It’s hard to believe that this is the sixth Dickens novel* I’ve read. I do like Dickens. His characters are so memorable. While reading this book, I kept thinking back fondly to all the wonderful Dickens characters I’ve enjoyed in the past: Tommy Traddles, Mr. Micawber, Mr. Gradgrind, Miss Havisham, Dora Spenlow, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Jarndyce, Richard Summerstone, Uriah Heep. They’re a wonderful bunch. However, there is something daunting about the length of his novels. This is one of the longer ones (about 300,000 words), and it’s not something that I ever would’ve read except that I had it on my Kindle and sort of browsed through the first few pages and then, before I knew it, I was like 30,000 words in.
This novel is one of Dickens’ few historical novels. It’s set about thirty years before the time of writing (1855), which was a necessity, because he wanted to write about a very specific debtor’s prison–the one where his father had been incarcerated–but it had closed back in 1842. It must be sooooo annoying when you’ve got a wonderful Dickensian setting all lined up to serve as the centrepiece of a book, and then, poof, it disappears.
The plot centers around a family who’ve lived in the Marshalsea for twenty years or so. I’m not going to go too far into the plot. Like most Dickens novels, the plot is ludicrous and full of gaping plot holes. But it’s fun to watch everyone run around and be funny and get all tormented. The novel actually switches it up hugely right in the middle (spoiler, although this hardly feels like a secret) when the family suddenly is elevated to massive wealth and leaves the prison and starts hobnobbing with high society.
I feel like I started to enjoy Dickens much more once I realized four things: i) the first few chapters of each book are usually terrible, since he hasn’t hit his stride yet; ii) there will be boring parts; iii) it’s okay to be bored by the boring parts…in fact, it’s even better if you can learn to recognize which parts are boring, since they’re usually signaled by the introduction of a character; and iv) it’s totally acceptable to just skim the boring parts.
For me, the boring parts in Little Dorrit were always the ones with Miss Affery, this insipid and perpetually terrified maid character, and the ones with Flora Finching, the rambling former lover of one of the main characters. Flora is actually fairly funny as long as you realize that her dialogues are meant to be pointless rambles (and thus, you just read the first and last line of each of her speeches). On the other hand, there were some fantastic characters who I never skimmed, like the penurious father, with all his pretensions and silliness, or Mrs. General (the tutor who is hired to teach the daughters of the formerly-imprisoned family) or the mentally handicapped woman, Maggy, who regards the titular character (Little Dorrit) as a sort of mother, or the sister, Fanny, who marries a man, in part, because she hates his mother so much that she wants to destroy the woman’s life by marrying her son or the pair of Mr. Pancks and Mr. Casby (the latter is a slumlord and the former is his bill collector; the latter is beloved by the tenants while the former is hated; the latter is, in reality, quite kindly, while the latter is greedy and without any empathy for the people he squeezed).
I actually could go on and on and on. There are some brilliant characters in this one. Actually, I view Dickens as a bit of an example. For most of this year, I’ve been trying to make my writing a bit funnier. In my personal life and in my nonfiction writing, I’m fairly funny, but my fiction is so serious. Dickens is one writer who managed to have it every possible way: he wrote about serious topics and reached for serious emotions, but he did so with hilarious out-sized characters. In this, I’d say that he also avoided the other major fault of the humorist, which is a kind of blackness or coldness. For instance, Donald Barthelme is funny, too, but you don’t get the sense that he has any empathy for his characters.
However, I will say that sometimes the emotional moments in Dickens fall a bit flat sometimes, because his plot and characters are a bit toooo melodramatic. But that’s an argument for another day.
Anyways, so, yes….this was a good experience. It’s another of those books that it’s hard to precisely recommend, since it’s certainly not for anyone. There were times, while I was reading it, when I thought, “Please god, when will this end?” But now I look back on it with fondness. Part of me wants to start reading another Dickens novel right now. I’m thinking maybe Tale of Two Cities? But I guess that’ll have to wait.
*The others were: Bleak House; David Copperfield; Oliver Twist; Hard Times; Great Expectations