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Thursday, 13 December 2012

Book Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Although it doesn't have the depth of Bleak House (reviewed earlier in the year here), Little Dorrit has an array of characters and subplots that are enough to make your head whirl if you let them. The title character is a young woman who was born in the Marshalsea prison and has lived her life there - with certain excursions outside of the walls to make money for her family. When, eventually, her life changes beyond belief she finds herself whisked away from not only the home she knew but the man she's come to love - Arthur Clennam.

Little Dorrit contains an impressive collection of truly Dickensian characters. For instance, there's Flora, Arthur's childhood sweetheart, who has been married and widowed and now comes complete with 'Mr F's Aunt', a batty woman who announces random things and has taken quite a dislike to Arthur for no tangible reason. Flora reminds me irresistibly of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma (reviewed here) - you feel like you need a sit down after all of her appearances as she rabbits on and confuses even the most attentive reader. Other stand-out characters include the grotesque Mr Flintwinch, Arthur's mother's business partner, and the excellent Mr Pancks, a man who has been content to do 'difficult' work all his life because that's just what life is but the worm eventually turns. I have to admit, I was actually cheering when it happened. Such a Victorian 'comeuppance' but satisfying to the reader nonetheless.

On occasion, the subplots of this novel become a little blurred and take up too much time. That's a pitfall of serial publication but Dickens's prose style kept me interested throughout. Of particular amusement were the descriptions of the Circumlocution Office - a timely reminder that bureaucracy is a needless waste of resources and we'd be well advised to take the same lesson from that satirical depiction as the Victorians were encouraged to. As with most Dickens novels, the parallels between his era and ours are startling but they do focus on enduring human characteristics: people will cheat, manipulate, have a change of fortune, become jealous, fall in love and hide it for all eternity and perhaps it is those qualities which make Little Dorrit as readable today as it was in the 1850s. Add to the characterisation and plot the amusing depictions of London and, most poignantly, the depictions of the Marshalsea and you have an excellent book on your hands. This wouldn't make a good introduction to Dickens for those who haven't read any of his work before but it's certainly a good addition to the canon.

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