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Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

Little Dorrit 1857

Engraved illustrated frontispiece and title pageEngraved frontispiece and title pageCharles Dickens. Little Dorrit. With illustrations by H.K. Browne. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1857 [Rare Books Collection PR4562.A11857]

Little Dorrit is unusual among Dickens's novels in having a female character as its main protagonist. Some contemporary readers were initially mystified by the book's title, as she does not appear at the outset.

First page of textFirst page of textThe book is centred upon the Marshalsea prison, where Dickens's own father was incarcerated as a debtor when Dickens was a child. In those days, creditors could call in debts when they chose and debt was punished with imprisonment. Entire families lived inside the prison. In the Dickens family's case, Mrs Dickens joined her husband and brought all the younger children with her. With the breadwinner imprisoned, there was simply nowhere else to go. Dickens himself was living outside and working as a factory boy, but he was able to visit the prison regularly, and dine with his family. He was between 11and 12 years old, crossing London alone.

Illustration depicting William and Frederick Dorrit in the college-yardThe BrothersHis family was fortunate to receive a legacy which cleared all their debts; many poor souls whose circumstances were different, or with implacable creditors, never got out. The Dickens family was afterwards collectively silent about their experience, so contemporary readers did not know that the novelist was writing from his own close personal experience. By presenting the humanity and the predicaments experienced by the inmates of the Marshalsea, Dickens's novel showed the profound inhumanity of the system, reflecting on contemporary matters too.

Illustration depicting a young woman gazing out a windowThe story of the princessDickens wrote much of the early parts of the novel during a stay in France, so he was regarding things in London at a distance. The book was originally published in parts between January 1856 and June 1857, and although it centres on the Marshalsea, there is also a wider critique in its pages of the incompetence of government, rooted in the recent terrible mortality in the Crimean War. The book was originally planned under the title 'Nobody's Fault', but Dickens changed his mind before publication began. The picture of the Circumlocution Office and the arch bureaucrat, the wonderfully named Sir Tite Barnacle, is a bitter satire on the dead hand of government incompetence and bureaucracy and its ill effects on human lives.

Illustration depicting a procession of people with spectators cheering in a yardThe Marshalsea becomes an orphanLittle Dorrit is the daughter of a Marshalsea prisoner. She learns to work as a seamstress, so as to earn money to keep her father and herself. A legacy is discovered by Arthur Clennam to be owed to her father, which releases him from the prison, and the Dorrits go on a European tour, during which William Dorrit dies. The Dorrit fortune is lost in a bank crash, and Clennam now becomes an imprisoned debtor himself. But a series of discoveries bring about the happy union of Clennam and Little Dorrit by the end of the novel.

The book was a bestseller for Dickens, and has remained one of his most popular novels.

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