Sunday, March 4, 2018

Dickens' Dorrit

From Reid's Reader:
 What I find most alienating in this novel, however, brings me back to the matter of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit themselves. I understand that Little Dorrit is meant to represent the charity, altruism and goodness that contrast with a corrupt, imprisoning, money-driven society. I understand the concept of the “meta-novel” working by symbols rather than strict realism. But, to put it crudely, Little Dorrit is too good to be true – and her goodness is of a sort which may have appealed greatly to Victorians but which is much harder for us to swallow. I find myself agreeing with the critic George Wing, who spoke of her “naïve sanctity”. On one level, the youngest of three siblings who cares for her aged (and deluded) father is reminiscent of Cordelia looking after, and ultimately forgiving, King Lear. But then the whole point about Cordelia was that, in the very opening scene, she told her father forthrightly the truth about himself – that he was relying foolishly on flattery. Little Dorrit cares devotedly for her aged father, but she never tells him the truth. Indeed she participates in the fiction that he is not being supported by his daughters’ work, and thus sustains his class delusions. There is about her a dire submissiveness. Of course the left hand should not know what the right is doing. Of course Little Dorrit should be modest enough not to boast of her acts of charity. But this submissiveness really serves only to perpetuate her father’s snobbery and self-importance. I grant that I am making a 21st century judgement here, but there were times when I wished (anachronistically) that she could be more assertive, more frank, less of a symbol than a real person.
And then there is that matter of her relationship with Arthur Clennam. Remember Arthur (the same Arthur who ridicules another woman for having grown to his own age) is in his 40s – as was Dickens when he wrote this novel – and Amy Dorrit is in her early 20s, thus half his age. I am not decrying May and September love, but Arthur Clennam’s attraction to Amy plays to the image of the strong, protective older man and the younger, fragile child-woman whom he protects. There are for me too many details such as the following (from Part One, Chapter 32): “He saw her trembling little form and her downcast face, and the eyes that drooped the moment they were raised to him….” Yes, the trembling little form (for her littleness is always emphasised) of a silent-movie heroine. Typically, Amy swoons and is carried out of the prison by Arthur Clennam when she learns that her father has had his fortune restored. In Book Two there is some mitigation of this fragile image when Dickens gives us a few chapters consisting of the letters Amy writes to Clennam from Europe, and we get to see a more mature mind revealed. Even so, my crude and evil-thinking mind sees reflected in all this the middle-aged Charles Dickens deserting his middle-aged wife (who had borne him ten children) and setting up a teenaged actress as his mistress. Little Dorrit is an older man’s idolisation of his lost youth. (Read more.)

No comments: