Well knock me down with a weighty tome, we are officially three-quarters of the way through our mammoth attempt to read all of Dickens! I can’t quite believe so many words have gone into my brain. Our latest is the ironically-titled ‘Little’ Dorrit, a monster at 860 pages. It’s the third in Dickens’s ‘condition of England’ novels (after Bleak House and Hard Times) and, in our group’s view, easily the best.
Set partly in the notorious Marshalsea debtors’ prison (which, fact fans, you can still go and see the remains of), the story of pint-sized Amy Dorrit, her imprisoned father and their family’s rapidly changing fortunes has all the darkness, dirt, mystery, meatiness and obsession with money of Bleak House, but combined with the humour and memorable characters of earlier novels. It’s gone straight into my top five so far. These are just some of the reasons why:
• It has proper, complicated, psychologically damaged characters with rich interior lives. Arthur Clenham, ostensibly the hero, seems indelibly scarred by his miserable upbringing. Amy, while unfeasibly good and wise (and whose childlike appearance is somewhat icky), had a serenity that made her very moving to me. Even Flora Finching, Arthur’s ex, once a coquettish beauty and now a faded embarrassment, could have been grotesque, but is portrayed with subtlety and humanity.
• It made me snort with laughter on several occasions, particularly at Mrs Plornish of Bleeding Heart Yard, who convinces herself she can speak Italian in the same way I ‘spoke’ Danish after watching The Killing.
• It has one of the strangest, most unnerving and ambiguous chapters I’ve read in Dickens’s novels – ‘The History of a Self Tormentor’, where an emotionally disturbed woman tells us how she got that way.
• It has an utterly fantastic death scene. I won’t give too much away, but the description of a body in a bath, the ‘white marble veined with red’, is surpassed only by the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist.
• It has one of the loveliest, most moving last lines of a book, ever. I defy you to read it and not get choked up.
Next, we race on to the blood-stained streets of revolutionary Paris and A Tale of Two Cities …