Sunday, 14 July 2019

The houses in Little Dorrit

If you’re here expecting a full synopsis of Little Dorrit, you’ve come to the wrong place. Head to Wikipedia, you. 
For now, I won’t write much about the plot either. I don’t read Dickens for the plot, but for his rhythmic prose, his descriptions, and colourful characters. 
1/ Look at this line: 
“Miles of close wells and pits of houses, where the inhabitants gasped for air, stretched far away towards every point of the compass.” (B.1, ch.3) 
Such a good line to describe how cramped and suffocating the area is. 

2/ This is the Clennams’ house: 
“An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.” (ibid.) 
I like that: “gymnasium for the neighbouring cats”. 
The interesting passage about the house is this one: 
“There was a fire in the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a kettle on the hob, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a little mound of damped ashes on the top of the fire, and another little mound swept together under the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow’s dress for fifteen months, and out of the bier-like sofa for fifteen years.” (ibid.) 
Dickens, I notice, uses anaphora and epistrophe a lot. 
As I read Little Dorrit, I talk to my friend Himadri (a Dickens fan), and he has said 1 thing I keep in mind: the main image in the book is prison—Mrs Clennam is in a kind of prison because she cannot walk and cannot go out, but she also occupies a prison of the mind, and many other characters too inhabit their own mental prisons. 
In Mrs Clennam’s “prison”, nothing changes over time, as though time doesn’t pass. 

3/ Among the several houses in Little Dorrit, the one that stands out is Tite Barnacle’s house: 
“Arthur Clennam came to a squeezed house, with a ramshackle bowed front, little dingy windows, and a little dark area like a damp waistcoat-pocket, which he found to be number twenty-four, Mews Street, Grosvenor Square. To the sense of smell the house was like a sort of bottle filled with a strong distillation of Mews; and when the footman opened the door, he seemed to take the stopper out.” (B.1, ch.10) 
And then: 
“Still the footman said ‘Walk in,’ so the visitor followed him. At the inner hall-door, another bottle seemed to be presented and another stopper taken out. This second vial appeared to be filled with concentrated provisions and extract of Sink from the pantry. After a skirmish in the narrow passage, occasioned by the footman’s opening the door of the dismal dining-room with confidence, finding some one there with consternation, and backing on the visitor with disorder, the visitor was shut up, pending his announcement, in a close back parlour. There he had an opportunity of refreshing himself with both the bottles at once, looking out at a low blinding wall three feet off, and speculating on the number of Barnacle families within the bills of mortality who lived in such hutches of their own free flunkey choice.” (ibid.) 
That is a strange house. For those who haven’t read the book, or who don’t remember, Tite Barnacle is a man of high position in the Circumlocution Office, and the main creditor of William Dorrit, Amy’s father. 
Why do you think Dickens describes his house in such a way, when other houses in the book so far don’t have such attention and description? 

4/ Later on, there is another house that mirrors the lack of change of the Clennams’ house: 
“When his knock at the bright brass knocker of obsolete shape brought a woman-servant to the door, those faded scents in truth saluted him like wintry breath that had a faint remembrance in it of the bygone spring. He stepped into the sober, silent, air-tight house—one might have fancied it to have been stifled by Mutes in the Eastern manner—and the door, closing again, seemed to shut out sound and motion. The furniture was formal, grave, and quaker-like, but well-kept; and had as prepossessing an aspect as anything, from a human creature to a wooden stool, that is meant for much use and is preserved for little, can ever wear. There was a grave clock, ticking somewhere up the staircase; and there was a songless bird in the same direction, pecking at his cage, as if he were ticking too. The parlour-fire ticked in the grate. There was only one person on the parlour-hearth, and the loud watch in his pocket ticked audibly.
[…] This was old Christopher Casby—recognisable at a glance—as unchanged in twenty years and upward as his own solid furniture—as little touched by the influence of the varying seasons as the old rose-leaves and old lavender in his porcelain jars.” (B.1, ch.13) 
I find it interesting that Arthur Clennam notes the dull and lifeless sameness of Mr Casby, only to later perceive the disappointing change in his daughter Flora, Arthur’s past love, now a widowed Mrs Finching. 


Now the last bit is not a house, but the description is so good that I can’t help putting it here: 
“This was an amazing little old woman, with a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression, and a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head, as if the child who owned the doll had driven a tack through it anywhere, so that it only got fastened on. Another remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that the same child seemed to have damaged her face in two or three places with some blunt instrument in the nature of a spoon; her countenance, and particularly the tip of her nose, presenting the phenomena of several dints, generally answering to the bowl of that article. A further remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that she had no name but Mr F.‘s Aunt. 
[…] The major characteristics discoverable by the stranger in Mr F.‘s Aunt, were extreme severity and grim taciturnity; sometimes interrupted by a propensity to offer remarks in a deep warning voice, which, being totally uncalled for by anything said by anybody, and traceable to no association of ideas, confounded and terrified the Mind. Mr F.‘s Aunt may have thrown in these observations on some system of her own, and it may have been ingenious, or even subtle: but the key to it was wanted.” (ibid.) 
Passages like these are the joy of reading Dickens.


  1. what i like is his ability to indicate social position, psychological attitude, personality characteristics etc. by identifying them with metaphorical images, like bottles... i'll try to keep my comments general so i don't wreck the plot for you... i'm enjoying the book a lot more than i thought i would: it takes me back to a period in which i read a lot of Dickens work... anaphora and epistrophe, huh... i guess i'm impressed; ignorant, tho...

    1. Slow down, haha.
      What didn't you think you would enjoy it much?

    2. i'm not sure: maybe some phantasmal lingering memories lurking in my subconscious... don't forget, i'm retired and so have a lot more time to read than superbusy young persons... ch. 26 now...