Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Little Dorrit’

In celebration of Little Dorrit’s remarkable seven wins at the emmys, PBS will be showing the series online for a limited time. The duration of online availability is through Sept 29, so hurry and click here to watch this well-crafted and outstanding show in its entirety. USA only. So sorry, our other country friends.

pipe09-dorrit-big

Read Full Post »

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.

the-old-curiosity-shop-1b1d7ef6-7e9c-4c39-adea-f899b8e38345

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

The Dorrits in Venice

The Dorrits in Venice

In Little Dorrit, Mr. William Dorrit followed an age old tradition when he decided to take his family on a Grand Tour of the Continent in order to educate them and expose them to the sights and monuments that influenced Western Civilization. Through Mrs. General, he introduced lessons of deportment and elocution to his children. Amy, who was the least willing to leave, made sure that the Plornishes and Maggy were well-provided for before the family departed.

Pam Ferris as Mrs. General

Pam Ferris as Mrs. General

The Grand Tour took more than a year because transportation before the advent of the railway was slow. Itineraries varied, although Paris and Rome were favorite destinations. Before the Napoleonic Wars, young gentlemen were expected to go on a 1-2 year Grand Tour with a tutor. The results were often mixed. (Click on this link to read my post on the topic.) Some heirs returned with souvenirs and their heads stuffed with knowledge, and others frittered their time away, or worse, lost their fortune at the gaming tables. Travels to the Continent ceased during the Peninsular Wars, but picked up again as soon as Napoleon was defeated. As the 19th century progressed, more and more women began to travel abroad with their families and/or chaperones. The Grand Tour began to make inroads with the rising middle class, as well as with Americans, and survives to this day in the form of a “world tour,” with (typically) recent college graduates and retirees taking several months to a year traveling.

The Dorrits likely departed England from Dover and landed at Calais, the same route as today’s  Chunnel. In the early 19th century, the short voyage across the English Channel was fraught with danger. People risked seasickness or a shipwreck should a sudden storm appear. It took three days to make the journey from Dover to Paris.  Lodging would have been provided by inns along the way, hotels, friends of the family, or, as in the case of the Dorrits, a convent or monastery set up for the purpose of putting guests up for the night. It was at such a lodging that the Dorrits met Rigaud, who was traveling with the newly married Gowan and a concerned and downhearted Pet. Much to Amy’s distress, the Frenchman took an inordinate interest in her as well. As the Dorrits crossed the Swiss Alps towards Italy, Amy was seen to be the only member of the family to appreciate the natural wonders of her surroundings or to show genuine curiosity.

Map of a modern grand tour

Map of a modern grand tour

After the St. Bernard Pass, the Dorrits would have encountered Turin before journeying on to Venice.

Henry Gowan, William Dorrit, and Rigaud at their lodging

Henry Gowan, William Dorrit, and Rigaud at their lodging

It was traditional for Grand Tour visitors to remain for several months in a major destination city, as the Dorrits did in Venice. Visitors did not carry a great deal of cash, for fear of robbery, but brought letters of credit that they would present at the nearest bank. Unlike other cities in Western Europe, Venice had been an independent maritime state for over a thousand years. Its wealthy merchants had created a sumptuous city that was influenced culturally and artistically by the East. Saint Mark’s Basilica is one of the most recognizable and beautiful examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. The city’s watery setting also made it unique and unforgettable. In a letter written on a grand tour in 1932, the author reveals that little had changed in Venice in over a century, or indeed through today:

Journeying by gondola

Journeying by gondola

I suppose most people think that one cannot go anywhere in Venice except by gondola. That is not so at all. There are sidewalks and narrow streets and alleys that lead all over the city. The small canals from 15 to 40 feet wide are traversed by gondolas and sometimes small motorboats. The houses rise directly from the water’s edge in many cases. Thus along the Grand Canal the front steps lead right into the water where private or public gondolas are waiting — taxis, you know. Some of these palaces are very beautiful. Each has tall mooring posts, decorated with the family arms or gay stripesGrand Tour 1932

Mrs. Merdle and William Dorrit in Venice

Mrs. Merdle and William Dorrit in Venice

Spoiler Alert for those who have not read the book: William Dorrit was never able to escape the influence of 23 years in the Marshalsea, and on the evening of his death in Venice he imagined he was back in prison again. Of his children, only Amy remained humble and true to herself throughout the journey. Although it was evident that she deeply appreciated her beautiful surroundings, she never stopped missing England or the friends she had left behind.

Missed an episode on Masterpiece Classic? You can watch past episodes online until early May at this link.

Fanny visits the museum

Fanny visits the museum

More About the Grand Tour

My other Little Dorrit Reviews:

Read Full Post »

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.

william-dorrit

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

remaining-wall-of-the-marshalsea-prison

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:

Read Full Post »

Though older and heavier than as a spoiled scoundrel in The Way We Live Now and heartthrob, Mr. Darcy, Matthew’s turn as kind-hearted Arthur Clennam in PBS Masterpiece Classic’s Little Dorrit is outstanding. No one has played the character better in my opinion.

My reviews of Little Dorrit:

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: