This is a real bedtime story, the kind you listen to. The person reading to me lays on the next pillow. She’s a stranger, a voice on a smart phone dialed to a literary website. Her name is Mil Nicholson, a British actress adept in a range of accents and voices male, female, old, young, batty, arrogant and kind.
She needed all of them for this one: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, the latest work crossed off my list of titles by an author known as “the inimitable.” Aside from A Christmas Carol, which I likely read abridged in grade school, I first waltzed with Charles when I went to sea after high school in 1976.
Determined to go from a kid rewriting Robin Trower lyrics and calling it poetry (crap, but good enough to get published in the News-American at age 17) to a writer of short stories, I bought a copy of David Copperfield in New Orleans and set myself to unraveling the puzzle.
Luckily, the World War II-era container ship I was on – the infamous S.S. Mayaguez – did not suffer the fate of the schooner laden with fruit and wine from Iberia in Chapter 55 of Copperfield, The Tempest.
“…a great cry, which was audible even above the wind and water, rose from the shore at this moment; the sea, sweeping over the rolling wreck, made a clean breach, and carried men, spars, casks, planks, bulwarks, heaps of such toys, into the boiling surge…”
I hung out in my room between shifts on deck and labored to organize boiling surges of words – as only a teenager lusting for sex, drugs and rock and roll can do – onto copy paper rolled into the chief steward’s typewriter. While shaggy dogs wander through all of Dickens, Copperfield is concise compared to Little Dorrit and from it I began a lifelong study of story structure.
My eyes were sharp then and I was stationed on the bow before dawn each morning to alert the mate on duty of any lights on the horizon. Five decades later, my own lights are tired and often hurt. Yet, like a glass of milk, I crave narrative before sleep. I need a story and gravitate to the old chestnuts, the dramas of H.G. Wells, Edith Wharton and Jules Verne trickling into my ears instead of passing by my eyes. A ritual of late middle-age.
Nicholson narrates and I do my best to follow, staring at the ceiling of my darkened bedroom in Greektown. Outside, sirens wail, children up too late squeal as they chase one another. Train whistles blow, people walking home from the bars speak loudly in languages from Panama to Peloponnisos and Mil begins Chapter One of Book One: Poverty.
“Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day…”
Just 700 pages to go. And provocative enough for me to book a trip to Marseilles (also prominent in J.M.G. Le Clezio’s novel Desert) early next year to see where the story was launched.
“…ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the quays had not cooled, night or day, for months. Hindoos, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese, Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the builders of Babel, come to trade at Marseilles, sought the shade alike—taking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea too intensely blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great flaming jewel of fire …”
With images of flaming jewels on the back of my eyelids, I conjure hazy ideas for my own work, determined to remember them in the morning; doubtful that I will. At the end of the writing day, taking notes is too much work. The day is done.
Set in the 1820s and published as a serial in the 1850s, the complete book was released in 1857, arriving between Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities. According to a poet/librarian friend, the Baltimore County Public Library has but one copy of Little Dorrit. Last year, it was borrowed four times. This year, not yet.
The county also has a half-dozen copies of various film adaptations. Over the years, the title character – the diminutive Amy Dorrit – has been portrayed by silent film star Joan Morgan in 1920; Anny Ondra in a 1934 German production; Sarah Pickering in a 1987 release and, most recently, Claire Foy in a 2008 adaptation for television.
Amy is born and raised in a debtors’ prison before her family experiences one of Dickens’ classic and improbable life reversals. In the author’s custom of dividing humankind into good and bad, rich and poor, kind and cruel, Amy quietly sparkles as too good to be true.
To find out if her gentle magnanimity is beyond belief (a lesser person would have strangled sister Fannie by chapter three), I consulted a source with almost as much information as Borges’ Library of Babel: Instagram. This came back from a woman named Jess who posts as #dickens.and.docks.
“I think part of why we love Amy is she’s a sort of culmination of so many of Dickens’ other heroines,” said Jess, who did not want to be identified further. “She has the innocence of Little Nell, the purity of Agnes Wickfield, the sweet temper of Biddy, the courage of Esther Summerson, and the moral fortitude of Lizzie Hexam.
“She is self-sacrificing, but manages to be so without seeming too angelically perfect like some of his other heroines. She seems more real somehow, someone who has given up much and suffered for it but has chosen kindness instead of bitterness.”
Little Dorrit bears all the distinctions of Dickens’ better known works, indictments that echo deep in our current moment: The criminalization of the poor (the Marshalsea prison), self-perpetuating bureaucracy (the “circumlocution office”), and a deified humbug at the top of the mercantile heap (Merdle) whose suicide brings ruin from one end of London to the other.
During the recent baseball playoffs and World Series (congratulations Dusty, way to go Trey), public service ads during radio broadcasts promoted workshops on how to be kind. How appalling that we need tutorials in the Golden Rule, a fundamental once learned in the home long before a kid started school.
Perhaps every American should give a listen to Little Dorrit while drifting off to sleep.
Rafael Alvarez is the author of Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Drug Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery released this year by Cornell University Press. He will be reading from the book at 5pm on Saturday, November 19 at the Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road. Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com.