Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit is arguably Dickens' best novel. Published in serial form between 1855 and 1857, the story centers upon a a timid seamstress named Amy Dorrit. (This is one of the few Dickens books with a girl for a main character!)

Amy Dorrit, better known as Little Dorrit because she is so petite, was born in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. Her father, William Dorrit, was imprisoned for debt shortly before she was born, and she has lived in the prison for all of her twenty-two years. Her mother died when she was born, and her two older siblings--Fanny and Edward ("Tip") are self-centered and irresponsible. So it falls to Amy to take care of her father and provide for him. Her father, though in reduced circumstances, retains his pride and will not ever let anyone think that he is less than a gentleman. Amy works as a seamstress for the elderly Mrs. Clennam, but her father is not aware of this fact. (Or, if he is aware, he refuses to acknowledge it.) Fanny is employed as a dancer in a music hall, and Tip spends his time loafing and gambling.

At the same time, Arthur Clennam is returning from twenty years' work in China with his merchant father, who has just passed away. Before Mr. Clennam died, he handed Arthur a mysterious gold watch with the words Do Not Forget etched into the back, and instructed Arthur to give the watch to his mother. Arthur has no idea what the watch signifies, but he suspects that his father--and the House of Clennam--once did someone a great wrong, and he is determined to put it right.

Meanwhile, in a criminals' prison in Marseilles, France, an evil man named Rigaud has just been released from his cell. He is suspected of murdering his wife, but the court lacked evidence, so he has been acquitted. His little cellmate, Cavalletto, is the only person to whom he admitted his crime. Cavalletto, frightened to death of this man, swears to keep silent.

Arthur returns the watch to his mother, but she refuses to explain its meaning to him. Angered, Arthur leaves the family business, but he takes an interest in the young woman working for his mother: Little Dorrit, the daughter of a Marshalsea prisoner. Could it be possible that Arthur and Amy's families are linked....?

Then, of course, there's Arthur's childhood sweetheart Flora Finching, who hopes to rekindle an old flame. There's the Meagles family, with their spoiled daughter Pet and their put-upon adopted daughter Tattycoram (who is dissatisfied with her life and wants nothing more than to get away). There's Mr. Pancks, the universally disliked rent collector at Bleeding Heart Yard, and his two-faced employer Mr. Casby. There's Daniel Doyce, an aspiring inventor who goes into partnership with Arthur. There's the Circumlocution Office (occupied by the illustrious Tite Barnacle and family), a highly inefficient branch of government that refuses to accept Daniel Doyce's patents.

This two-volume novel teems with subplots, dozens of fascinating characters, and subtle satire on English society in the 1840's. If you're like me, you won't be able to put it down as you follow Amy Dorrit and her family from poverty to riches, through foreign countries, in and out of mysterious dealings with people-who-are-not-as-they-seem, to a happy ending at last. An excellent book--no, a wonderful book! I give it nine stars out of ten, recommended for ages thirteen and up.

You can read Little Dorrit on Project Gutenberg, or find it at your local library. It's a classic, so it's pretty easily available. I own this book, so I'd be happy to lend it to anyone who wishes to borrow it. (And when you finish the book, don't miss the 2008 BBC miniseries based on the novel. It's fantabulous!)