One comedic touch in the otherwise unrelentingly sad and dark Litte Dorrit is Flora Finching, Arthur Clennam’s youthful love. As he walks into her father’s house, a flickering memory of her beautiful figure comes to his mind … which is instantly displaced by the real Flora entering the room. To his horror she has become silly, old, and fat. While her youth has dimmed, her youthful air and self-image have not:
Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much. Flora, who had been spoiled and artless long ago, was determined to be spoiled and artless now. That was a fatal blow.
Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, 2008
The character of Flora Finching is based on a true person in Charles Dickens’ life. In 1830, when Dickens was 18 years old he fell madly in love with Maria Beadnell, the pretty and flirtatious daughter of a highly successful banker. He courted her for three years, but her parents objected to Charles, who was a struggling young court reporter, and Maria broke off their relationship. Dickens was heartbroken over the break up and never forgot Maria. It is said that Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield was based on his memory of her.
Dickens and Maria began to exchange letters in 1855, when she contacted him 20 years later. She was now Mrs. Henry Winter and described herself as being “toothless, fat, old and ugly.” Dickens, whose marriage was in trouble, did not believe her description. After he and Maria exchanged several passionate letters, Dickens arranged for his wife Katherine to invite Mr. and Mrs. Henry Winter to a private dinner. He was appalled to find out that Maria had indeed altered as she said. She was in her forties, fat, and dull.* After this meeting, in which she gave him her cold, and in which he rebuffed her flirtatious attempts, his letters to her became short and formal. Later, when she again tried to renew the relationship, he broke it off for good.
Maria Beadnell later in life
In a BBC Press Pack, actress Ruth Jones, who plays Flora, says of the character:
“She has real energy and enthusiasm and love of life – I adore that about her. But she is also very complex. She is a sad person trying to make the best of the lot she has been saddled with.
“Life has stood still for Flora while Arthur has been away. She still dresses like a little girl, but now has lines under her eyes and has put on weight.
“She is now this rather matronly woman who is still a vision in pink. But I like the fact that she is not bitter about being left behind.”
There is an affecting authenticity about the fact that Flora is unable to move on.
In later years Dickens observed about his youthful love: “We all have our Floras, mine is living, and extremely fat.” How did Charles Dickens fare in the looks department? The image on the right was made in 1858, a year after the last installment of Little Dorrit was published.
Charles Dickens as a youth and as a man
Watch Little Dorrit on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic from now until April 26th. Click here for details.
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