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Debtor's Prison

The theme 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 Vanity Fair. If, in a few days, the money cannot be raised, the debtor is imprisoned until the debt is paid.

There were three prominent debtor's prisons in London: The Fleet, where Mr. Pickwick (Pickwick Papers) was held, The King's Bench, where Micawber (David Copperfield) was an inmate, and the Marshalsea, where Dickens' father was imprisoned, as well as the fictional William Dorrit (Little Dorrit).

European Tour
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.

Circumlocution Office
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.

Little Dorrit
New on DVD!
Little Dorrit (2008)

Claire Foy, Matthew Macfadyen

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Flora Finching-an old flame revisited
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."

Dickens' life during the serialization of Little Dorrit
Dec 1855 - Jun 1857

Dickens' age: 43-45

December 1855

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.

March 1856

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.

April 1856

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 French.

June 1856

Visits Boulogne for two months.

October 1956

Making preparation to stage the Amateur Theatrical The Frozen Deep.

May 1857

Visits the site of the Marshalsea prison, where his father had been imprisoned for debt in 1824 and a setting for Little Dorrit.

June 1857

Buy Dickens at Huckleberry and Hodge

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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit - Published in monthly parts Dec 1855 - June 1857
Read it online | Shop for the Book | Shop for the Video | Illustrations | Locations

Little Dorrit 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.

Principal Characters:
Character descriptions contain spoilers
William Dorrit
Amy Dorrit
Fanny Dorrit
Edward Dorrit
Frederick Dorrit
Mrs Bangham
Dr Haggage
Mr Cripples
Arthur Clennam
John Baptist Cavalletto
Flora Finching
The Meagles
Mrs Ticket
Jeremiah Flintwinch
Ephraim Flintwinch
Affery Flintwinch
Miss Wade
The Chiverys
The Merdles
Edmund Sparkler
Christopher Casby
Mr Rugg
Daniel Doyce
Henry Gowan
Plornish family
Mr. F's Aunt
Mrs General
Little Dorrit Links:
The Dickens Page
The Victorian Web
Hidden London - Little Dorrit

Marshalsea and St. Georges church

St. George the Martyr Church

The Marshalsea Prison

Marshalsea Prison

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.

The Marshalsea Prison

At the beginning of Book the First, Chapter 6 of Little Dorrit Dickens introduces the reader to the prison:

Thirty years 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.
Marshalsea Map Covent Garden Covent Garden Grosvenor Square Grosvenor Square The Marshalsea The Marshalsea St. Barts Hospital St. Barts Hospital Southwark Bridge Southwark Bridge Thames Street Thames Street

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