Little Dorrit

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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American Public Radio’s Marketplace program invited me to nominate a business book for summer reading. By happenstance, I had just finished rereading (well Ñ rehearing) Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit and was inspired to select it:

Life, as the signs in the liquor stores say, is too short to drink bad wine. And summer is too short to read bad books. So soak up Charles Dickens’ mid-life masterpiece about wealth, class, business and finance: Little Dorrit.

In Little Dorrit, non-work is the root of all evil. Aristocratic scorn for work, bureaucratic obstruction of work, plain old lazy shirking of work, and the speculative hunger for wealth without work.

At the center of the novel is a great speculation headed by a banker named Merdle, described in the text as the master spirit of the age.

There never was, there never had been, there never again should be such a man as Mr. Merdle. Nobody knew what he had done, but everybody knew him to be the greatest that had appeared.

Dickens offers few details of Merdle’s schemes. Indeed, it’s not clear that Merdle himself ever really understood them. But others convince themselves Ñ for no good reason Ñ that Merdle will make them fabulously rich.

Bred at first, like many epidemics, in the wickedness of men, and then disseminated in their ignorance, this speculative mania gets communicated to many sufferers who are neither ignorant nor wicked.

It all goes bust, of course. Victims furiously blame everyone else for their own cupidity. Only the hero, businessman Arthur Clennam, reacts with integrity.

“If the money I have sacrificed had been all my own … Clennam sighed [to his lawyer, Mr. Rugg], “I should have cared far less.”

“Indeed, sir?” said Mr. Rugg, rubbing his hands with a cheerful air. “You surprise me. That’s singular, sir. I have generally found, in my experience, that it’s their own money people are most particular about. I have seen people get rid of a good deal of other people’s money, and bear it very well. Very well indeed.”

A lot has changed between Charles Dickens’ time and ours. But not that.

Little Dorrit tends to get short shrift in the Dickens catalogue. In part I suppose that is due to its place in the roster, immediately after Bleak House, perhaps Dickens’s most beautifully written book.

Here is the magical opening of Bleak House (1852-53):

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes Ñ gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Compared to that, Little Dorrit‘s opening is banal travelogue:

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.

There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the harbour, or on the beautiful sea without. The line of demarcation between the two colours, black and blue, showed the point which the pure sea would not pass; but it lay as quiet as the abominable pool, with which it never mixed. Boats without awnings were too hot to touch; ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the quays had not cooled, night or day, for months. Hindoos, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese, Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the builders of Babel, come to trade at Marseilles, sought the shade alikeÑtaking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea too intensely blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great flaming jewel of fire.

Little Dorrit suffers also from the insipidity of its title character, one of Dickens’ most insipid young heroines. Dickens is never at his best with young women: He likes them devoted, long-suffering, sexless, devoid of any passion except self-sacrifice. Amy Dorrit is the most timorous and mousy of them all, a perfect little victim. Arthur Clennam falls in love with almost every woman in sight before he finally accepts her one-sided adoration, and you can hardly blame him. At age 24, she is already a figure out of Catskills humor:

“How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Never mind, I’ll sit in the dark.”

Little Dorrit especially disappoints those who regard Dickens as a novelist committed to social reform. Whereas Bleak House savaged the abuses and absurdities of the English Chancery courts Ñ still very much extant in the 1850s Ñ Little Dorrit appears to target a social ill that had largely vanished a generation before, imprisonment for debt. The debtors’ prison in which Amy Dorrit’s father is confined (as Charles Dickens’s father had once been confined) had shut its doors in 1842.

Although it is not unheard of for writers to lavish their indignation on long-vanished evils (Ian McEwan has just published a novel about how awful sex was before the Glorious Revolution of the 1960s), still it does seem rather uncharacteristic of the fiercely topical Dickens.

But in fact Dickens does have a topical subject: the English class system, the main motive behind the tragedy of nonwork I discussed in my Marketplace broadcast. It is the class system that justifies and condones the ethic of nonwork Ñ and that sustains the Dorrit family in its self-destructive delusion that the refusal of all its members except Amy to exert themselves somehow proves their superior distinction.

Throughout Little Dorrit, characters invoke the ideal of gentility as the all-purpose excuse for the worst misconduct.

Dickens’ brilliant satire of government bureaucracy, the Circumlocuation Office, exists to provide sinecures for a vast, incompetent upper-class clan Ñ who then use their power to stifle and thwart innovation and progress.

One of the dependent members of the clan, now living in retirement in a grace and favor apartment at the Hampton Court palace, her reward for a lifetime of battening on others, schemes to marry her worthless son to the beloved daughter of a wealthy man of lowly social origins. Once she succeeds, she then proclaims to the world that it was the father who did the scheming Ñ and the worthless upper-class son-in-law Henry Gowan haughtily refuses all contact with the inlaws who pay his bills.

The character who most often declares himself “a gentleman” is the novel’s greatest villain: a blackmailer, spy, and murderer. He asks his hangers-on: “Have you ever seen me do any work of any kind?” A gentleman may push his wife off a cliff to steal her small inheritance Ñ but of course he must not exert himself in any way to earn a living of his own.

By transferring aristocratic attitudes into the shabby confines of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, Dickens scores some neat satirical points. He makes a moral point too: by stripping away the spurious glamour of aristocratic life, he exposes the viciousness of the beliefs on which that life was founded. And then when he (briefly) raises the Dorrits to a more plausible claim to gentility through an inheritance of their own, he confronts us Ñ and what must have been harder, a mid-19th century audience thoroughly imbued with the aristocratic ideals Dickens scorned Ñ with the question whether the indolence and sense of entitlement that seemed so ludicrous in a bankrupt prisoner grew any less ludicrous when that prisoner through no merit of his own was lofted into temporary wealth.

The characters in the book who behave most consistently decently and honestly are precisely those whom nobody would ever call “gentlemen”: Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, the parents of the girl ensnared by the Gowans; Mr. Doyce, the inventor thwarted by the Barnacles of the Circumlocution Office; and Arthur Clennam, ruined by speculation and redeemed by labor. And of course Little Dorrit herself, who earns Dickens’s highest accolade: She is “useful.” She and Clennam marry, and we are to understand that they live happily ever after.

Although I cannot help thinking that they would have both been happier still if Dickens had allowed Clennam to prevail in his early infatuation with the beautiful and charming Miss Meagles Ñ and instead inflicted Henry Gowan on Little Dorrit, whose appetite for victimhood he would have satisfied far better than Arthur Clennam ever will.

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