Little Dorrit

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Little Dorrit
Littledorrit serial cover.jpg
Cover of serial Volume 4, March 1856
Author Charles Dickens
Illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Cover artistHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
PublishedSerial December 1855 – June 1857;
Book 1857
Publisher Bradbury and Evans
Media typePrint
Preceded by Hard Times  
Followed by A Tale of Two Cities  

Little Dorrit is a novel by Charles Dickens, originally published in serial form between 1855 and 1857. The story features Amy Dorrit, youngest child of her family, born and raised in the Marshalsea prison for debtors in London. Arthur Clennam encounters her after returning home from a 20-year absence, ready to begin his life anew.


The novel satirises some shortcomings of both government and society, including the institution of debtors' prisons, where debtors were imprisoned, unable to work and yet incarcerated until they had repaid their debts. The prison in this case is the Marshalsea, where Dickens's own father had been imprisoned. Dickens is also critical of the impotent bureaucracy of the British government, in this novel in the form of the fictional "Circumlocution Office". Dickens also satirises the stratification of society that results from the British class system.

Plot summary


The novel begins in Marseilles "thirty years ago" (c. 1826), with the notorious murderer Rigaud narrating to his prison cellmate John Baptist Cavalletto how he had killed his wife, just prior to being taken to trial. Businessman Arthur Clennam is detained with other travelers in quarantine in Marseilles and becomes friends with the merchants Mr. and Mrs Meagles, their spoiled daughter "Pet", and their maid, an orphan named Harriet Beadle, who the family has nicknamed Tattycoram. Another traveler, Miss Wade, takes an interest in the rebellious Tattycoram. Arthur has spent the last twenty years in China with his father, handling that part of the family business; his father died recently there. Arthur is now returning to London to see his mother, Mrs Clennam.

Mr Flintwinch has a mild attack of irritability Little Dorrit - Mr Flintwinch has a mild attack of irritability.jpg
Mr Flintwinch has a mild attack of irritability

While Arthur's father was on his deathbed, he gave Arthur a watch to give to his mother with a message inside, murmuring "Your mother," which Arthur delivers to Mrs Clennam. Inside the watch casing is an old silk paper with the initials DNF (do not forget) worked in beads. Arthur asks about the message, but the implacable Mrs Clennam, who now uses a wheelchair, refuses to tell him what it means. Arthur tells her that he will not continue in the family business and seeks new opportunity on his own. Jeremiah Flintwinch then presses Mrs Clennam on her failure to tell Arthur of the past.

In London, William Dorrit, imprisoned as a debtor, has been a resident of Marshalsea debtors' prison for over twenty years. He has three children: Edward (known as Tip), Fanny and Amy. The youngest daughter, Amy, was born in the prison and is affectionately known as Little Dorrit. Their mother died when Amy was eight years old. Tip has recently been imprisoned for his own gambling debts and the ambitious Fanny lives outside the prison with William's older brother Frederick. She works as a dancing girl in the musical hall where Frederick plays the clarinet and has attracted the attention of the wealthy but insipid Edmund Sparkler. Little Dorrit, devoted to her father, supports them both through her sewing and is free to pass in and out of the prison. To the honour of her father, who is embarrassed to acknowledge his financial position, Little Dorrit avoids mentioning her work outside the prison or his inability to leave. Mr Dorrit assumes the role of Father of the Marshalsea, and is held in great respect by its inhabitants, as if he had chosen to live there.

After Arthur tells his mother that he will not continue in the family business, Mrs Clennam chooses her clerk Jeremiah Flintwinch as her partner. When Arthur learns that Mrs Clennam employs Little Dorrit as a seamstress, showing unusual kindness, he wonders whether the young girl might be connected with the mystery of the watch. Arthur follows the girl to the Marshalsea. He tries in vain to enquire about William Dorrit's debt in the Circumlocution Office, assuming the role of benefactor towards Little Dorrit, her father, and her brother, but is unable to make any progress. Meanwhile, Rigaud, who has been released for lack of evidence, approaches Mrs Clennam under the name Blandois, and blackmails her and Flintwhich into giving him a place in her business.

While at the Circumlocution Office Arthur meets the successful inventor Daniel Doyce. Doyce wants a partner and man of business at his factory and Arthur agrees to fill that role. Arthur encounters Cavalletto, when he is injured by a carriage in London, and aids him in getting medical care. Cavaletto lives in hopes of never again seeing Blandois. Little Dorrit falls in love with Arthur, but Arthur fails to recognise Little Dorrit's feelings. He is infatuated with Pet Meagles, but is disappointed when she marries the handsome but cruel artist Henry Gowan. Shortly after Pet's wedding, the Meagles family suffers a blow when Tattycoram runs away to live with Miss Wade.

Arthur becomes reacquainted with his former fiancée Flora Finching, the reason he was sent away to China, who is now a widow and who takes care of the aunt of her late husband. Her father Mr Casby owns many rental properties, and his rent collector, Mr Pancks, takes the brunt of the dirty work of collecting Casby's inflated rents. The indefatigable Pancks discovers that William Dorrit is the lost heir to a large fortune, enabling him to pay his way out of prison, altering the status of the entire family. Dorrit, restored to wealth, immediately shuns all reminders of his past, and forbids a heartbroken Little Dorrit from seeing Arthur again.


The now wealthy Dorrits decide that they should tour Europe as a newly respectable rich family. They travel over the Alps and take up residence for a time in Venice, and finally in Rome, displaying pride over their new-found wealth and position, unwilling to tell their past to new friends. Little Dorrit finds it difficult to adjust to their wealth and new social position, but only her uncle Frederick shares her feelings. Fanny and Tip adjust rapidly to the ways of society, as does Mr Dorrit, yet he fears that someone will discover the truth of his past spent in the Marshalsea, a story he would rather remains in the past. In Rome, at a party, Mr Dorrit falls ill, and dies at their lodgings. His distraught brother Frederick dies that same night. Little Dorrit, left alone, returns to London to stay with newly married Fanny and her husband, the dim-witted Edmund Sparkler. Meanwhile, Blandois disappears and Mrs Clennam is suspected of his murder.

The Financial collapse

Engraving of "Little Dorrit", 1856 Little Dorrit avatar 1856.jpg
Engraving of "Little Dorrit", 1856

The financial house of Merdle, Edmund Sparkler's stepfather, ends with Merdle's suicide; the collapse of his bank and investment businesses takes with it the savings of the Dorrits, the firm of Doyce and Clennam, Arthur Clennam, and Pancks. Pancks feels enormous guilt for persuading Clennam that the financial man of the hour, Merdle, was an investment, not speculation as Clennam judges. Ashamed and unable to pay the business debts, Clennam is now imprisoned in the Marshalsea, where he becomes ill. When Little Dorrit arrives in London, she slowly nurses him back to health.

Cavalletto tracks down Blandois at the request of Arthur, and brings him to Arthur at the Marshalsea. The truth of Mrs Clennam's past is revealed by Blandois and confirmed by Jeremiah when both are with Mrs Clennam at her house on the appointed day one week after the meeting in the Marshalsea. Her marriage was arranged by her parents and his uncle, though Clennam's uncle Gilbert knew his nephew had already married. Mrs Clennam had insisted on bringing up little Arthur and denying his biological mother, his father's first wife, the right to see him. Mrs Clennam feels this is her right to punish others, under the guise of her religion. She was hurt and used her power to hurt others.

Arthur's biological mother died about the same time as Arthur went off to China; in her younger life, she joined a house of artistic people in London. Mr Clennam's wealthy uncle Gilbert, stung by remorse, had left a bequest to Arthur's biological mother and to the youngest daughter of her patron, or if no daughter, the youngest child of his brother, while Arthur was away in China with his father. The patron was Frederick Dorrit, the kind musician who had taught and befriended Arthur's biological mother, and the beneficiary is his niece, Amy Dorrit. After prodding Mrs Clennam to tell the truth, which she refuses to do, Jeremiah gave the papers with this codicil to the uncle's will to his twin brother, the night that Arthur arrived home, while telling Mrs Clennam that he had burned the papers on the next day.

Blandois left a copy of the papers he obtained from Jeremiah's brother at the Marshalsea for Little Dorrit.

Mrs Clennam fails to tell Little Dorrit of her inheritance or give it to her, though she hires her for seamstress work, and she fails to tell Arthur about his biological mother, though Arthur had sensed that his father had some past burden on his mind even as he died. Unwilling to yield to blackmail by Blandois and with some remorse, the rigid woman rises from her chair and totters out of her house to reveal the secrets to Little Dorrit at the Marshalsea. Mrs Clennam begs her forgiveness, which the kind-hearted girl freely grants. Returning to home, Mrs Clennam falls in the street, never to recover the use of her speech or limbs, as the house of Clennam literally collapses before her eyes, killing Blandois. Affery was outdoors seeking her mistress, and Jeremiah had escaped London before the collapse with as much money as he could find. Rather than hurt him, Little Dorrit chooses not to reveal the will that was meant to benefit her to Arthur, but will tell him about his parents after his mother dies.

Mr Meagles seeks the original papers, stopping in France to ask Miss Wade. She has them but denies it. Tattycoram, who has suffered under Miss Wade's sadistic temperament, follows Meagles back to London with the papers and presents them to him. He gives them to Little Dorrit. When Arthur is well and they are about to marry, Little Dorrit asks him to burn the papers. Mr Meagles then seeks out Arthur's business partner Daniel Doyce from abroad. Doyce returns a wealthy and successful man, who arranges to clear all debts for Arthur's release. Arthur is released from the prison with his fortunes revived, his position secure with Doyce, and his health restored. Arthur and Little Dorrit marry.


Little Dorrit contains numerous sub-plots. One concerns Arthur Clennam's friends, the kind-hearted Meagles family, who are upset when their daughter Pet marries the artist Henry Gowan, and when their servant and foster daughter Tattycoram is lured away from them to the sinister Miss Wade, an acquaintance of the criminal Rigaud. Miss Wade is ruled by her anger, and she was a jilted sweetheart of Gowan. Another subplot concerns the Italian man John Baptist Cavalletto who was the cellmate of Rigaud in Marseilles, though jailed for a minor crime. He makes his way to London, meets up by chance with Clennam, who stands security for him as he builds up his business in wood carving and gains acceptance among the residents of Bleeding Heart Yard. Cavalletto repays this aid by searching for Blandois/Rigaud when Arthur wants him found. This action brings about the revelation of the secrets kept by Mrs Clennam.

The other major subplot is the satire of British bureaucracy, named as the Circumlocution Office, where the expertise is how not to do it.


Development of the novel

The character Little Dorrit (Amy) was inspired by Mary Ann Cooper (née Mitton), whom Dickens sometimes visited along with her family, and called by that name. [1] They lived in The Cedars, a house on Hatton Road west of London; its site is now under the east end of London Heathrow Airport. [2] This model for Little Dorrit, and the development of the plot, is contested by others.[ citation needed ]

Significance and reception

Like much of Dickens's later fiction, this novel has seen many reversals of critical fortune. It has been shown to be a critique of HM Treasury and the blunders that led to the loss of life of 360 British soldiers at the Battle of Balaclava. [3] Imprisonment – both literal and figurative – is a major theme of the novel, with Clennam and the Meagles quarantined in Marseilles, Rigaud jailed for murder, Mrs Clennam confined to her house, the Dorrits imprisoned in the Marshalsea, and most of the characters trapped within the rigidly defined English social class structure of the time.

Tchaikovsky, a voracious reader and theatre-goer when he was not composing, was entranced by the book. [4]

Franz Kafka, a great admirer of Dickens, sent a copy to Felice Bauer. " Yesterday I sent you Little Dorrit. You know it well. How could we forget Dickens. It's probably not a good read in its entirety with the children, but parts of it will certainly give you and them great pleasure." [5]

The American critic Anne Stevenson speaks of Little Dorrit as "a wonderful read – a tragical-comical-satirical-poetical mystery story that turns out to be an allegory of love. She praises the characterization of the "major characters" (Arthur Clenham, Mr Dorrit, Little Dorrit), but sees others as "a cast of puppets that the master showman can't help but tag with formulaic phrases … Each character's name is a guide to the entertainment to be expected: the energetic Mr Pancks invariably rakes his hair upright and steams about like a tugboat; Mr Sparkler rants about "damn fine women with no nonsense about them"; Mr Flintwinch, with his wry neck and crooked necktie, perpetually screws himself into sinister corners." [6]

Publication history

Little Dorrit was published in 19 monthly instalments, each consisting of 32 pages with two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne whose pen name was Phiz. Each instalment cost a shilling except for the last, a double issue which cost two shillings.

Book One – Poverty
Book Two – Riches

The novel was then issued as a book by Bradbury and Evans in 1857.


Little Dorrit has been adapted for the screen five times, the first three in 1913, 1920, and 1934. The 1934 German adaptation, Kleine Dorrit, starred Anny Ondra as Little Dorrit and Mathias Wieman as Arthur Clennam. It was directed by Karel Lamač. [7] The fourth adaptation, in 1987, was a UK feature film of the same title as the novel, directed by Christine Edzard and starring Alec Guinness as William Dorrit and Derek Jacobi as Arthur Clennam, supported by a cast of over 300 British actors.

The fifth adaptation was a TV series co-produced by the BBC and WGBH Boston, written by Andrew Davies and featuring Claire Foy (as Little Dorrit), Andy Serkis (as Rigaud/Blandois), Matthew Macfadyen (as Arthur Clennam), Tom Courtenay (as William Dorrit), Judy Parfitt (as Mrs Clennam), and Alun Armstrong (as Jeremiah/Ephraim Flintwinch). The series aired between October and December 2008 in the UK, in the USA on PBS's Masterpiece in April 2009, and in Australia, on ABC1 TV, in June and July 2010.

In 2001 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation of five hour-long episodes, starring Sir Ian McKellen as the narrator. [8]

Little Dorrit forms the backdrop to Peter Ackroyd's debut novel, The Great Fire of London (1982).

Dickens's story provided inspiration for the web comic The Adventures of Dorrit Little by artist Monica McKelvey Johnson. [9]

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  1. "Dickens's "Little Dorrit" Still Alive" (PDF). The New York Times. 16 December 1906. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 April 2021. Retrieved 14 December 2018.
  2. Sherwood, Philip (2009). Heathrow: 2000 Years of History. Stroud: The History Press. p. 52. ISBN   978-0-7509-5086-2. Archived from the original on 1 April 2021. Retrieved 24 May 2018.
  3. Philpotts, Trey (1993). "Trevelyan, Treasury, and Circumlocution". Dickens Studies Annual. 22: 283–302.
  4. Brown, David (22 December 2010). Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN   978-0571260935.
  5. "Kafka Correspondence: Postcard to Felice Bauer 20.12.1916". University of Vienna homepage (in German). 17 April 2009. Retrieved 18 July 2022.
  6. Stevenson, Anne (31 December 2004). "Glorious ironies". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 18 April 2018. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  7. Dorrit, Klein (19 October 1935). "Movie Review at the 79th Street Theatre" . The New York Times. Archived from the original on 1 April 2021. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  8. "Little Dorrit". BBC Media Centre. 28 October 2013 [2001]. Archived from the original on 25 September 2015. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  9. Johnson, Monica (2014). "The Adventures of Dorrit Little". Women's Studies Quarterly. 42 (1/2): 95–108. doi:10.1353/wsq.2014.0003. JSTOR   24364911. S2CID   85212148.

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