Although Dickens based William Dorrit as well as Mr. Micawber, on some of the superficial mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of his father, the fundamental humiliation of Dorrit, his shame and fears , helplessness and concealments, are in all likelihood Dicken’s own. It was he who felt imprisoned, just as all the leading characters in ”Little Dorrit” , and not only William Dorrit himself, feel imprisoned or are shown in conditions or institutions or states of mind that are as imprisoning as the spied wall of Marshalsea debtor’s prison.
All his life from now on, Dickens was to be obsessed with prisons, prisoners and imprisonment. There is scarecely a book in which they do not play a part. They are repeatedly used as symbols of suffering, inescapably linked with childhood memories, and they bind him, however reluctantly and with whatever subsequent reservations, to the fears and hopes of the oppressed. To Edmund Wilson it seems that even in Pickwick Papers, Dickens first and most cheerful novel, the hero was destined for the Fleet Street prison from the beginning. And it is certainly there in the Fleet that the earlier shadows cast by the gloomy, interpolated stories come together to darken the spirit of ”Pickwick Papers”.
There is no squalor in Pickwick’s Fleet to compare with that of the real Marshalsea. But it is here that Pickwick for the first time sees men who have ”lost friends, fortunes, home and happiness;” it is here for the first time that he feels a ”depression of spirit and sinking of heart” as he thinks of being left alone in such a ” coarse, vulgar crowd;” it is here for the first time that he turns away from a fellow human being, unable to stand the sight of a ”young woman, with a child in her arms, who seems scarcely able to crawl, from emaciation and misery…Mr. Pickwick’s heart was really too full to bear it, and he went upstairs to bed.”
It is a theme and an emotion to which Dickens persistently returns; Fagin in the condemned cell; Pip in ”Great Expectations”, who is shown the gallows at Newgate and the Debtors’ Door by a man in mildewed clothes ”bought cheap off the executioner”, and who watches the scene at visiting time when ” a potman was going his rounds with beer; and the prisoners behind bars in yards, were buying beer, and talking to friends; and a frouzy, ugly, disorderly, depressing scene it was”. The repetition of this theme reflects Dickens’s need to probe constantly into that painful past that so very few of his readers knew had ever existed.
Nor was it in imagination that Dickens felt this compulsion to turn over and re-examine these days of misery and social disgrace that centered around Marshalsea. In England, America, Italy, and France he found his way to the prison in each new town he visited, in the way that another man might seek out a museum or a church. He would never forget, he wrote later, the mixed feelings of awe and respect with which he used to gaze at the forbidding walls of Newgate prison, the huge door plated with iron and mounted with spikes, the turnkeys sitting around a fire inside the white washed lodge. He wondered how on earth the hackney coachmen could ”cut jokes in the presence of such horrors and drink pots of half-and-half so near the last drop.”
He would never forget, either, the iron cage in the wall of the Fleet, behind which ”was posted some man of hungry looks, who, from time to time, rattled a money box, and exclaimed in a mournful voice, ‘Pray, remember the poor debtors; pray, remember the poor debtors.’ ”
On getting back to Gower Street from the prison, Charles would be given supper by his mother and then sent out to the pawnshop with bits of her remaining jewelry or a boxful of kitchen utensils, which it
hoped would fetch enough money to provide food for the family the next day. One night when he got home, he found most of the furniture gone, and all that remained in the house were a few chairs and beds and the kitchen table. Mrs. Dickens and her six children then moved into the two front rooms, and they al lived there, night and day, with their orphan maid.
On the next rent day, there was little of any value that could be sold, and they moved out and went to live with John Dickens in his room at Marshalsea. It was hardly big enough for himself, let alone for his family, but at least they could be together there; and since John was still getting his twenty-five pounds a month from the navy Pay Office, where he had worked, they would not go hungry. Nor would the other Dickenses be confined to the prison; for although the debtors were not allowed outside the walls, their families could move freely in and out of the gateway until it was shut and locked at night. The few pieces of extra furniture they needed could be hired from the turnkeys, while food could either be cooked in the prison kitchen or brought in from a cookshop.
There was, however, no room for Charles, who was sent out to live on his own with a Mrs. Roylance, a ”reduced old lady” who took children in to board. His father paid for Charles lodging there. But out of his six shillings a week Charles had to provide for all his other wants. Usually for breakfast he had ”a penny cottage loaf and a penny worth of milk,” though sometimes on his way to work in the mornings he could not resist the pieces of pastry put out in trays at confectioners’ doors in Tottenham Court Road. Being stale they were sold cheap, but even so, if he bought a slice, he found that he could only afford a saveloy sausage and a penny loaf for his dinner, or perhaps bread and cheese and a glass of beer in ”a miserable old public house over the way.” He was usually alone, and constantly unhappy.
”WHILE he spoke, he was opening and shutting his hands like valves; so conscious all the time of that touch of shame, that he shrunk before his own knowledge of his meaning” (1.19.190). (1) That picture of the Father of the Marshalsea, as he is called in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, has always stuck in my mind. Only Dickens, perhaps, would think of the man’s shame being betrayed in this way by his hands. The most coherent satire in the same novel features the great financier Merdle (the French connotations of his name unmistakable) “with his hands crossed under his uneasy coat-cuffs, clasping his wrists as if he were taking himself into custody” (1.33.331). Merdle’s conscious guilt can be glimpsed only so; Dorrit’s shame is implicit in the very fact of being a prisoner for debt, though his Lear-like grandiosity strives to conceal it. ( Alexander Welsh )
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear made the deepest and most lasting impression on Dickens. If I am right, the novelist anticipated the judgment of our own time that the play is even more representative of humanity than Hamlet (Foakes, 1993). Although–or because–he was both young and successful when he first saw the tragedy at age 26, he reacted promptly to the haunting spectacle of old age. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), Dickens surrounded his Little Nell (the child leading her senile grandfather in their progress toward death) with at least five old men, only two of whom are given names, so that the narrative repeatedly designates this or that “old man.” In Dombey and Son (1846-48), for which the son and heir was to be “a daughter after all,” he translated Lear and his kingdom into the collapse of a modern house of business, with only the rejected Florence Dombey to minister to her father’s last days (Welsh, 1987: 87-99). The role of a selfless daughter in saving the father would be still more marked in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and it is fair to say that in nineteenth-century redactions of King Lear generally, the Cordelia figure becomes more and more prominent. In Little Dorr/t (1855-57) she has assumed the title role. ( Alexander Welsh )