Last weekend, PBS Masterpiece Classic began airing BBC's production of Little Dorrit. And I sat on my couch with shining eyes and my heart all a-flutter, beginning an incredible 5-part journey back through time to the grittier side of Victorian London. This Sunday was part two, and there are still three more episodes to go. Happy sigh.
Charles Dickens originally published Little Dorrit as serialized fiction, beginning in 1855 and concluding in 1857. It was his 16th novelization following The Pickwick Papers, which appeared in 1836-37. Little Dorrit follows third after his highly autobiographical David Copperfield, and one can see his steady reckoning with his own history as he explores the debtors' prison where his own father was held for a time.
Dickens' complex tale joins together the fortunes of imprisoned debtor William Dorrit and his family; embittered widow Mrs. Clennam and her servants; Arthur Clennam's fellow traveller Mr. Meagles and his family; wealthy banker Mr. Merdle and his family; prison gatekeeper Mr. Chivery and his son; Arthur's old sweetheart Flora Finching; rent collector Mr. Pancks; the notorious French murderer Rigaud and struggling inventor Daniel Doyce. I'm forever in awe of how Dickens managed to hold his myriad plot threads together. He is a master with whom I'll be apprenticing for as long as I live.
Main character Arthur Clennam is played by English actor Matthew MacFadyen, a huge favorite of mine ever since I watched the first episode of the first season of Spooks (MI-5). Arthur Clennam is my favorite kind of tormented hero. Brought up by a mother who cannot show him anything but distain, Arthur somehow continues to reach for joy even though he wears his melancholy like a second skin.
Claire Foy plays the title character of Amy Dorrit, born in the Marshalsea debtors' prison and grown to adulthood holding the remains of her family together. Another of my favorite kinds of characters, Amy is the soft-spoken person who's inwardly stronger than anyone else around her. Amy Dorrit recognizes a kindred soul in Arthur Clennam, no matter what their class differences say.
Dickens layers his versions of imprisonment with nearly every character. The obvious prisoner Dorrit is no more hampered than Mrs. Clennam in her decaying house, having more than enough money to pay for its proper upkeep. Arthur Clennam is stonewalled by the bureaucracy of the Circumlocution Office when he tries to get to the bottom of an injustice. Dickens' societies-within-societies, with characters like rent-collector Plancks at the bottom of one and the top of another, and stage star Fanny Dorrit a social pariah when it comes to making a match with an admirer, these are the worlds in which I love to disappear. It's not enough for me to spend time with the upper crust. I want all the layers. BBC's Little Dorrit delivers them all with a truly accomplished production.