couple and on his deathbed made Arthur’s mother, Frederick Dorrit and Frederick’s youngest daughter large legacies in his will. A codicil in the will made it clear in the event of Frederick having no children that sum would go to William Dorrit’s younger daughter. These documents had been concealed from everyone over the years by Mrs Clennam, but when Arthur was about to return to London after his father’s death the documents were spirited away with Ephraim to Antwerp for safe keeping. Not a very wise decision in view of Ephraim’s alcoholic tendencies making him vulnerable to exploitation at times, and sure enough the worst happens, Blandois takes advantage after a drunken conversation and absconds with the metal box containing the incriminating documents. When he sets out for England to put into action his plan for blackmail he leaves the all important box, as assurance for his own safety, with Miss Wade who is living in Calais at this time.
The deadline for payment has now arrived and Blandois visits Little Dorrit at the Marshalsea and gives her a sealed copy of the documents, with instructions to give them to Arther Clennam if they are not reclaimed before the evening lock down. Blandois then confronts Mrs Clennam with menacing threats and the final demand in her little office where she has been confined in her wheelchair for decades. Of course she can’t raise the sums demanded and in a fit of rage she surprises Jeremiah and Affery by rising from her chair and getting her coat and hat marching out of the house closely followed by Affery, leaving Jeremiah alone with Blandois who is sitting in the window alcove with a menacing and satisfied smile on his face. Mrs Clennam makes her way to the prison where her son is held to reclaim the documents from Amy and the first glance shows they are indeed copies of the documents she has suppressed. She can keep these from public scrutiny but the originals are still with Blandois and her secret is still likely to be exposed. Amy now knows the financial loss she has suffered, and seemingly unconcerned is persuaded to return with Mrs Clennam to confront Blandois in the hope of keeping the knowledge from Arthur. They hurry out of the prison gates through the darkened streets and encounter Affery, worried and out looking for her mistress, when a large explosion rocks the ground beneath them. Turning the corner and almost at the gate they are confronted by a scene of utter devastation that was once Mrs Clennam’s home and the body of Blandois crushed by a fallen beam but no sign of Jeremiah who after secretly liquidating some of the firm’s more important assets had fled to Antwerp with the cash.
With the arch-villain no more, the time has come to find and reclaim the original documents, and without being too specific about the contents Amy consults with Arthur’s friends, Pancks, Cavaletto, Mr Rugg and the Plornishes and is also in contact with Mr Meagles, who is still in Europe, by letter via his daughter Minnie. Mr and Mrs Meagles, no longer comfortable in the company of son-in-law Henry Gowan and probably no longer welcome in his house, set off in search of the place where Blandois may have left the metal box with the documents. Their enquiries at every inn and hostelry on their journey through France prove less than fruitful until in one of his more lucid moments during his illness Arthur indicates that Blandois was known to and has visited Miss Wade at times, who is now living in Calais. Amy sends a message to Mr Meagles in Paris informing him of the likely hiding hiding place and after many enquiries in various neighbourhoods the intrepid amateur sleuth tracks her down to a house in a run-down area of the town. Miss Wade true to her reputation is not very happy to receive visitors, especially the Meagles, apparently Miss Wade had been in love with and had a relationship with Henry Gowan who later rejected her in favour of Minnie Meagles, which to a certain extent explains her bitterness to the human race and to the Meagles in particular. Nevertheless Mr Meagles explains his mission and asks if Blandois has left a metal box containing some documents with her. Of course she denies all knowledge and the Meagles leave empty handed, to return to England to deliver the awful news to Amy. Arriving at the Marshalsea several days later, the Meagles discover Little Dorrit is not at home but are shown to Amy's room by young John Chivery to await her return. When eventually footsteps are heard outside accompanied by a knock at the door they are astonished to be confronted not by Amy but an unexpected but nonetheless very welcome visitor in the form of Tattycoram, AND carrying in her arms a metal box. In an instant the mood is transformed dispelling all despondency from earlier frustrations and disappointments, the orphan girl had been told to make herself scarce but was behind the door during Mr Meagle’s interview with Miss Wade, and disillusioned with her new life took the decision to return to the kind hearted Meagles and re-unite the papers with their rightful owners.
Things are looking up, but there is still the small matter of Arthur’s debts and continuing imprisonment, and as romance blossomed between Amy and the unfortunate debtor, she had offered to pay off his creditors with her inheritance from her father’s estate which Arthur was most reluctant to accept. Unfortunately, the bulk of William Dorrit’s fortune had been invested in the Merdle debacle and had disappeared into the ether with all the other investors cash. The intrepid Mr Meagles steps up once more and sets out to find Daniel Doyce, Arthur’s partner who has been developing his inventions abroad in more welcoming circumstances. Months later Doyce has been found and presents himself with Mr Meagles at the Marshalsea rich and prosperous, the results of his faith in his inventions and his hard work and persistence, but most of all full of compassion and sanguine about the debts in England, he is eager to settle and release Arthur from prison and his feelings of guilt.
All’s well that ends well, Arthur and Amy settle down to married life, surrounded by friends and well wishers, hero and contrite Tattycoram is welcomed back into the fold with open arms by the Meagles and we are left to imagine what becomes of other characters, I do hope that the partnership of Doyce and Clennam continues to thrive and recover from its financial troubles though.
Farthingale Publications:... Is a hobby web site containing articles of local interest to Lancastrians, some favourite walking and cycling routes, selected words and poetry, and some writings of more general nature as well as the authors own picture gallery. Access is available via the homepage and menu at the head of the page.