Thursday, December 31, 2015

Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit (1855-57)

Sarah Pickering as Amy Dorrit in Christine Edzard's 1987 movie

[Image source for all stills: ]

Little Dorrit (Dec. 1855 - June 1857)

The book that is in so many ways Dickens' greatest is also one of his most perfunctory. Usually you think of the last chapter of a Dickens novel as a meticulous tying up of loose ends, but here Dickens has a better idea and leaves much of the plot hanging. Where does Mrs Clennam live? Does Arthur ever find out she is not his mother? What is his real mother's name?

Rigaud is a curious creation. All good people, within the book, find Rigaud disturbingly horrible, a mere spider to be scotched. Yet what evil does he really do? Apart from the murder of his wife, supposed to have taken place before the novel begins, he appears before us only as a spy who indulges in a bit of blackmail. And at least Rigaud's small-time meddling finally brings out the concealed truth, in that operatic scene at Mrs Clennam's house. The concealed truth is not quite what we might have expected. We might have imagined these long-awaited revelations would have some bearing on the ruin of William Dorrit, but in fact there's hardly any connection. The revelations are complicated and not very interesting: what we remember instead is the hypothetical story we contemplated while reading: the one in which Mrs Clennam takes Amy Dorrit into service because she is somehow responsible for Dorrit being in prison... but that's a figment of our (and Arthur's) imagination.  

Rigaud has another, poorly organized, function. At one point the plot goes quite distracted in sending various parties in search of a Rigaud who has "disappeared". No-one ever explains what this means. In what sense has Rigaud disappeared? It's not as if he has disappeared from his home, because no-one knows if he has a home or where it is. And why are Mrs Clennam and Flintwinch so anxious to find him, anyway? Wouldn't you be happy if your blackmailer disappeared? Despite this, Arthur Clennam is intensely interested in tracking down Rigaud, though he apparently forgets all about him as soon as he's found; if he subsequently asks any questions about the outcome, and how he's answered, we don't know. More improbably still, Flora Finching interests herself in Rigaud's "disappearance" and, against all the odds, even infects Mr Dorrit with mild curiosity. The scene in which William Dorrit visits Mrs Clennam is the most distracted in the book. The two characters come together in Mrs Clennam's room and have nothing pertinent to say to each other, as if they don't really know why the author has brought them together. Nobody ever refers to the scene again. 

Alec Guinness as William Dorrit in Christine Edzard's 1987 movie

In Christine Edzard's six-hour movie she had no use for Rigaud. Or, more disappointingly, for Tattycoram, one of Dickens' most astonishing discoveries. And obviously you can't do a lot with the Alps when you're filming in a London warehouse. But her film is a masterpiece, and also the most faithful of adaptations, especially in two respects. First, it gets the spatial sense of the book right: this book that begins not with November fog but with the staring tiles on the roofs of Marseille; it's a psychological space that's both crowded and strangely empty; a far more more modernistic space than Bleak House.  Second, the film is almost alone among Dickens adaptations in choosing to perform the book's conversations just as Dickens wrote them (more or less) and to leave further clarification to chance. 

Sarah Pickering as Amy Dorrit in Christine Edzard's 1987 movie

Three minutes of a 360-minute masterpiece:
Ten minutes of interviews with the actors:
Another minute or so, featuring Roshan Seth as Pancks:
Sarah Pickering, who never made another film, and who became a theatrical agent in Leicestershire:



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