|Illustrator||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Cover artist||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Published||Serial December 1855 – June 1857;|
|Publisher||Bradbury and Evans|
|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’ 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.
The novel begins in Marseilles "thirty years ago" (c. 1826), with the notorious murderer Rigaud telling his prison cellmate John Baptist Cavalletto how he killed his wife, just prior to being released from prison. Arthur Clennam is detained with other travellers in quarantine in Marseilles and becomes friends with some, including Mr Meagles, his wife, daughter "Pet", and her maid (Tattycoram), as well as Miss Wade. 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.
While Arthur's father was on his deathbed, he had given Arthur a watch to give to his mother with a message inside, while murmuring "Your mother," which Arthur mails 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. The two become estranged.
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, 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. Fanny lives outside the prison with William's older brother, Frederick. The adult children are free to pass in and out of the prison as they please. Little Dorrit, devoted to her father, supports them both through her sewing. 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. While at the Circumlocution Office he meets the successful inventor Daniel Doyce. Doyce wants a partner and man of business at his factory and Clennam agrees to fill that role. Little Dorrit falls in love with Arthur, but Arthur fails to recognise Little Dorrit's feelings.
Arthur is reacquainted with his former fiancée Flora Finching, the reason he was sent away to China, who is now an unattractive widow, and accompanied by the aunt of her late husband. Her father Mr Casby owns many rental properties, and his rent collector is Mr Pancks. 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.
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, and slowly comes to appreciate the new places and new sights. Fanny adjusts rapidly to the ways of society, and is sought by the same young man, Edmund Sparkler, who pursued her in her poverty in London, but with a new start that is acceptable to his mother. 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.
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. 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 finds the villain Rigaud hiding in London as Blandois, and brings him to Arthur Clennam. Held in the prison, he sends this undesirable man to his mother, who has advertised to find him. As Blandois he tries to blackmail Mrs Clennam with his full knowledge of her past. Mrs Clennam had insisted on bringing up little Arthur and denying his biological mother the right to see him. Mrs Clennam feels this is her right to punish others, because they hurt her. Arthur's biological mother died about the same time as Arthur went off to China, but lived out of England with Flintwinch's twin brother. Mr Clennam's wealthy uncle, 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. 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. Blandois left a copy of the papers he obtained from Jeremiah's brother at the Marshalsea for Little Dorrit.
Mrs Clennam knows of this inheritance and fails to tell Little Dorrit, or to tell Arthur about his biological mother. Unwilling to yield to blackmail and with some remorse, the rigid woman rises from her chair and totters out of her house to reveal the secret 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 Rigaud. 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 any of this to Arthur; when he is well, she asks him to burn the papers.
Mr Meagles seeks the original papers, stopping to ask Miss Wade. She has them but denies it; Tattycoram slips back to London with the papers and presents them to Mr Meagles, who gives them to Little Dorrit. Mr Meagles then seeks out Arthur's business partner Daniel Doyce from abroad. He 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.
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. 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. This model for Little Dorrit, and the development of the plot, is contested by others.
Like much of Dickens' 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. 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.
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."
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.
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. 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.
Little Dorrit forms the backdrop to Peter Ackroyd's debut novel, The Great Fire of London (1982).
Dickens' story provided inspiration for the web comic The Adventures of Dorrit Little by artist Monica McKelvey Johnson.