This coming Thursday, I’d like to see how far contextualising Little Dorrit in its historical, social and cultural context helps us understand what is going on in the novel. In particular, I’d like to talk about:
1. The Crimean War. It would help if you familiarised yourself a little with the prosecution of this war (the reason why so many pubs across London are called The Alma and where the Balaclava got its name). Matthew Lalumia’s ‘Realism and Anti-Aristocratic Sentiment in Victorian Depictions of the Crimean War’ [Victorian Studies, Autumn 1983] is a good overview of the ways in which the war worked its way into Victorian visual culture; Dickens is mentioned in passing. Stefanie Markovits, ‘Rushing into Print: “Participatory Journalism” during the Crimean War’ Victorian Studies (2008) is a thorough account of the journalistic and newspaper accounts of the war. Some of Grace Dent’s chapter on Dorrit and the Crimean war, in Dickens and empire: discourses of class, race and colonialism in the works of Charles Dickens (Ashgate, 2006) is available on Googlebooks.
2. The Circumlocution Office. Dickens based his satirical portrait of governmental obfuscation and incompetence on HM Treasury, you know. It used to be thought that the Circumlocution Office reflected Dickens’s agreement with the Northcote-Trevelyan report [that’s a PDF link to the actual 1853 report, there — it makes interesting reading, but it is lengthy] advocating administrative reform of the Permanent Civil Service. But a recent article in the Dickens Studies Annual (DSA 22 (1993) 283–302, not online but in the library) by Trey Philpotts argues against this old belief. He suggests that ‘what galled Dickens in the Treasury Office-his model for the Circumlocution Office-was a class-based elitism that Northcote-Trevelyan tended to perpetuate’ Instead, says Philpotts, ‘Dickens directed his satire at concrete, administrative practices, shrewdly analyzed as to origins and outcome, rather than at some systemic failure too vast to understand or combat.’ It’s also worth noting that Dickens wrote numerous articles for Household Words on the evils of administrative red-tape: you might want to look up “That Other Public,” HW XI (February 3, 1855), 1-4; “Prince Bull. A Fairy Tale,” HW XI (February 17, 1855), 49-51; “The Thousand and One Humbugs,” HW XI (April 21 and 28, May 5, 1855), 265-67, 289-92, 312-16; “The Toady Tree,” HW XI (May 26, 1855), 385-87.
3. Napoleon III. This is more a personal crotchet for me, but important I think — it explains (I’d argue) why France has the large role in this novel it has. There’s a post on this very blog outlining what I consider the parallels between Rigaud and Louis Napoleon. Read it and see what you think. At any rate, some sense of the history of France from 1848 through the 1850s is a useful context for the novel.
We’ll talk about each in turn.
For a contrary view, read Nancy Aycock Metz’s article arguing that Dorrit (unlike, she says, Bleak House) has little to do with contemporary concerns, and is instead a portrait of a ruined, lost, past metropolis: ‘Little Dorrit‘s London: Babylon Revisited’, Victorian Studies (Spring 1990)
One more thing: you may have seen this Daily Mail news story, ‘The real Little Dorrit: the inspiration for Dickens’ classic novel was a single mother-turned-prostitute‘ [25th October 2008]. It makes good copy, and there’s some interesting material in there on Urania Cottage, but I don’t think it’s right about the source for Little Dorrit herself. Dickensian scholars have known about Caroline Maynard for a long time; she lived with a well-off man as his common-law wife for nine years, had a kid and used his money to help her younger brother and sister; but then the man buggered off and she resorted to prostitution. Her brother wrote Dickens a begging letter, and Dickens (Michael Slater notes that he was ‘much affected’ by her ‘sisterly devotion’) arranged for them to emigrate and start a new life. Not much, there, in common with Little Dorrit’s own circumstance, really.