Thursday 23 November 2017

Two reflections on Dickens's Little Dorrit, by Leslie Wilson

I'm listening to Little Dorrit as an audiobook at the moment, which will see me through quite a lot of cooking and baking. This is not a comprehensive set of remarks about the book, but two thoughts which I decided were suitable for this blog.
Mr Meagles tells Tattycoram to count five and twenty

One is: Tattycoram!
Tattycoram is actually called Harriet, but her employers have decided to give her the less attractive name (not uncommon in the nineteenth century, when servants could be renamed just because there was already a Mary, or a Janet, or whatever, in the establishment.) The 'practical' Meagles couple took her from an orphanage (presumably the Coram orphanage, though this isn't stated), telling themselves that 'if we should find her temper a little defective, or any of her ways a little wide of ours, we shall know what we have to take into account... no parents, no child-brother or sister, no individuality of home..' They called her Tatty instead of Harriet, because 'we thought even a playful name might be a new thing to her, and might have a softening and affectionate kind of effect.' To which conviction they stick, even when she runs away and tells them that she hates the name. They are right, and what she wants doesn't matter. Instead, when she gets upset or 'passionate', Mr Meagles tells her to count to five and twenty. When she runs away, and the woman to whom she runs points out to Meagles that she hates the name, Meagles only says, in his blundering, insensitive way: 'I'll call you by that name still, my good girl, conscious that I meant nothing but kindness when I gave it to you, and conscious that you know it -'

'I don't!' said she. Whereupon he once again tells her to count to five and twenty.

Of course, in our age, we would think Tattycoram deserved some consideration and care, instead of being expected to be grateful for being taken on as a kind of semi-slave, a maid to a child older than herself, and, as she not unreasonably points out, a child she sees being indulged and adored while she is expected to fetch and carry. If this is supposed to compensate her for a life without a loving family, it's not very helpful. It does, incidentally, cast a slightly less benign light on the Coram orphanage than visitors to Coram Fields might be inclined to see it in.
Little Dorrit leaving the Marshalsea

In Dickens's world view, it is, of course quite different. In the novel, Tattycoram sits diagonally across the narrative from good Little Dorrit, the Angel in the House, who lets her father, sister and brother treat her like a doormat, and who never complains. Compare Little Dorrit to Jane Eyre (whose outburst to Mrs Reed puts her more in the Tattycoram category, telling that heartless woman what she deserves, and hasn't got, as later she will tell Rochester). Dickens's women are, of course, notorious. However, Jane Eyre springs from the gentry; whether Bronte might have thought a working class woman was entitled to state her wrongs so vehemently is an interesting question.

In the nineteenth century, Tattycoram had to be grateful, to accept whatever weird name was dropped onto her by her gracious employers, to keep her place in society. I haven't listened to the book through yet, and it's ages since I read it, but I do feel that Dickens, while endorsing Meagles's charitable brutality, does give us enough material to realise that she is wronged, that she deserves better. Dickens did care about children, after all. It doesn't stop me wanting to slap Meagles every time he bleats: 'Count to five and twenty!'

The second reflection is the dreary aptness and relevance of this passage, 160 years after the book was written. However much Dickens's caricatures of women annoy me, as well as being a magnificent writer and a great story-teller, he was often pretty perceptive about people.
Charles Dickens
'It was uphill work for a foreigner.. to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts' (working and lower-middle class English people). 'In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of enquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the pricniple were generally recognised: they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did...
They believed that foreigners were always badly off; and though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection. They believed that foreigners were dragooned and bayonetted; and though they certainly got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill humour, still it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn't count. They believed that foreigners were always immoral; and though they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothing to do with it. They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing..'

All illustrations, public domain