Monday, 9 July 2012

LITTLE DORRIT – Charles Dickens, 1857

Aged 18, I felt I knew all there was to know about literature. I knew I loved the work of Thomas Hardy and Byron. I had read The Wind in the Willows and The Water Babies. I loved Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I had also read the entire output of Danielle Steele and Virginia Andrews but that is another story and one which I will put down to experience. But then again, I do believe, there is a possibility that Byron would have endorsed Mills and Boon if they had been around to publish Childe Harold in 1812. (Whether the serving girls at Newstead Abbey would have enjoyed their output as much is open to question.)

But when it was time to choose my A’ level English course, I thought that the way forward was to pick The Modernists and avidly swotted up on To the Lighthouse, A Passage to India and The Wasteland. But only one other person chose the same course (Julia, my friend to this day) so we all had to study The Classics.
The downside of this at the time, which I felt most acutely, was the enforced study of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. I hated Dickens but I had to study him, when I could have studied Woolf.  Only the villain of the piece seemed to make up for it. I think I was the only one in the class who found Rigaud attractive but that only made me like him more.
Now that I am rediscovering Dickens, I naturally thought that Little Dorrit would be worth revisiting. I do remember thinking, though, that the title character was too good to be true and nothing changed on this re-reading, after a gap of 25 years. When Dickens portrays this unfortunate child he can’t help making her into a saint, which is, I still think, the book’s main failing.

But I was keen to relive my infatuation with Rigaud:  He was a villain; so far so good. He had a large moustache; it didn’t put me off Nick Cave when he grew one, so I could overlook this. He was a bully and a murderer; all villains are supposed to be bad, that’s why we love them in our fantasy worlds. But then he poisoned the dog. He poisoned a dog! How did I not remember this? Did I skim that chapter, 25 years ago, in my haste to finish the book and move on to Paradise Lost before the exams? Or did I just choose to ignore it?
I met Julia for lunch in Nottingham the other day and I told her I was re-acquainting myself with the novel and my late-teen ‘pash’. She could never understand what I saw in him. She had also re-read the book more recently and seen the BBC adaptation and enjoyed both. She was keen to know whether He would live up to my teenage memory. I was soon texting her to say that He did. But then came the moment when he poisoned the dog.  And it all changed!

I have read many reviews of Little Dorrit. They all talk about the ‘prison’ metaphor and the great over-arching imagery of the Circumlocution Office. I think that the Circumlocution Office is a perfect example of Dickens’ overindulgence. For example, Marley was dead; those three words say it all in A Christmas Carol. Then Dickens goes on to repeat and exemplify, though it is all so unnecessary.  An image which Forster could conjure up in 40 words would take Dickens 140.
My greater respect for Dickens, slowly nurtured over the years, was brought to fruition recently when I read A Tale of Two Cities. Therefore, I held out great hope for Little Dorrit.

So…the heroine is still too good to be true but now the villain, so full of promise, is sadly, found to be irredeemable. I should, therefore, hate it. Actually, I loved it. Arthur Clennam: so sturdy, so cold, so boring? Yes, maybe, but a fascinating character this time round. It helped, I suppose, that I knew what to look out for, plot-wise. I knew that there was some significance in the watch which Arthur’s father was so concerned about.
Our English teacher back then was almost as fond of Little Dorrit as he as was of his own voice. He would read large passages out loud but he also gave us copious notes, which I can still visualise to this day. I knew, therefore, that Clennam was predestined to have some influence over Amy’s future.

I will read this book again but with such different expectations. And Rigaud, sadly, is lost to me forever. (Unless he comes back in a sequel and explains away the death of the dog and swears undying love for me and whisks me of to Venice.)

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