Little Dorrit: The Readers within the Text

By Tracy, Robert | Dickens Quarterly, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Little Dorrit: The Readers within the Text


Tracy, Robert, Dickens Quarterly


Part I: the Iron Box

In Little Dorrit Dickens teased his contemporary readers for a year and a half with hints that the Clennam family had a dark secret, and that it might have some connection with the Dorrit family's financial misfortunes. Published in twenty monthly parts from December 1855 to June 1857, Little Dorrit is a protracted experiment in withholding its own secrets, as Arthur Clennam tries to discover why his father was so anxious on his deathbed, why he tried to write someone a message, and speculates about a possible connection between these mysteries and Little Dorrit. Eventually we learn that Mrs. Clennam is not Arthur's mother. The novel's back story, about events forty years ago, features bigamy and illegitimacy, a vindictive revenge, and even the connection with the Dorrits that Arthur has imagined --a story so complex that Dickens added a clarifying memorandum "for working the story round.--Retrospective" in his working notes for the final number. "When Arthur's father (weak and irresolute) married Mrs Clennam, in accordance with his Uncle's directions, he was already married, in a false name:--or as good as married," Dickens reminded himself:

The girl was An orphan. Training in music, under the patronage of Frederick [Dorrit] of the Clarionet (the Uncle being still alive) Mrs Clennam went, vindictive and with her heart full of raging hatred--I have discovered it. If you love him, give him up. Submit yourself to me--Live under my custody. Live under my eye. Never see him more. Give me that child of yours to be my child--I will breed him severely and religiously; to be rescued from the ignominy of his birth, and to be a Servant of the Lord. As for you, do penance and die As for you, the father, suffer for your child's sake--made your heir and your lawful son They yielded and consented. She was placed under the care of Flintwich's brother. She dies. She had written numerous appeals to Mrs Clennam. She had implored to see her son. She had left her story. They were in the box (Stone 306-309).

Gilbert Clennam, the "Uncle" of Dickens's note, later repented of his role in all this. In a codicil to his will he left one thousand guineas to the first wife, and, by a precise but peculiar formula, the same sum to Frederick Dorrit's eldest niece, if he should have one: Little Dorrit. In her rage at her rival and anyone connected with her, Mrs. Clennam suppressed that codicil and tried to burn it, but Flintwich tricked her, and added the codicil to the contents of the iron box.

Flintwich tells Mrs. Clennam that he treats the box and its contents --"'mostly letters of confession to you, and Prayers for forgiveness'" as an epistolary novel: "'I kept them in a box, looking over them when I felt in the humour'" (Little Dorrit (654; bk. 2, ch. 30). Flintwich's twin brother carries this peripatetic "iron box two feet square" (675; bk. 2, ch. 33) from Mrs. Clennam's house in London to Antwerp; Rigaud/Blandois steals it and deposits it with Miss Wade in Calais; Tattycoram steals it again and takes it to Mr. Meagles, who brings it to Little Dorrit. In Little Dorrit Dickens makes a theme of his own narrative devices. Little Dorrit is about reading the story that Little Dorrit seems to embody, and withholding the documents in the wandering box, the story of Arthur's parents and Mrs. Clennam's vindictive cruelty toward them.

Part II. Arthur Clennam reads Little Dorrit

Self-defined as a man without a story, Arthur Clennam senses that people around him are, if not the heroes, at least the protagonists of their own stories. He is eager to read or hear those stories, as Miss Wade seems to recognize when she chooses him as the reader of her own autobiography in manuscript, The History of a Self-Tormentor" (554-61; bk. 2, ch. 21). In Little Dorrit Dickens examines the relationship between reader and novelist, the novelist at once advancing the story and withholding information, the reader following the story installment by installment, but at the same time speculating, trying to anticipate the development of the plot, to solve the story's mysteries. …

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