Saturday, April 9, 2011

Little Dorrit - by Charles Dickens

I am fascinated by the Marshalsea debtors’ prison.  It is where Dickens’ own father was sent and that fall reverberated, sending young Charles from school to an ignominious job – an experience that can be seen to color the difficult lives of many of his young characters.

The Marshalsea itself is a character in Dickens’ Little Dorrit. (£0.69 UK edition) (EUR 0,99 Deutsch edition)  I think it is a somewhat overlooked novel.  It is not that I would tell people not to read his more famous works, but you have to read this novel too!
"There had been taken to the Marshalsea Prison, long before the day when the sun shone on Marseilles and on the opening of this narrative, a debtor with whom this narrative has some concern.

He was, at that time, a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman, who was going out again directly. Necessarily, he was going out again directly, because the Marshalsea lock never turned upon a debtor who was not. He brought in a portmanteau with him, which he doubted its being worth while to unpack; he was so perfectly clear—like all the rest of them, the turnkey on the lock said—that he was going out again directly.

He was a shy, retiring man; well-looking, though in an effeminate style; with a mild voice, curling hair, and irresolute hands—rings upon the fingers in those days—which nervously wandered to his trembling lip a hundred times in the first half-hour of his acquaintance with the jail. His principal anxiety was about his wife.

'Do you think, sir,' he asked the turnkey, 'that she will be very much shocked, if she should come to the gate to-morrow morning?'

The turnkey gave it as the result of his experience that some of 'em was and some of 'em wasn't. In general, more no than yes."
Oddly enough this book has been filmed twice and both times was marred by audio that could not be understood.  The actors talked in an undertone and mumbled all at once.  I think it was an effort to convey a tone from the book, which evokes so well the busy society of the prison.  

It is such an odd concept to us that people would be locked up for owing money – ensuring that they could not work to pay off their debts!  But odder still is that their families sometimes moved into the prison as well, but those people could go back and forth because they were not debtors.  So in a sense the Marshalsea was like a ghetto where some have access and egress during daylight hours.  Of course this brings about trading and scheming  in an effort to collect the money needed to leave. 

The prison was torn down before Dickens wrote the novel -I visited the site in London to see a massive brick wall that is still standing.  As Dickens says of its destruction in the foreword to this novel,  “ . . . the world is none the worse without it.”   

How ironic then that he re-created it as completely as Joyce did Dublin. The Marshalsea, with its sad and colorful inhabitants, will stand forever. 

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