Where is that thing I wrote about Dickens and gentlemen? No, it was Trollope, wasn’t it? Let me check the archives – Margaret Oliphant, of course. I had a point back then that comes up in Little Dorrit.
My point is: Charles Dickens, for all of his sympathy for the deserving poor, had trouble imagining his way past the idea of the status of the gentleman. Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) is the example I always revert to, where a central problem for Nicholas and his sister is that they have to work below their station; similarly, although David Copperfield may believe that no boy should work in a factory, he seems to believe in particular that no boy of his upbringing should do so.
Possibly the problem for Dickens was not one of politics but of art – how to move past received ideas of gentlemanly status not in life, but in fiction. Regardless, Little Dorrit contained a surprise for me: a direct assault on the idea of the gentleman, or at least a newly complicated understanding of the concept.
See the villain of Little Dorrit, Rigaud, for example:
'Haha! You are right! A gentleman I am! And a gentleman I'll live, and a gentleman I'll die! It's my intent to be a gentleman. It's my game. Death of my soul, I play it out wherever I go!' (Ch. I.1)
This declaration is on page 9 of the edition I am reading. Rigaud is, at that moment, in a French jail cell, awaiting trial for murder. The prison theme and the gentleman theme are chained together right at the beginning of the book.
The more complex and pathetic player of the “game” of gentlemanliness is Little Dorrit’s father, the longtime inhabitant of the debtors’ prison, who maintains a fiction of gentility at the expense, primarily, of his daughter. Everyone participates in the farce – here the prison turnkey describes Mr. Dorrit, jailhouse celebrity:
'Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was. Ed'cated at no end of expense. Went into the Marshal's house once to try a new piano for him. Played it, I understand, like one o'clock – beautiful! As to languages – speaks anything. We've had a Frenchman here in his time, and it's my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did. We've had an Italian here in his time, and he shut him up in about half a minute.’ (I.6)
The business about French and Italian turns out to be foreshadowing. In Rome, hundreds of pages later, we finally see the destructive toll of Mr. Dorrit’s desperate attempt to convince himself that his birth and ed’cation mattered more than anything he actually did with his life.
His daughter, Little Dorrit, embodies a transcendence of class status. She is a believer in works, not faith. Dickens has been moving towards this ending over the course of several novels. As Little Dorrit ends, not every piece is in its place, not every problem has been resolved. Amy Dorrit ends the novel as (spoiler alert!) Agent Dorrit, crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of the most dangerous enemies of the Crown. Or if not that, with “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (last paragraph).