Carla Carlisle on Little Dorrit

It’s a small world, and in this grassy corner of Suffolk, it’s been reduced even further, neatly divided into two: those who are gripped by Little Dorrit and those who are not. The divide dominates this household as dramatically as the Heated and the Unheated Rooms: there’s no halfway meeting point. I feverishly wait for Wednesday and Thursday evenings; my husband, who is reading Volume One, refuses to join me in this visualised world in case it taints the book for him. Which is, of course, a ridiculous notion.

In fact, the televised version makes me want to grab the book so that I can retrace on the page what I have just lived through on the screen. The BBC production has me so involved that I spend the days between broadcasts worrying about the fate of Amy, known as Little Dorrit, played by Claire Foy, who is so perfect that I suspect Dickens himself was in communication with the casting director. I’m amazed that Little Dorrit was never read to me in my early life. My grandmother’s idea of nap time on a summer’s day was to read Dickens aloud to her granddaughters. I remember tearful summers of Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, books that fulfilled my Southern need for melancholy.

As I grew older, I began to read Dickens on my own, ambitiously and uncritically tackling Martin Chuzzlewit during a bout of measles, Hard Times during mumps. In 10th grade, I wrote an essay on why I liked Dickens better than Faulkner from an early age – I preferred English squalor, penury, loneliness and despair to the homegrown version. My teacher gave me a C and told me I would ‘grow into Faulkner’, implying that Dickens wrote for children (untrue). She also advised me to read American Notes, Dickens’ account of his first trip to the US and his disillusion as the Americans’ initial warm embrace of the English writer tailed off the more he advocated international copyright and the abolition of slavery. Admittedly, there are things that even the most faithful adaptation can’t include. I didn’t realise until I began reading over my husband’s shoulder that Little Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison where her father, William, had been shut away for 23 years.

In Dickens’ preface to the book, he describes searching for and finding Marshalsea Prison, at least finding what remains, and the names ‘Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey’ sent a shiver down my spine. Dickens’ own father was imprisoned there for debt, the beginning of psychic wounds so deep and painful they would turn the 12 year old into England’s greatest storyteller. What is eerie about the BBC’s production is its dramatic relevance. Again in his preface, Dickens writes that he is reluctant to apologise for his ‘exaggerated’ and ‘extravagant’ portrayals of bankers and bureaucrats, explaining that the novel was written in monthly instalments during a culpably mismanaged war (the Crimean) and against a backdrop of banking scandals and share scandals: ‘nothing like them was ever known in this land’.  

Meanwhile, in order to keep the peace of my marriage and preserve my eyesight, I’ve left my husband to get on with his leather-bound volume and bought myself the Penguin edition. Last night, I suggested that, over Christmas, we might sit around the fire in the evenings and take turns reading it aloud. A pained look crossed every face. ‘I’m already too far into it,’ my husband said. ‘I’ll watch it when it’s out on DVD,’ said the son, glancing at the 826 pages. I don’t push it. Although I regret not reading Dickens during the years when my son loved being read to, submitting instead to his preference for Tolkien, Pullman and Ian Fleming, I believe that he will get to Bleeding Heart Yard on his own someday. I also believe that seeing Little Dorrit on television may be enough for some people, but it will send many viewers back to the book. I’m one of them.