Little Dorrit

I watched the last episode of the television adaptation on
Sunday, and finished rereading the book yesterday.

It’s a good adaptation, and the plot of the book is convoluted
enough that seeing the adaptation helps in reading the book, even
if you’re used to the
the convoluted plots of nineteenth century novels and soap

Of course, an eight hour TV show has to leave out a lot of
stuff from a 900 page book. I was especially sorry to lose the
impoverished music publisher. (He’s Mrs. Plornish’s father, who
at the beginning of the book is living in the Workhouse so as
not to take food out of the mouths of the Plornish

I think even the experienced adaptors who did this one chafed
at the restrictions, because the end seemed unusually
compressed, leaving us with no idea of what happens to several
characters who have been fairly carefully described (most
notably Minnie Meagles and her husband).

Of course, Dickens’ treatment of the business tycoon who steals
from one fund to pay off the investors in other funds and finally
loses money for all the main characters seems especially

The subplot where Miss Wade convinces Tattycorum (Harriet) to
leave her employment with the Meagles and live with her is a
little harder to translate to the twentyfirst century. One
reviewer suggested this was because of the hint of a lesbian
affair, but actually Dickens does hint at that. Mr. Meagles says
to Miss Wade:

‘If it should
happen that you are a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverted
delight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is (I am old enough
to have heard of such), I warn her against you, and I warn you against

The problem is
that we are initially inclined to sympathize with Harriet for
feeling oppressed and ignored, where Dickens really believes she
should be grateful and submissive to such excellent people who are
being so kind to her.

Here are a few notes on things I picked up on on this reading
that you might not have noticed.

White Sand and Grey Sand
This is mentioned when Mr. Panks is hanging around the
Marshalsea while he’s researching Mr. Dorrit’s inheritance. He
explains to Amy and Mr. Clennam,

‘I am spending the evening with the rest of ’em,’ said Pancks. ‘I’ve
been singing. I’ve been taking a part in White sand and grey sand.
I don’t know anything about it. Never mind. I’ll take any part in
anything. It’s all the same, if you’re loud enough.’

It’s actually a round — the person who taught it to me thought
it was Ravenscroft, but I don’t find it there.

Prunes and Prisms
I first ran into this phrase in Little Women, where Jo says
to Laurie:

“Hold your tongue!” cried Jo, covering her ears. “‘Prunes
and prisms’ are my doom, and I may as well make up my mind to
it. I came here to moralize, not to hear things that make me
skip to think of.”

If I’d thought of it, I would have known it was a quotation, and would
have probably guessed it was Dickens, but I wouldn’t have
guessed anything as good as what Mrs. General tells Amy Dorrit
when explaining why it’s more genteel and feminine to say “Papa”
than “Father”.

‘Papa is a preferable mode of address,’ observed Mrs General. ‘Father is
rather vulgar, my dear. The word Papa, besides, gives a pretty form to
the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism are all very
good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it
serviceable, in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to
yourself in company–on entering a room, for instance–Papa, potatoes,
poultry, prunes and prism, prunes and prism.’

I also learned a new word. It means having a florid, ruddy
face. It occurs describing the customers at the inn in the
Swiss alps:

The third party, which had ascended from the valley
on the Italian side of the Pass, and had arrived first, were four in
number: a plethoric, hungry, and silent German tutor in spectacles, on
a tour with three young men, his pupils, all plethoric, hungry, and
silent, and all in spectacles.

The derivation is from plethora, implying that the face is red because
of a plethora of blood.

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