of the debtor's prison is central to several of Dickens' novels and to his
personal life as well. In 1824, when Charles was 12 years old, his father
was arrested for debt and imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison in
Southwark. His father's imprisonment, and Charles' subsequent consignment
to Warren's Blacking factory to help support the family, was an extremely
traumatic experience that young Dickens never got over, and which proved
to be a major influence in his life's work.
Typically, a debtor was accused by the person to whom money was owed. The
accused was held several days in a sponging house, such as Coavin's in Bleak
House or Moss's, in which Rawdon Crawley is held in Thackeray's
Fair. If, in a few days, the money cannot be raised, the debtor
is imprisoned until the debt is paid.
In 1830, when Charles Dickens was
18 years old he fell madly in love with the daughter of a successful banker,
Maria Beadnell. He courted Miss Beadnell for three years, although her parents
objected to the relationship.
The courtship ended with Dickens heartbroken. He never forgot Maria, Dora
Spenlow in David Copperfield was based
on his memory of her.
In 1855, with his marriage to Kate breaking down, Dickens received a letter
from Maria, now married and describing herself as "toothless, fat, old and
ugly." Dickens memory of Maria would not allow him to believe this description
and, after several passionate letters were exchanged, a meeting was arranged.
When Dickens met Maria he was devastated, her description of herself being
fairly accurate. Thereafter his few letters to her were short and formal.
Dickens used the new Maria as the basis for Flora Finching, Arthur Clennam's
former lover in Little Dorrit. Flora is fat and tiresome, although
sincerely good natured. Dickens would later write "We all have our Floras,
mine is living, and extremely fat."
The Dorrit's European tour draws heavily
on Dickens own travels through France to Italy in 1844/45 and chronicled
in his travel book, Pictures from Italy.
Dickens' satiric representation of the Civil Service, where the Barnacle family demonstrates how to go around in circles, spewing red tape, and accomplishing nothing, draws on recent government bumbling during the Crimean War...and perhaps just a hint of leftover cynicism from Dickens' days as a young parliamentary reporter.
Dickens' life during the serialization of Little Dorrit Dec 1855 - Jun 1857
310,000 handbills and 4000 posters had been printed by Dec 31 advertising
Little Dorrit. Sales of the early numbers were phenomenal
and continued strong throughout the run.
Purchases Rochester mansion Gad's Hill Place which he had admired
from a child. He paid 1790 pounds for the house and resolved to
spend another 1000 pounds on improvements.
Returns from Paris where he had been, except for frequent trips
back to London, since October 1855. While in France he had completed
arrangements for a published translation of all of his books into
Visits Boulogne for two months.
Making preparation to stage the Amateur Theatrical The Frozen Deep.
In his eleventh novel, illustrated
by Phiz and published by Bradbury
and Evans, Dickens' childhood
memories of his father's imprisonment in the Marshalsea
for debt are brought forth again as the centerpiece of the story of
William Dorrit, whose family is also imprisoned there.
Dickens sets the novel in the 1820's, around the time his father was
an inmate in the Marshalsea, but virtually ignores that time period
during the novel in favor of the present time (mid 1850's) introducing
many anachronisms. The theme of imprisonment, both physical and psychological,
carries throughout the novel.
Dickens notes in the preface for the completed novel that he had never had so
many readers, indeed, sales of the monthly installments topped all
of Dickens' earlier works. This despite some critics declaring Little
Dorrit Dickens' worst offering, citing an overly complex plot
and lack of humor. Modern critics have been kinder, calling the novel
one of the best of Dickens' later novels.
This book, along with its predecessor, Hard
Times, marked a turn in Dickens' writing toward a darker
and gloomier outlook on life.
In the preface to Little Dorrit
Dickens describes a visit to Southwark to see what, if anything, remained
of the Marshalsea Prison, which closed in 1842. It is curious that in the
30 years since his father was imprisoned there Dickens seems not to have
visited the site just across the Thames. He found that 'the front courtyard,
often mentioned in the story, metamorphosed into a butter-shop' and the
former walls and blocks of the prison assimilated into the neighborhood.
Dickens' readers were not aware of his intimate relationship to the prison,
the story of his father's imprisonment there not being told until his first
biographer, John Forster, revealed it after Dickens' death in 1870.
At the beginning of Book the First, Chapter 6 of Little Dorrit Dickens
introduces the reader to the prison:
ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the
borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward,
the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained
there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the
worse without it. It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned
into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms;
environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at
top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within
it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against
the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines
which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an
iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell
or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious
termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors
bowled down their troubles.