Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Wit and Wisdom of Mr. F's Aunt

I think Dickens's "Little Dorrit" is his best novel -- the toughest, the smartest, the most consistent, and the angriest. Also the one where he comes closest to solving the problem that plagues most of his other novels: the inconsequential hero and heroine: Arthur Clennam and the title character aren't great creations, but they're more interesting than Dickens' lead characters usually are. It does suffer from the usual curse of the Dickens novel, the second-half slump -- it's divided into two parts, the second of which is less gripping than the first -- but that's just part of reading Dickens.

It's a very dour novel by Dickens' standards, almost as grim as his preceding book, "Hard Times," and with very few larger-than-life, lovable comic characters in the mold of Micawber, or funny rogues like Fagin and Silas Wegg. Most of the comedy in "Little Dorrit" is quite downbeat and angry. Especially the most famous chapter in the novel, the one dealing with the Circumlocution Office, the government bureaucracy (staffed mostly by members of one shiftless political family) dedicated entirely to making sure that nothing ever gets done, that no information is available, and that no invention or innovation ever gets approved.

Most of what little good-natured comedy there is in the book comes from two characters: Flora Casby Finching, the hero's ex-girlfriend, still trying to act as bubbleheaded at forty as she did twenty years earlier; she speaks entirely in long unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness monologues. (Flora turns out to be one of the kindest characters in the book, and more self-aware than she seems.) The other most memorable comic character in the book is the aunt of Flora's late husband, Mr. Finching; referred to only as "Mr. F's Aunt," she is an old woman boiling over with unexplained rage, who spends her brief appearances making strange, non-sequitur comments directed mostly at the hero, Arthur Clennam, and frightening him out of his wits. Some of her best lines, all said in response to nothing and no one, but usually while looking at Arthur:

"When we lived at Henley, Barnes's gander was stole by tinkers."

"The Monument near London Bridge was put up arter the Great Fire of London; and the Great Fire of London was not the fire in which your uncle George's workshops was burned down."

"There's mile-stones on the Dover road!"

"You can't make a head and brains out of a brass knob with nothing in it. You couldn't do it when your Uncle George was living; much less when he's dead."

"He has a proud stomach, this chap. Give him a meal of chaff!"

And her last line in the book:

"Bring him for'ard, and I'll chuck him out o' winder!"

If I ever add a tag-line to this site, it will definitely be "When we lived at Henley, Barnes's gander was stole by tinkers."

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