Little Dorrit – 1855-1857 – a monthly serialised novel
Little Dorrit was published in instalments from December of 1855 through June of 1857. It was published by Bradbury and Evans, and illustrated by Phiz.
The story is set in the 1820s and the Marshalsea debtors’ prison plays a large part in Little Dorrit.
The novel satirises the establishment that imprisons debtors so they cannot work to release themselves from their debts. Dickens’s father had been sent to Marshalsea for three months for debt.
The tale starts thirty years before and so was c1826 in Marseilles. A notorious murderer, Rigaud, is telling his cellmate, John Baptist Cavalletto, how he had killed his wife.
Arthur Clennam, a 40 year-old businessman, is returning from twenty years in China, He has passed through an area of plague and is placed in quarantine at Marseilles. He becomes friends with fellow quarantined travellers and merchants, Mr and Mrs Meagles. The Meagles have a spoiled daughter ‘Pet’ and a maid known as ‘Tattycoram’, a rebellious orphan actually named Harriet Beadle. Another traveller Miss Wade is showing some interest in their maid.
Arthur has been in China with his father, helping to run the family business. Hs mother had been raised in a strict religious sect and had been shocked when Arthur was found with a girl, it was his mother who sent him to China.
His father, on his deathbed, gave a watch with a message inside, and muttered ‘Your mother’. He dutifully delivers it to his mother, Mrs Clennam, who is today confined to a wheelchair. Inside the watch is some silk worked in beads to state DNF, assumed to mean ‘Do Not Forget’. He asks her what it signifies but she refuses to tell him. He announces his intention to seek new opportunities and to leave the family business.
Meanwhile in London, William Dorrit has been in Marshalsea debtors’ prison for more than twenty years. He is well respected in the prison and assumes the role ‘Father of the Marshalsea’, he acts as if he chose to live there, He has three children Edward, known as Tip, Fanny and Amy. Tip has also been imprisoned for gambling debts.
His youngest, Amy, was born in Marshalsea and is known as ‘Little Dorrit’. Her mother died when Amy was eight. Little Dorrit supports her father with her sewing and is free to leave the prison.
Fanny lives outside the prison with her uncle, Frederick, older than William. Fanny is a dancing girl at the music hall where her uncle plays the clarinet. She has attracted the attention of Edmund Sparkler, he is rich but has little else about him.
Mrs Clennam appoints the Clennam firm’s clerk, Jeremiah Flintwich, as partner in Arthur’s stead. She arranges for him to marry Affery. Jeremy challenges Mrs Clennam as to why she has not told Arthur of the past.
Arthur learns that Mrs Clennam employs Little Dorrit, in an uncharacteristic gesture, and wonders if she might be involved in the mystery of the watch’s message. He follows the girl to the Marshalsea and investigates William Dorrit’s debt at the Circumlocution Office, but achieves no progress.
Rigaud has been released for lack of evidence and seeks out Mrs Clennam, under the name of Blandois. He blackmails her and Flintwich to give him a position with their firm.
Arthur meets and joins up with the inventor Daniel Doyce. He also meets Cavaletto who is injured by a carriage and he helps him get medical care.
Little Dorrit falls in love with Arthur, but he is besotted by Pet Meagles. However, Pet marries the handsome but cruel, Henry Gowan. The Meagles have another setback when Tattycoram runs off to live with Miss Wade.
Arthur becomes reacquainted with Flora Finching, she was the reason that he had been sent to China by his family. She is a widow caring for her husband’s aunt. Her father, Mr Casby, owns many rental properties, and it his rent collector, Mr Pancks, who uncovers that William Dorrit is the lost heir to a fortune. This enables Dorrit to buy himself out of prison, and he sets about removing past reminders. He forbids Little Dorrit from seeing Arthur again.
The Dorrits have to adjust to their new-found wealth and travel Europe, and set up home in Venice. Little Dorrit and Frederick have difficulty adjusting. But Tip and Fanny thoroughly enjoy their new place in society.
Dorrit is concerned that his past will become known, he falls ill and dies, Hiis brother, Frederick, dies the same night, leaving Little Dorrit alone, She moves back to London and lives with Fanny now married to Edmund Sparkler.
Edmund’s father is a banker and financier who prospers from the Dorrits, and becomes very investible for a time. But then the bank collapses. Mr Merdle commits suicide, and the collapse takes with it the Dorrit family wealth, Arthur and his company Doyce and Clennam and Pancks. Arthur is imprisoned in the Marshalsea where he falls ill. Little Dorrit nurses him back to health.
Cavaletto, at Arthur’s request, seeks out Blandois and brings him to the Marshalsea. The tale of Mrs Clennam is revealed.
A rich uncle, Gilbert, had left a complicated bequest to Arthur’s biological mother, despite knowing that he had made Mr Clennam marry a woman of Gilbert’s choice. Mrs Clennam’s religious upbringing notwithstanding, she ostracised Arthur’s real mother and raised him.
Complex codicils meant that Little Dorrit was the beneficiary.
Mrs Clennam failed to tell Little Dorrit, feeling justified by giving her seamstress work. Of course, she also hid the biological mother from Arthur. Worse, when Arthur returned from China, Jeremiah had advised her that he had destroyed the papers. Instead, he had given the papers to his twin brother, who had later given them to Blandois. Blandois gave a copy of the papers to Little Dorrit.
The blackmail of Blandois drives Mrs Clennam to rise from her wheel chair and walk to the Marshalsea where she confesses all to Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit decides not to tell Arthur of his real mother until after Mrs Clennam has died, and not to tell him of her bequest.
On her way back Mrs Clennam collapses and never recovers the use of her limbs, or of her speech. Jeremiah seeing the Clennam company collapsing, gathers up as much cash as he can and escapes London.
Mr Meagles travels to France because Miss Wade has the original papers. She refuses to hand them over. But Tallycoram, who has suffered from the sadistic temperament of Miss Wade, follows Meagles back to London and presents him with the original papers. He passes these to Little Dorrit.
Once recovered, Arthur is preparing to marry Little Dorrit and is urged by her to destroy the papers. Mr Meagles has found Daniel Doyce abroad, he is wealthy and successful and clears all of Arthur’s debts so he can be released from the Marshalsea.
Little Dorrit and Arthur marry.
Clennam, Arthur – a businessman who returns from China
Clennam, Gilbert – the deceased uncle to Arthur
Clennam, Mrs – raised in a sect, she maintains a secret
Dorrit, William – thirty years in the Marshalsea
Dorrit, Frederick – elder brother of William
Dorrit, Amy – the Little Dorrit in the title, the sensible Dorrit
Flintwinch, Jeremiah – clerk to the Clennam business
Rigaud/Blandois/Langnier – a prisoner in Marseilles
Cavalletto, John Baptist – a cellmate of Rigaud
Mr Baptist Cavalletto has seen something
Dorrit, Edward (Tip) – the eldest child of the Dorrits
Dorrit, Fanny – a dancer, she marries Edmund Sparkler
Biological mother of Arthur Clennam – she is never named
Flintwinch, Affery – took care of Arthur before China
Meagles, Mr – a retired banker, who befriends Arthur
Meagles, Minnie or ‘Pet’ – the spoiled child of Meagles
Tattycoram/Harriet Beadle – maid to Pet
Wade, Miss – an aloof lady who ‘steals’ Tattycoram
The ‘investible’ Mr Merdle
Barbary, Mrs Captain
Barnacle, Clarence (Junior)
Barnacle, Lord Decimus
Barnacle, Lady Jemima
Barnacle, Mrs (nee Stiltstalking)
Barnacle, Mr Tite – works at the Circumlocution Department
Barnacle, William – younger brother of Tite
Barronneau, Monsieur Henri
Casby, Christopher – owns property at Bleeding Heart Yard
Chivery, John – is in control of the lock at Marshalsea
Chivery, Young John – son of John, falls for Little Dorrit
Dorrit, Mrs Fanny – married to William, deceased
Doyce, Daniel – an inventor, sets up a business with Arthur
Finching, Flora – her husband dies and she has his aunt’s care
Flintwinch, Ephraim – twin brother to Jeremiah
General, Mrs – widow hired to teach Dorrit’s daughters
Gowan, Henry- artist, remote member of the Barnacle family
Maggy – friend of Little Dorrit
Meagles, Mrs – wife of Meagles
Merdle, Mr – he is considered investible, but fails
Merdle, Mrs – married to Merdle, mother of Edmund Sparkler
Mr F’s Aunt
Nandy, John Edward – father of Mrs Plornish
Pancks – rent collector for Casby
Peddle and Pool
Plornish, Sally – friend to Arthur and John Baptist Cavalletto
Plornish, Thomas – plasterer meets Dorrits in Marshalsea
Rugg, Mr – attorney for Doyce & Clennam and for Pancks
Sparkler, Edmund – dim-witted upper class young man