Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street (click here to view the book and order it), has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character ,  Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt,  Walking in Austen’s Footsteps, and Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian EraHe has graciously sent in an article about crime and an incident involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Mrs James Leigh-Perrot. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.


Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”


Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread. So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Read the rest of Paul’s fascinating post and the workhouse in Bath at this link:

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In keeping with December, Charles Dickens’ anniversary, and a Christmas Carol, Paul sent this message:

 In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’

‘Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

OliverTwistOliver Twist

Oliver Twist Workhouse image

The well known passage from Oliver Twist:

“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’

More about Avon Street: Order the book

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: The History Press (March 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0752465546
  • ISBN-13: 978-0752465548

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Tonight PBS Masterpiece Classic presents the last installment of its homage to Charles Dickens in honor of his 200th year anniversary. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a 120 minute special about an opium-addled choirmaster, John Jasper, who believes his nephew, Edwin, stands between him and the woman he fancies, 17-year-old Rosa Bud.

Mathew Rhys as John Jasper, Tamzin Merchant as Rosa Bud, and Freddie Fox as Edwin Drood

Gwyneth Hughes wrote the ending to this adaptation. Charles Dickens died half way through writing the novel, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the question of his disappearance hanging in the air. This Dickens tales is one of the few that I don’t like, no matter how hard I try, for I simply could not care for the characters or relate to John Jasper in any way. Of course, my opinion of the book colors my lukewarm reaction to the film.

Tamzin as Georgiana

Jane Austen film fans will recognize Tamzin Merchant as young Georgiana Darcy in Pride and Prejudice 2005. In a curious coincidence, Freddie Fox (Edwin) is the real life younger brother of Amelia Fox, who played Georgiana in Pride and Prejudice 1995.

Sacha Shawan plays Neville Landless

Your thoughts?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain. Check your local listings to be sure. Watch the special online starting April 16th.

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Young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) visits Satis House (Holdenby House's courtyard transformed digitally by Triad Digital).

One of the most polarizing aspects of Great Expectations 2011 is Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham. Many people loved it; as many hated it.

At 43 years of age, some critics regard the actress as being too young for the part. Yet Martita Hunt played Miss Havisham in David Lean’s classic when she was 47, only fours years older than Gillian. Helena Bonham Carter is set to play Miss Havisham in a new theatrical film version coming out later this year. She will soon be 44 years old.

Others find Gillian Anderson’s take on Miss Havisham to be all wrong. I agree with the critic who wrote that regardless of how one feels about the actress as Miss Havisham, she dominates her scenes as the jilted bride. Paired with the CG changes made to Holdenby House to transform it into Satis House, the viewer is treated to one of the creepier interpretations of Miss Havisham in her rotting manse.

Stone angel in courtyard strangled by vines.

The film sets up Pip’s first meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella by transforming the courtyard into a dark, vine-strangled environment. This alone should tell Pip that all is not right with his new patron.

Transformed courtyard.

Miss Havisham glides down the stairs like a ghostly apparition.

In this adaptation, Pip’s first glimpse of Miss Havisham is of her gliding down the stairs in a candle-lit, dark oak stairwell. A break in the curtain backlights her figure and features. Not a word is said. In the novel, Pip has heard that Miss Havisham is an immensely rich and grim lady who led a life of seclusion.

The stairs are covered with dust and candles are fully ablaze despite the day light.

Miss Havisham as an eerie apparition is enhanced in this scene in which her white figure is indistinct and as fuzzy as the dust on the stairs.

When she discovered that her bridegroom-to-be had absconded with her money and her heart, Miss Havisham was at her dressing table putting on her bridal clothes. She had put on one shoe, her other foot was stockinged. Gillian Anderson is seen walking barefoot, a change in Dickens’ story that I found perplexing. In fact, many of the changes in both plot, scenes, and costumes seemed odd.

Surely the dress would have been yellower and more ragged and tattered after having been worn for so long?

While I enjoyed Gillian Anderson’s reworking of Miss Havisham into a neurotic recluse with a tendency towards self-mutilation, I wondered at the decision to make her appear like a mini-me version of Bette Davis’s Baby Jane. Her wedding gown, I suppose, was meant to look like a Regency version of a bridal dress, but to my way of thinking it resembled a nightie. Her curls, which were not supposed to have been touched in years, hung tight around her face. By the time Pip met her, her white hair would have looked like a rat’s nest.  The delicate fabric of her gown remained remarkably intact – it should have been frayed, especially at the edges and where she sat. She was not wearing a veil, which should have been attached askew on her head. And her train would  have been tattered and filthy, and had an ombre look about it, going from black at the floor to dark gray, to lighter grey until it met the yellowing white color of the gown higher up.

One way to assess if the changes were beneficial is to turn to Dickens’ own words:

In Dickens' great tale, Pip met Miss Havisham as she sat near her dressing table.

However the only thing to be done being to knock at the door. I knocked and was told from within to enter. I entered therefore and found myself in a pretty large room well lighted with wax candle.s No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it. It was a dressing room as I supposed from the furniture though much of it was of forms and uses then quite unknown to me. But prominent in it was a draped table with a gilded looking glass, and that I made out at first sight to be a fine lady’s dressing table.”

In this film, Miss Havisham walks Pip through a room filled with dusty glass dome-covered scientific specimens that her dead brother had collected from exotic places, much as a docent would accompany a visitor through a musty science museum.

Dead specimens under dusty glass.

Pip’s actual first impression of Miss Havisham after walking through a dark house was much more powerful and immediate:

In an armchair with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand sat the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.”

Once beautiful butterflies pinned into a frozen position, a rather obvious visual simile.

Dickens gave the costume and set designers a plethora of descriptions to work with:

She was dressed in rich materials, satins and lace and silks, all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair; and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck, and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on, the other was on the table near her hand; her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief; and gloves and some flowers and a prayer book all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.”

Gillian Anderson's lips are as parched as dry paper, but the curls are too neat for someone who has not tended to her hair in decades.

I have no quarrel with Gillian Anderson’s age. The book is written through Pip’s eyes, and a young boy would have found anyone in their 40’s to be ancient. Gillian did an excellent job of resembling someone who had not seen sunlight in decades, and whose physical condition was deteriorating as a result of physical and emotional neglect. Her curls make her look much too young and are incongruent. Why would she take care to wear such beautiful curls when she has neglected everything else about her appearance?

Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham in the yet to be released Great Expectations

If viewers were turned off by Gillian’s creepy Miss Havisham, with her high-pitched little girl voice and nervous bird-like mannerisms, then the above photo indicates that Helena Bonham Carter’s take on the spinster is set to go over the top as well. Let’s go back to Dickens’ description of Pip’s first meeting with his new patron to see if these interpretations fit in with his vision of the jilted bride:

It was not in the first minute that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first minute than might be supposed. But I saw that every thing within my view, which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and, like the flowers, and had no brightness left, but the brightness of her sunken eyes.  I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. “

Miss Havisham was a skeletal, withered shadow of a woman who shone as dimly as a pale moon hidden behind clouds. Gillian’s Miss Havisham shines just a little too brightly.

Pip approaches Estella for the first time.

It was when I stood before her avoiding her eyes that I took note of the surrounding objects in detail, and saw that her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine.”

For some strange reason, the clocks in the film had stopped at 11:00. It’s these minor inattentions to detail that grate.

Izzy Meikle-Small plays the haughty young Estella.

“Look at me”, said Miss Havisham. “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born.”

These words would have been much more powerful in the introductory scene than Gillian’s museum tour guide of her rooms.

David Lean's Great Expectations featured a rather mature Jean Simmons. Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Tony Wager as Pip.

David Lean’s set was dark, as described by Dickens. Too much sunlight was allowed inside the house Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham inhabited. This served to make Satis House look much dirtier but less creepy.

I find it remarkable that many critics found this adaptation visually too gloomy. I think there is too much light. Dickens described the curtains as emitting no light whatsoever.

I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it once, while now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of every thing, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

So she sat corpse like as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress looking like earthy paper, as if they would crumble under a touch. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen, but I have often thought since that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust”

The above description tells us why it would have been more important for the set designer to have kept Miss Havisham in total darkness. While some of the effects of the light on the dust and dirt was striking, the only evidence of “earthy paper” was on Gillian Anderson’s parched lips.

This set of the decaying bridal banquet is gorgeous. The house itself is allowed to rot (and Pip begins to notice the water damage and crumbling walls as he matures), much as Miss Havisham is allowing herself to rot inside and out. There were moments when the production shone. The film’s colors follow the current trend for digital color correction to create atmosphere. Whether you like it or not, I’m afraid the trend is here to stay.

The wedding cake looked skeletal and creepy, as if bugs were ready to crawl out of it. Still, would so much of the food and flowers have remained recognizable?

Miss Havisham's self-mutilation is evident early on in the film.

The self-mutilation, in this instance, Miss Havisham is constantly scratching her hand, was an interesting touch that added another layer to her manic obsessions. At times she seemed completely insane and incapable of self-possession. In this adaptation, Gillian portrays Miss Havisham as a weak victim who somehow finds the strength of will to plot her revenge on all male-kind.

The letter of betrayal from Compeyson, the fiance who jilted Miss Havisham.

The incongruity of a perfect white veil over the decaying flowers and (finally) the tattered sleeves struck me as being wrong in Gillian’s final scenes. While I loved the cinematography of the exterior sets, these visual mistakes detracted from my enjoyment of the story. One other thought: while I enjoyed watching the young Pip and Estella, I was bothered by their older counterparts. It was very hard for me to swallow that Pip was more beautiful than the girl he loved.

Vanessa Kirby as Estella and Douglas Booth as Pip

Your thoughts?

You can watch Great Expectations online through May 8th on PBSs website.

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From the moment the new adaptation of Great Expectations opened, viewers knew that this was not going to be their grand daddy’s sentimental interpretation of Charles Dickens’ classic. I struggled with how to review this PBS special, which aired last night, and realized that I could only do it through visuals. In the first 15 minutes, with very little dialogue, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister captures the essence of Pip’s bleak life and visually sets up the rest of the plot. (Problems with the coloration of the screen captures must be blamed on my poor photo editing skills, not the cinematographer’s!) If you missed the first episode, you can watch it online until May 1.

Like some preternatural creature, Magwitch rises from the marsh waters. One of the ships in the background is the prison ship from which he escaped.

It is said that Ray Winstone has always wanted to play Magwitch

These scenes were shot in Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex, known for its wildlife. The fog adds to the sense of isolation.

Sketch of the church on the marsh. David Roger, production designer. Image @PBS Masterpiece Great Expectations. How much of these scenes were due to CG design?

Our first view of Pip (Oscar Kennedy) is at his parent's graveside. The smaller stones represent his dead siblings. "There were five of us," he told Miss Havisham sadly. So far, other than the booming of the ship's cannon, not a word has been said.

Pip should have been mortally scared of Magwitch and never come near him again. There is nothing pretty about their first encounter.

Pip's run to the Forge, where he lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, shows how isolated this section of the country is - flat, with few landmarks on the horizon. It would be nearly impossible for Magwitch to find a hiding place.

Orlick (Jack Roth)is Joe Gargery's assistant and no friend of Pip's. In this scene he almost looked like a zombie appearing through the mists. His encounter with the boy as he runs home to find a file for Magwitch is filled with hate and jealousy on Orlick's side, and dread on Pip's. It sets a malevolent tone to an already edgy opening.

The Forge is little more than a hovel.

This scene is quiet and pivotal. For many precious moments, Magwitch does not speak or move when he understands what Pip is offering him. Knowing how harsh Pip's life is, I too was moved by the boy's generosity.

The marsh lands through Florian Hoffmeister's lens are harsh and unforgiving. Magwitch can only cling under the platforms in the muck, but he will have no place to go when the tide rises.

This fight in the muck was elemental. I flinched as I watched this. At this point we are only 10 or 12 minutes into the film and I could not pull my eyes away.

Magwitch is caught, covered with mud and blood, yet still defiant. It is obvious that he has the grit, determination, and ingenuity to escape again.

In all these early scenes, only Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley) shows Pip genuine love, concern, and kindness. His steady support of Pip provides the only real stability in the young boy's life.

The travelers journey through what seems to be a flat, bleak land. As observers of wildlife know, marshes teem with life, offering food for scores of creatures, both transient and permanent.

The two travelers are mere specks in this vast landscape. It would seem to be a perfect dystopian setting for The Hunger Games.

My next visual review will take us into Miss Havisham’s house. Great Expectations, 2011 was directed by Brian Kirk and adapted for the screen by writer Sarah Phelps. The cinematographer was Florian Hoffmeister and the production designer was David Roger. I commend them all for setting the stage so well for Pip’s story. Young Oscar Kennedy plays a compelling young Pip who stirred my heart strings.

Read the fabulous interview with production designer David Roger at this link.

The following links describe the Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex.

Google map of Tollesbury marshes

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Gentle Readers, Frequent contributor Patty from Brandy Parfums recently attended a cooking class that featured classic recipes. She says of her experience: “When we think about our wonderful holiday dinners coming up, it is good to remember the origins of mid-winter celebrations, so ingrained in our DNA.” I can’t think of two more interesting recipes to try than the two Patty describes in this post.

Cooking Class Taught by Culinary Historian Cathy Kaufman at I.C.E, the Institute of Culinary Education, New York, NY on December 5, 2011 by Patricia Saffran

Before there was Christmastime, the cherished holiday and lovely dinner that many have come to look forward to each winter, in ancient times there was the winter solstice celebration of rebirth focusing on the sun, in Stonehenge and other Neolithic sites. Later, light-starved Romans celebrated the Saturnalia, in 217 BC starting with December 17th and extending to a week long festival with gorging and other very pagan activities.


Then there was the Roman and Mithra Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the invincible sun, December 25th. Old customs die hard but we still pay tribute to tree worship in the form of the Christmas tree, that came to Great Britain from Germany. It was first introduced by Queen Charlotte, with the connection made stronger later by Prince Albert. When we come to Victorian times is when the present traditions take hold.

As culinary historian, Cathy Kaufman described the holiday’s traditions and her special class:

A Charles Dickens Christmas

“Nothing pushes the nostalgia button at Christmastime more than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its warming images of a candlelit tree and Victorian plenitude. Yet prior to the 19th century, Christmas was a very different holiday, and it was only in the Victorian era that our concept of Christmas as a child-centered family holiday arose. After reviewing the evolution of Christmas holidays, we will use 19th-century English cookbooks, such as Charles Francatelli’s The Modern Cook and Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, to create a groaning board of Victorian delights, including Jerusalem Artichoke Soup; Lobster Fricassée; Baked Goose with Chestnuts; Roasted Filet of Beef à l’Anglaise; Endives with Cream; Christmas Pudding; Gingerbread; and Twelfth Night Cake.”

Cathy continued, “This is upper class food that we’re making tonight, that took a large staff in the kitchen to prepare, with no expenses spared, using the most luxurious ingredients. It’s also infusion cuisine made with expensive stocks, showing the French influence in this period. There’s also a fair amount of cream in many dishes with a touch of cayenne pepper, an influence of the British colonials in India. The French at this time would have just used nutmeg. There were many women cooks in the kitchens of the wealthy in England, and in France there were more men in the kitchens.”

Charles Elme Francatelli

We separated into three groups to make the various dishes. I chose the group that was making the Charles Francatelli recipe for Beef à l’Anglaise. Francatelli was born in London in 1805 and went on to study with the great chef Marie-Antoine Carême in France, inventor of haute-cuisine. (At the downfall of Napoleon, Carême later went to work in London for the Prince Regent and George IV.) Francatelli was the chef for Queen Victoria and went on to be the chef at the Reform Club. His influential book was called The Modern Cook, published in 1846. This recipe is very time consuming and labor intensive with a vegetable and olive oil marinade and Financière and Espagnole (including truffle juice and veal stock) sauces for basting and serving. Our group also made vegetable garnishes and one of the three desserts, the Plum Pudding.

Another group made the Lobster Fricassée from an Eliza Acton recipe. Eliza Acton was born in Sussex in 1799. Like Francatelli, she spent time in France. She is credited with writing the first practical cookbook with a list of ingredients and instructions. Mrs. Beeton was supposed to have modeled her cookbook on Acton’s. The lobster recipe is somewhat complicated in that uses both a Béchamel and Consommé made from veal, mushrooms, ham, vegetables and stock. Final baking in the oven with the sauce and bread crumbs finished off this delectable dish.

The goose recipe from Charles Francatelli featured a Madeira wine mirepoix and a luting paste, a flour and water cover for the goose’s first hour of cooking to keep it moist.

Here are two recipes that are absolutely delicious and will be easy to make for a home version of a Victorian Christmas feast. Both recipes are presented in the original text and then in Cathy Kaufman’s modernized version for today’s kitchens.

Jerusalem artichoke

Jerusalem Artichoke, or Palestine Soup (Eliza Acton)

Wash and pare quickly some freshly dug artichokes, and to preserve their colour, throw them into spring water as they are done, but do not let them remain in it after all are ready. Boil three pounds of them in water for ten minutes; lift them out, and slice them into three pints of boiling stock; when they have stewed gently in this from fifteen to twenty minutes, press them with the soup, through a fine sieve, and put the whole into a clean saucepan with a pint and a half more of stock; add sufficient salt and cayenne to season it, skim it well, and after it has simmered two or three minutes, stir it to a pint of rich boiling cream. Serve it immediately.

2 lb. Jerusalem artichokes
4 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
5/8 cup heavy cream mixed with 1/4 cup Crème fraîche

Pare the Jerusalem artichokes.  Drop the pared Jerusalem artichokes into a pan of boiling salted water.  Cook for ten minutes to set the color.  Drain and refresh.

Slice the Jerusalem artichokes into pieces of about 1/2 inch thick and place in a saucepan with the chicken stock.  Simmer for 20 minutes and pass mixture through a food mill three times [or puree in a blender].

Return the puree to a clean saucepan and add the spices and heavy cream mixture.  Cook for two minutes, skim any impurities off the surface, adjust the seasoning and serve.



Fronticepiece, Modern Cookery by Eliza Acton

Gingerbread (Eliza Acton)

Whisk four strained or well-cleared eggs to the lightest possible froth (French eggs, if really sweet, will answer for the purpose), and pour to them, by degrees, a pound and a quarter of treacle, still beating them lightly. Add, in the same manner, six ounces pale brown sugar, free from lumps, one pound of sifted flour, and six ounces of good butter, just sufficiently warmed to be liquid, and no more, for if hot, it would render the cake; it should be poured in small portions to the mixture, which should be well beaten up with the back of a wooden spoon as each portion is thrown in: the success of this cake depends almost entirely on this part of the process. When properly mingled with the mass, the butter will not be perceptible on the surface; and if the cake be kept light by constant whisking, large bubbles will appear in it to the last. When it is so far ready, add to it one ounce of Jamaica ginger and a large teaspoonful of cloves in fine powder, with the lightly grated rinds of two fresh, full-sized lemons. Butter thickly, in every part, a shallow square tin pan, and bake the gingerbread slowly for nearly or quite an hour in a gentle oven. Let it cool a little before it is turned out, and set it on its edge until cold, supporting it, if needful, against a large jar or bowl. We have usually had it baked in an American oven, in a tin less than 2 inches deep; and it has been excellent. We retain the name given to it originally in our circle.

Please note: The treacle, sugar and flour are measured by weight, not by volume.

2 tablespoons softened butter for preparing the baking pans
3 eggs
20 oz treacle
6 oz light brown sugar
6 oz butter, melted and cooled
16 oz cake flour, sifted
4 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
grated zest of two lemons

Preheat the oven to 350ー F.  Generously rub the inside of a 9 x 9 x 2 baking pan with the softened butter and set aside.

Stir the eggs together and pass them through a strainer to remove the white threads holding the yolks. Transfer to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat for two minutes. Very slowly pour in the treacle, beating constantly. Add the brown sugar in a slow trickle and continue beating. Add the butter and a steady stream, beating thoroughly to incorporate. Add flour in several additions, continuing to whisk. Finally, whisk in the spices and the lemon zest.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until baked through. Cool on a rack before unmolding. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.


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Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Post written by Tony Grant, London Calling.

In 1754 David Garrick became the lessee first and finally bought the house, which was to become his villa beside The Thames.

Garrick's villa, 1783

It became his country retreat and the place where he and his wife entertained friends. He began to alter the original building, which had parts that dated back to the middle ages, and employed his friend Robert Adam to redesign the façade in a classical style.Capability Brown advised on the layout of the gardens. The Kingston to Staines Road runs outside the front of the house today and it did also in the 18th century.

Temple doorway. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick had a tunnel dug  from the front of his villa under the road to his gardens beside The Thames which today is called, Garrick’s Lawn. On this lawn, beside The Thames, Garrick had a temple to Shakespeare built. Inside was placed a very fine statue of Shakespeare designed by Roubiliac, another friend. When Garrick died, his wife Eva, gave it to the British Museum. A copy of the statue now has been placed inside the temple.

Garrick's dorric Temple. Image @Tony Grant

Garrick  added an orangery at the far end of the main garden which backs onto Bushy Park. Adam also designed the orangery in the main garden with a corinthian façade and classical entablature. Garrick owned much of the farmland, which is now Bushy Park. He also bought other houses in Hampton, including Orme House in Church Street, The Six Bells pub, later named The White Heart, Garrick’s Ait, the island opposite the temple and the villa and three other aits on The Thames. Just before his death, Garrick bought The Cedars, now called Garrick House, which you drive past on the Kingston Road.

The villa under wraps after the fire. Image @Tony Grant

In 2008 some work was being done on the villa when a fire broke out. The entire roof of the grade 1 listed building collapsed. The second floor also caught fire. It took ten fire engines to bring the blaze under control and save the shell of the house. It is now undergoing extensive rebuilding. The house is a symbol  of the English Theatre and must not be lost to the nation and the world.

David Garrick in Hamlet. Image @Wikimedia Commons

David Garrick came from humble origins in Leicestershire. His family were Huguenot immigrants who had to struggle and fight for their survival and success. Garrick  continued this need for success. He had an incredible talent as writer, actor and innovator. His greatness can only be measured by his influence on theatre and acting today.

Garrick Estate Auction, 1921

What is interesting is his need to acquire property and land, to have the best in architecture and to keep acquiring, throughout his life. Was this the sign of an inner drive to stay successful, to gain security, to not allow himself to revert to lowly circumstances? Was he a driven personality? This reminds me of another driven personality, Charles Dickens, who literally worked himself to death. He too saw property and one house in particular, as a sign to himself and others that he was at the top, that he had made it.

Tony Grant at Gads Hill. Image @Tony Grant

The house was Gads Hill in Kent just outside of Rochester and Chatham. After Dickens death, John Foster, a great publishing friend of Dickens wrote, “ upon first seeing it (Gads Hill) as he came from Chatham with his father and looking upon it with much admiration he had been promised that he might himself live in it or in some such house when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough.”

Gads Hill front door. Image @Tony Grant

Of course Dickens did work. He probably had more need to stay at the top than even Garrick. His father was notorious for getting into debt and had ended up in debtors prison. Cahrles Dickens had had to work in a blacking factory in almost slave like conditions. This affected Dickens for the rest of his life.

Ducks on the Thames. Image @Tony Grant

Both Dickens and Garrick were influenced greatly by Shakespeare. Garrick as actor and theatre owner. Garrick’s greatest performance was playing Richard III. Dicken’s house at Gads Hill was the very spot, in Henry IV part I, where Prince Hal waylays and robs Falstaff as a  prank or joke. Of course Dickens absolutely loved this connection. There is another rather obscure link with Garrick. David Garrick had a tunnel dug under the road in front of his villa to get to his garden beside The Thames. Dickens purchased the land on the opposite side of the road to his house at Gads Hill and had a tunnel dug in front of his house under the road to get to it.

Gads Hill tunnel. Image @Tony Grant

Dickens had a small wooden Swiss Chalet built on the other side of the road where, towards the end of his life, he wrote. Passing through a tunnel to the beautiful scenery of The Thames or to a place to work could be read as having deep psychological meaning I am sure.

Dickens's Swiss Chalet. Image @Tony Grant

David Garrick’s  villa can be seen as his badge of success. A symbol of all his striving and hard work.

Where do our middle class ambitions get us? Are we driven? Where have we come from and where do we want to go? Are we working like Garrick and Dickens to prove something? How desperate are we and are we happy with it? I wonder if Dickens was ever happy? Maybe in the heightened hyper reality that he achieved  in his live readings, but that was fleeting. He was driven, so was Garrick and are we?

Garrick's villa, 1824

I know this an odd request on this site but you never know who might read this stuff. To any Hollywood Super Star out there. You owe everything, your whole profession, to David Garrick. If you have some spare cash, go on, pay for the refurbishment of Garrick’s Villa. It could be your real contribution to the world.

Garrick's temple, sunset. Image @Tony Grant

More on the topic:

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Happy 200th Birthday, Elizabeth Gaskell! Although your life was cut short at 55, you still cast a bright light in our world.

Elizabeth Gaskell around the time of her marriage, 1832

“No, I tell you it’s the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work…” – Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton

Since babyhood Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell nee Stevenson experienced profound sorrow and a sense of loss and displacement. Her parents, Elizabeth and William Stevenson, had eight children, but only two survived – baby Elizabeth and her older brother John. Her mother did not live to raise her, for she died a year after her daugher’s birth. Sadly, her widowed father did not feel up to taking care of his young daughter and sent Elizabeth away to live with her Aunt Lumb in Knutsford, Chesire.

Knutsford, the model for Cranford, 1863

Under this loving aunt’s care, Elizabeth experienced a happy childhood. She played with cousins in the rural town of Knutsford where lived “11 widows of respectability who kept house, besides spinsters innumerable”. In later life, Elizabeth would use Knutsford as the idealized setting for Cranford. She was to return there often to recall the rare happy memories of her early childhood.

Knutsford in 1860, before the railroad came

Elizabeth’s father continued to reject her even after his remarriage. When she was nine years old, he finally sent for her to visit him in London, but Elizabeth and her stepmother did not hit it off. In addition, her father and his new wife favored the children of their union. Although often reduced to tears by their indifference, Elizabeth did have one person she could turn to, her beloved brother John.

William Gaskel

When Elizabeth was twelve, John joined the merchant navy. She would never see him again, for he drowned six years later off the coast of India. Within six months of John’s death, her griefstricken father also died. And thus, at the tender age of eighteen, Elizabeth was alone again.

William Turner, a distant relative, took Elizabeth in to live with his family. As a Unitarian minister he influenced her religious beliefs and introduced her to charitable works. It was through William Turner’s daugher that Elizabeth met William Gaskell, whom she married in the Knutsford Parish Church on August, 1832.

Gaskell was also a Unitarian minister and a lecturer and educator. After their honeymoon, the young couple moved to industrial Manchester, where William had acquired a post as minister of the Cross Street Chapel. Gaskell was also to hold the chair of English history and literature in Manchester New College.

Manchester in 1840. Note the factory chimneys.

Elizabeth would eventually bear her husband six children, the first of whom was a stillborn daughter. Considering the losses she had already experienced in her life, the death of this little girl, born in 1833, must have grieved her deeply. Three years afterward she penned this touching poem:

On Visiting the Grave of My Stillborn Little Girl

I made a vow within my soul, O child,
When thou wert laid beside my weary heart,
With marks of Death on every tender part,
That, if in time a living infant smiled,
Winning my ear with gentle sounds of love
In sunshine of such joy, I still would save
A green rest for thy memory, O Dove!
And oft times visit thy small, nameless grave.
Thee have I not forgot, my firstborn, thou
Whose eyes ne’er opened to my wistful gaze,
Whose suff’ rings stamped with pain thy little brow;
I think of thee in these far happier days,
And thou, my child, from thy bright heaven see
How well I keep my faithful vow to thee.
– Elizabeth Gaskell’s poem for her stillborn daughter, 1836

Then three healthy girls arrived in succession: Marianne (1834), Margaret Emily (1837), and Florence Elizabeth (1842). In 1844 she gave birth to her son William. These years marked a busy and productive period in Elizabeth’s life. Both the Gaskell’s divided their time between his ministry, their social life, and charity work. In Manchester, Gaskell witnessed the dire poverty of the textile workers, which was to have a lasting effect on her writing.

Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond, 1851. @National Portrait Gallery, London.

Between raising children and visiting the poor, Elizabeth managed to find the time to write. Her husband supported her in this endeavor, helping her with research and editing. The year she gave birth to her daugher Margaret, Elizabeth sold her first story to Blackwoods Magazine entitled “Sketches Among the Poor.” In 1846, she gave birth to another daughter, Julia.

Factory Kids, Manchester 1836

Elizabeth’s life was a fulfilling and happy one until her nine-month old son, William, caught scarlet fever during a visit to Wales in1848, and died. The blow was too much. When a devastated Elizabeth was unable to rise out of bed, William encouraged her to concentrate on her writing and begin a novel. The result was Mary Barton, which told about the desperate poverty of those living in industrial cities like Manchester, a topic with which Elizabeth had become all too familiar during her charity work.

Illustration by Alexy Pendle from Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton brought  success to Elizabeth. She was paid £200 for the book, which was published anonymously. Charles Dickens sang its praises. Other admirers included John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, and Thomas Carlyle. Although critics took a jaundiced view towards her championing of the poor and calls for social reform, the novel led to her writing other books, each one making her more money. From then on she published her books under her own name, Mrs. Gaskell.

Houshold Words, Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens admired Elizabeth so much that he serialised her next novel, Cranford, in his journal, Household Words (1851-1853). More novels followed in rapid succession, including Ruth (1853), North and South (1855), and Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). These books did not represent her sole literary output. Elizabeth wrote several novellas, of which Cranford was one, as well as short stories and articles for periodicals.

Gilbraltar Tower House, Carnforth. Mrs. Gaskell often wrote in the top room of the tower.

After her good friend Charlotte Bronte died, Gaskell wrote her acclaimed biography, using firsthand accounts and sources. This led her into some legal trouble, for shortly after the book’s publication a few of the people mentioned in it threatened to sue for having been represented incorrectly.

She made many other important friends, and was an avid correspondent, writing thousands of letters to friends and near strangers with the rapidity and ease of someone who, had she lived in the future, would most likely have embraced email.*

Mrs. Gaskell's letter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti about William Wordsworth, Princeton Collection

Elizabeth’s novels were enormously popular with the public, and the Gaskells lived well, traveling around Europe, hiring servants, and moving into a bigger house, Plymouth Grove, which still stands. Even with the income from her books and her popularity, Elizabeth continued to remain involved in her husband’s ministry and charity work.

Interior of Plymouth Grove, National Trust

“He is very shy, but very merry when he is well, delights in puns & punning, is very fond of children… 6 foot high, grey hair and whiskers….I do believe he does like Manchester better than any other place in the world; and his study the best place in Manchester” – Elizabeth Gaskell, in describing her husband.

While Gaskell loved her husband dearly and was faithful to him, she did meet a young man in her later life who flattered her womanly ego. On one of her trips to Italy with her daughters, she met an American, Charles Norton, who was 20 years her junior and clearly worshipped her. One cannot be surprised by his attraction, for Elizabeth was a successful, intelligent, and passionate woman. But their friendship remained platonic and they corresponded until Elizabeth’s death. Her Roman flirtation left an indelible memory in Elizabeth’s mind: “It was in those charming Roman days that my life culminated,” she later wrote to a friend. “I shall never be so happy again. I don’t think I was ever so happy before.”**

Mrs. Gaskell towards the end of her life.

Years of loss, sorrow, hard work, and success took a toll on her. Once a vibrant and lovely woman, she looked drawn and tired in later photographs. Elizabeth’s death came suddenly and unexpectedly on a visit to her cottage near Alton in Holybourne, Hampshire. Unknown to her husband, she had secretly purchased the house for their retirement.

“On Sunday November 12, 1865, she and her daughters spent a lazy morning before Elizabeth walked up the lane to church. The vicar thought she looked extremely well.

At 5pm, everyone sat in the drawing room for tea. Elizabeth was gossiping, relating a conversation she’d had with a judge when, mid-sentence, she stopped, gasped and slumped down dead from a heart attack.” – The Daily Mail Online, 2007

Manuscript of Wives and Daughters

Elizabeth had been witing her last work, Wives and Daughters, which remained unfinished. After her unexpected death, a friend wrote, “The world of English letters has lost one of its foremost authors,” a sentiment the Anthenaeum echoed: “If not the most popular, with small question, the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists.”

Burial spot for Elizabeth and William Gaskell

Elizabeth is buried at Brookstreet Chapel in Knutsford. William Gaskell survived her by two decades and never retired, serving as Minister in Cross Street and living in Plymouth Grove with two daughters until his death in 1884. He is buried beside her.

In terms of her legacy, this 1989 letter by Henry Rollin, Chairman, History of Psychiatry Group,  sums up Elizabeth Gaskell’s body of work:

But of greater importance to the medical historian are the glimpses she gives in her novels of the socioeconomic diseases of the period of which she writes. Life is cheap. Alcoholism and prostitution are rife. Cholera and typhus are commonplace. Women die in childbirth. And she reveals in harrowing detail the prevalence of opium addiction. John Barton, the father of Mary Barton in her novel of that name, is portrayed as a man so bitterly humiliated by his abject failure in all departments of his life that he degenerates into the quintessential opium addict. But even more haunting is the intense pathos of her description of the relationship between opium and the grinding poverty and near-starvation of the underprivileged. “Many a penny that would have gone little way enough in oatmeal or potatoes, bought opium to still the hungry little ones, and make them forget their uneasiness in heavy troubled sleep”, she writes of the Manchester she knew in her day-to-day work as the wife of a Unitarian minister.”

Gaskell's great great great granddaughter, Sarah Prince, lays a wreath in the Poet's Corner

In honor of the Bicentenary, Mrs. Gaskell was included in the poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey, a top honor indeed. Rest in peace, Elizabeth Gaskell, and happy, happy birthday!

Gentle Reader: This blog has joined fourteen others in celebrating the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour, sponsored by Austenprose. The next blog on your tour is Mary Barton (1848) Book: Kelly’s of the Jane Austen Sequel Examiner. She will discuss Mary Barton, Gaskell’s first book.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline October 7th, midnight PT


Thank you, Austenprose, for arranging this web tour!

The Gaskell Blog Tour:





  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – a select bibliography of written resources and links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester:  Tony Grant – London Calling

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With The Old Curiosity Shop, Masterpiece Classic aired its last special for the 2009 season last night. Which film was your favorite? Curious minds want to know.


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Society was aware of Mr and Mrs Merdle. Society had said ‘Let us license them; let us know them.

The Merdles and Sparkler

The Merdles and Sparkler

Mr Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, ‘Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?’ And, the reply being in the negative, had said, ‘Then I won’t look at you.’

This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest of crimson and gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom to repose upon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr Merdle wanted something to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for the purpose. Storr and Mortimer might have married on the same speculation.

Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The jewels showed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Society approving, Mr Merdle was satisfied. He was the most disinterested of men,–did everything for Society, and got as little for himself out of all his gain and care, as a man might. – Charles Dickens, Book the First: Poverty, Chapter 21: Mr Merdle’s Complaint

Mr. Merdle kisses Fanny's hand

Mr. Merdle kisses Fanny's hand

For those who have not read the book or seen the last installment, spoilers ahead:

The Merdles  take front and center stage at the start of the last installment of PBS Masterpiece Classic’s Little Dorrit, fulfilling the promises that this film’s theme of bankruptcy and fallen fortunes is a relevant one in today’s world. Mr. Merdle, played by Anton Lesser, was the Man of the Age. He made money for his investors seemingly out of thin air and they loved him for it. Yet Mr. Merdle (the last name is a play on the French word Merde, meaning shit) seemed to be chronically unhappy, despite his showy wife, elegant house, and sterling reputation.  The viewer soon learns what had been keeping him preoccupied: he was stealing from one fund to pay for another (shades of Bernard Madoff), and issuing shares without collatoral.  His house of cards tumbled down, and along with it, all his investors. Instead of facing the consequences, Merdle committed suicide with a pen knife he has borrowed from his daughter-in-law Fanny. To deaden the pain of stabbing his jugular vein with a blunt knive, he drank laudanum, leaving others to literally clean up his messes. Merdle’s demise affected a score of people, but except for the money they lost and their uncertain financial future, his wife, daughter-in-law and stepson did not seem greatly affected by his suicide. Fanny wondered when her pen knife would be returned and the butler took off  soon after learning that the family was bankrupt, leaving his post without notice. With a few deft touches, Charles Dickens showed how quickly the mighty can fall and that the world really doesn’t give a shit except in the instance where it is affected.

Anton Lesser and Nick Jones as Mr. Merdle and his butler

Anton Lesser and Nick Jones as Mr. Merdle and his butler

Most people could and still can lose other people’s money without much conscience, but during this and the Regency era debt was considered to be a matter of honor (would that it was today).  Social historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that “Bankruptcy was, according to economic theory, the penalty of inefficient businessmen, and its spectre haunts the novels of Victorian England.”  (Victorian Web) Mounting debts affected people in different ways. George Brummel fled to France in 1817 rather than face debtor’s prison when he fell out of favor with the Prince Regent and could not repay his creditors. He was not the only gentleman to flee to the continent due to insolvency. The cost of gambling, bad investments, horses, carriages, fine food and a decent wardrobe could tip a modest – even a great – fortune over the edge. Other individuals, like William Dorrit and Arthur Clennam, were sent to debtor’s prison. Some chose suicide, like Mr. Merdle, leaving their families to face the consequences.

Bath house where Merdle committed suicide

Bath house where Merdle committed suicide

The tale of Little Dorrit is not only based on Dicken’s personal experience of watching his father incarcerated in the Marshalsea, but the novel is also set against the backdrop of real bank failures:

Little Dorrit was originally published between 1855 and 1857 (many of Dickens’ works first appeared in serial form) at a time when the collapse of the Royal British Bank was receiving much publicity. The collapse was a result of the bank having channelled most of its capital into Welsh gold mines in the vain hope the Wales would prove to be the next California. (The discoveries which sparked the California Gold Rush had been made in 1848). After the bank’s collapse it was discovered that the directors had made secret loans to themselves and their friends.

Dickens used the preface to Little Dorrit to defend what he called “that extravagant conception, Mr. Merdle, by alluding to “a certain Irish bank” – the Tipperary Bank which failed in 1857 – and he also mentioned “the curious coincidence” that the public examination of the former directors of the Royal British Bank took place when he was finishing the book. – The Financial Fiction Genre

Arthur and Amy on their wedding day

Arthur and Amy on their wedding day

After losing his and his partner’s investments in Merdle’s schemes, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Mcfadyen) went willingly to the Marshalsea instead of escaping his obligations. After his debts were paid he settled for a “modest life of usefulness and happiness” by marrying Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy).

More links:

Missed an episode? Watch episodes online at this link through May 3rd.

A happy ending after all

A happy ending after all

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Dickens recounts how when his father and he went into the prison they both wept very much and his father warned him that if a man had 20 pounds a year and spent 19 pounds, 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. – A.S. Byat, Within Those Walls

Born in prison

Born in prison

The first surprise I encountered watching Little Dorrit on Masterpiece Classic was to see little Amy born in the Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison to which her father had been sentenced for owing £400. William Dorritt, also know as the “Father of the Marshalsea”, was incarcerated for 23 years, slowly rotting from the inside out and living a life without hope of becoming a free man again. He was allowed to bring in his family, a tradition of those bygone days. Sadly, Mrs. Dorrit died before her husband could repay his debt. Amy has never known a life other than in prison.

Life without hope for William Dorrit

Life without hope for William Dorrit

John Howard, a reformer, visited Marshalsea eight times between 1774 and 1783, and made the following observations:

There are in the whole near sixty rooms; and yet only six of them left for common-side debtors. Of the other rooms – five were let to a man who was not a prisoner; in one of them he kept a chandler’s shop, in two he lived with his family; the other two he let to prisoners….The chamber rent wants regulation, for in several rooms where four lie in two beds, and in some rooms where two lie in one bed, each pays 3 p 6d for his lodgings.

The prison is greatly out of repair. No infirmary. The court is well supplied with water. In it the prisoners play at rackets etc., and in a little back court, the Park, at skittles.

In March 1775 when the number of prisoners was 175, there were with them in this incommodious prison wives and children 46. – The Chronicles of London, Saint and Darley, New York, 1994, p 150.


The prison had not much changed when Charles Dickens lived there, for William Dorrit’s nightmare was his own. In 1824, when Dickens was twelve, his father, John, had been taken there for debts he could not repay. Instead of going to school, Dickens left the Marshalsea each day to work at Warren’s boot-blacking factory, where he was paid six shillings a week.

The family [Dickens] writes, lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it, They were waited on still by the maid of all work from Bayham Street, the orphan girl from Chatham workhouse from whose sharp little worldly, yet also kindly, ways I took my first impressions of the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop. Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford

His father’s experience in the Marshalsea left an indelible impression. Dickens must have written these lines from the heart: “She looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen, with her father in it.” Unlike William Dorrit, who spent nearly a quarter of a century in prison, John Dickens walked out after six months when one of his relatives died and left enough money in the will to pay off the debt.

"It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

"It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top."

Once a man of substance, William Dorrit (played by Tom Courtenay) tried to live with some dignity inside the high spiked walls, but much of his self-consequence came at the expense of his youngest daughter, Amy (Little Dorrit), who devoted her young life catering to her father.  “In his deepest heart he knows that he’s made an utter mess of his and his beloved children’s lives, but he would never openly admit to this failure. For his sake, the family all keep up the pretence of respectability.” ( BBC)  Even at his lowest ebb, William Dorrit finds comfort in the title of “Father of the Marshalsea.” He adheres to social standards, blinding himself to his son’s Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and daughter Fanny’s less than acceptable career as a dancer,  and dines in state on the food that Amy has set aside from her own repasts.

The family’s ability to come and go from prison within the curfew hours so surprised me that I wanted to research the topic. Only the debtor remained imprisoned. In reality, as Dickens attests, life inside those walls was not much worse than life outside it – for the destitute. The friendship between Amy and John Chivery was genuine. John performed his duties with humanity, and Amy recognized that the Assistant Turnkey was simply following orders.

Leaving the Marshalsea in state

Leaving the Marshalsea in state

Even when freed, William Dorrit does not step outside his prison. When he is finally released, due to an inheritance found through Arthur Clennam’s perseverance, his heart is as pinched as his confined world had once been.  Charles Dickens wrote about the character:

Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out. If he had been a man with strength of purpose to face those troubles and fight them, he might have broken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he languidly slipped into this smooth descent, and never more took one step upward.

Instead of thanking Arthur, he avoids him and puts on airs of grandiosity. His children are given lessons of deportment by Mrs. General as they traipse across Europe on a Grand Tour. They are lessons in futility, for Fanny and Edward are beyond help, and Amy is uninterested in the trappings of wealth. And yet despite his opulent surroundings, William was unable to escape the effects of the Marshalsea and his mind remained imprisoned. He returns to London, but instead of enjoying the high life, he is constantly plagued by reminders of his past and falls into a great depression.

William Dorrit in London

William Dorrit in London

In real life, a man who was confined in the Marshalsea just like William Dorrit, reacted to his imprisonment in a much different way. John Howard recalled:

Mr. Henry Allnot, who was many years hence a prisoner here, had during his confinement a large estate bequeathed to him. He learnt sympathy by his sufferings, and left £100 a year for discharging poor debtors from hence whose debts do not exceed £4. As he bound his manor of Goring in Oxfordshire for charitable uses, this is called the Oxford charity.  Many are cleared by it every year. – The Chronicles of London, p. 150


Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1842, and all that remains today is a long brick wall and two gated arches.

In 1856 whilst engaged in the purchase of Gad’s Hill, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the Marshalsea, then in the course of demolition, to see what traces were left of the prison of which he had received such early and vivid impressions as a boy, and which he had been able to rebuild almost brick by brick in Little Dorritt by the aid of his wonderfully retentive memory. He writes to his friend John Forster, “Went to the Borough yesterday morning before going to Gad’s Hill to see if I could find any ruins of the Marshalsea. Found a great part of the original building now Marshalsea Place. I found the rooms that had been in my mind’s eye in the story…There is a room there still standing that I think of taking. It is the room through which the ever memorable signers of Captain Porter’s petition filed off in my boyhood. The spikes are gone and the wall is lowered, and any body can go out now who likes to go and is not bed ridden.”  Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford

My other Little Dorrit Reviews:

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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

Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, 2008

Maria Beadnell

Maria Beadnell

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

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

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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clairefoycourtenayCharles Dickens wrote Little Dorrit during the mid 19th century, but he placed the story at a time when his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison. PBS will be airing a 5-installment series of Little Dorrit starting tonight at 9 p.m. EST and ending April 26th. If you have missed any episodes, you can watch them online at this link.

The film is stunning; the acting is outstanding; and this story of greed, ponzi schemes, lost fortunes, insurmountable debts, and wrecked lives resonates in today’s financial climate. In the next few weeks I will be posting a series of thoughts and reviews about this film, which is set in the Regency Period. The links sit below this slide show.

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