We just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.
You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.
Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.
Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.
Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.
Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.
Dickens, writing in the 19th century, wrote like his contemporaries: action is often secondary to character, and events are described without the sort of action we expect from those paperback thrillers we all love. He is more measured, paced, thoughtful – more Le Carre than Ken Follett. Which for our modern sensibilities is too damned slow and ponderous.
Which is why a BBC series like this is a perfect way to introduce modern readers to the richness of Dickens, without boring them with the necessity of reading nearly 1,000 pages (the Penguin edition of Little Dorrit weighs in at 912 pages, including introduction and notes. And you need both to fully understand what Dickens is referring to, just like we need them for Shakespeare and Chaucer).
Dickens’ world is oddly similar to our own, yet so very far away. Little Dorrit was published in 1857, on the doorstep to the industrial revolution. Its successive waves of social change are on every page of his works, but few are as pointed in their criticism. Our modern world still reverberates with shocks and aftershocks of social change due to technological innovation which have created conditions as grim and bleak as anything in Dickens’ era. The cotton mills of 19th century England are not far from today’s garment sweatshops in Bangladesh.
According to this story, Little Dorrit is actually inspired by the plight of Caroline Thompson:
Had Charles Dickens told the true story of Little Dorrit – a pretty, gentle mother in her early 30s, who had been abandoned by her common-law husband and had turned to prostitution to provide for her two-year-old daughter – he would have scandalised his middle-class readers. But Dickens was so moved by Caroline Thompson’s plight, not only did he base the lead character of his sombre, complex novel Little Dorrit on her, he also did everything in his power to help the young woman return to a life of respectability… ‘There can never have been much evil in her, apart from the early circumstances, that directed her steps the wrong way. I cannot get the picture of her out of my head,’ he wrote, after their first encounter.
Wonderful thing, the internet. Lets you find this sort of stuff. My Penguin edition has a good intro, but there’s more to learn online, more to provide the stuff of discussion and contemplation about this and other literary works.
Little Dorrit is crammed with characters whose seemingly unconnected lives come together in often surprising ways, and who grow and develop within the story. What often seems a digression eventually becomes a thread woven into a larger tapestry. The BBC drama does a wonderful job of telling the story and portraying the characters and their connections to one another.
You can watch the whole thing on Youtube. Here’s episode one:
It’s worth your time to see it, all of it. And, of course, read the book. I admit to not having read as much Dickens as I ought to. Perhaps this is my time to start reading the rest.