Little Dorrit was first published in instalments (1855 – 1857) before going on to be published in complete book format in 1857. In this story Dickens reflects his observations of the social, political, economic and class divisions of Victorian London at that time . His words conjure images that give great insight into his personal beliefs and values. He alludes to his own life experiences not only in the characters but in the setting and leaves the reader under no illusion as to the crime and corruption that was endemic at that time. In this particular novel he concerns himself once again with the have’s , the have not’s, the deserving and undeserving poor, the feckless, social climbers and the gentle good. Following on from Bleak House and Hard Times the evidence of Dickens’ despondency at continued inadequate social reform is apparent as many of the characters and issues appear darker with little of the Dickens’ wit in evidence to lighten the story.
In the very first chapter in which we encounter Monsieur Blandois and Signor John Baptise languishing in the depths of Marseilles “Villainous prison”. A little further into the story Amy Dorrits father had been languishing in debtors prison for more than twenty years and she had been born in there and his protagonists own mother had created a personal prison in her own home from which she never went outside. It was clear that Dickens had drawn on his own experience to give life to his characters and meaning to prison as a key choice of setting in the story. This is probably because his father had lived beyond his means resulting in incarceration in the debtors prison with his wife and Charles siblings living in there with him while a very young Charles was sent to work to work in a factory to help pay off the debt and provide for the family.
Almost from the very start I was struck with the comparison between then and now, issues such as quarantine and imprisonment jumped out at me. Globally we have encountered over the last two and a half years worldwide imprisonment ( lock down) to prevent the spread of disease in the form of Covid 19. Out of this increasing numbers of people have, and continue to, become socially isolated for fear of transmitting or catching this new form of plague and have spawned their own forms of personal incarceration within their own homes , echoing to a degree the fate of Dickens characters whiling away quarantine in “prison” to ensure they were free of disease before being allowed to re-enter society.
I was struck by the narrative which described Baptise as a mere smuggler imprisoned because not only were his papers wrong, but he put his boat at the disposal of other people whose papers were wrong. Strange then to consider that some one hundred and sixty or so years later the news in all modern formats is filled on a daily basis with torrid accounts of vast numbers of people arrested in French sea waters caught transporting modern day refugees and asylum seekers also with incorrect or indeed without papers.
Dickens gives great insight into both the people and culture at that time. Interesting then to see many of the same values, beliefs, and political issues affecting twenty first century London and the rest of the world.