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Tony Grist

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Little Dorrit [Jul. 10th, 2005|10:20 am]
Tony Grist
Little Dorrit is Dickens's best book.

It's the one in which he finally worked out how to structure a very big novel.

It's not as (fitfully) brilliant as Bleak House. But neither is it such a mess. In fact it's not a mess at all.

The centre holds. Amy Dorrit is the most convincing of Dickens's angelic child women. He is beginning here to see more deeply into the psychology of self-sacrifice- to get a whiff of its pathology, and his questioning (which is also a self-questioning) gives her depth. She is a very needy person, very repressed. Her growing relationship with the equally needy and repressed Arthur Clennam is delicately painted and not without a muted and all but strangled-at-birth eroticism.

It is a novel of disillusion. Everyone is in manacles- real or "mind-forged" and the old Dickensian nostrums of kindliness and good cheer are very nearly not enough. Victories are allowed, but they are small private victories and the gloom of the prison house is never lifted. Only Great Expectations among Dickens's other novels is as honest and unremitting and adult in its vision. The hero and heroine are given a moment in the sun, and then at the close "go down" to "a modest life of happiness and usefulness". "Go down"- Dickens repeats the phrase to be make sure we catch on- is what condemned prisoners do.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: tx_cronopio
2005-07-10 03:38 am (UTC)
Hmmm, maybe I should give it a try. I decided years ago that it was OK that I loathed Dickens, but I'd like not to. You make this sound interesting.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 05:12 am (UTC)
I've always loved Dickens. I think he's the only English writer who can be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare.

I'd be curious to know what is is about him you hate.
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[User Picture]From: tx_cronopio
2005-07-10 05:15 am (UTC)
Hmmm. It's been years, but I found him very formulaic. Cardboard characters. I could be wrong.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 05:25 am (UTC)
Yeah, he's got his mannerisms- but they're HIS mannerisms. He wrote his own rule book.

I'll agree that the characters- the comic characters anyway- are flat. They don't show development. At the same time they're immensely alive in their cartoony way.

In the later novels- starting I suppose with David Copperfield- he begins to add in an element of psychological and emotional realism. He also begins to orchestrate his novels and build them into huge symbolic structures. The BIG novels- Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend- are hugely ambitious. Of course he's full of faults, but there's no-one else in Eng Lit at once so grand and so funny.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 05:15 am (UTC)
Dickens is one of the few novelists I can be bothered to re-read.

Chesterton said that Dickens didn't really have masterpieces- all the novels were like lengths cut from the same log. There's truth in that, but it rather overlooks the way Dickens matured and developed as a writer. I think Little Dorrit shows him at his peak.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 07:26 am (UTC)
Chesterton was a huge fan of Dickens. His book on Dickens is excellent criticism. The thing is he tends to value the early Dickens- the Dickens of Pickwick- over the later Dickens. It was all tied up with his own (slightly bogus) philosophy of cheeriness.

The metaphor of the log is about texture rather than length. He was arguing that Dickens is the same all the way through- from Boz to Drood- and that characters from one novel could easily turn up in another without the reader being startled. Actually I think the same could be said of any novelist and it's no more true or untrue of Dickens than anyone else.

It also disregards the very important ways in which something like Little Dorrit differs, in mood, structure and maturity from something like Oliver Twist.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 08:12 am (UTC)
But critics of Chesterton's generation DID prefer early Dickens. It was only later on- with people like Edmund Wilson- that Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend came into their own.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 01:31 pm (UTC)
I think it's got something to do with audience expectations. Dickens scored a huge Harry Potter-sized hit with Pickwick and people wanted more of the same. They felt short changed by the later movels with their symbolism and gloom. They were hoping for mail-coaches and Sam Weller's cockney wit and what they got was the Marshalsea prison.

It was only when a later generation was able to contemplate the entire oeuvre out of sequence that the idea gained ground that the later novels might actually be better.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 07:31 am (UTC)
I know what you mean. Hard Times took Dickens away from his "manor" and into a world he didn't fully understand- the industrial north of England. It feels forced and- compared to the novels on either side of it- Bleak House and Little Dorrit- over-simplified in its social analysis.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-10 08:06 am (UTC)
He he he.

I find it very hard to like anything I've ever had to study academically. Hard Times was a set book somewhere along the line, so it's come out as my least favourite Dickens novel. All the rest I read for pleasure.

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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-07-10 12:13 pm (UTC)
This sounds like blissfully calming reading--I've just been down into a dank crypt with The Historian, who is about to kill a vampire with a silver dagger pressed in by a stone.

"Delicately painted" sounds very pleasant at the moment.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-07-11 12:08 am (UTC)
There's quite a lot of dankness in Dickens too.

But no silver daggers
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