Between my bouts with the zombie ledgers, I am re-reading Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, my second favorite of his books. Just a chapter at a time. Dickens was a heavily-worded writer. Most if not all of his stories were serialized in magazines. So they could drag on and on, and a public starved for reading materials would wait for the next installment. When he was writing "The Old Curiosity Shop" he left his tiny heroine in dire straits. It is said that a crowd met the ship with the next installment in Boston Harbor--a near-riot--all of them chanting "Little Nell. Little Nell." They wanted the magazines unloaded first to see if she was okay.
Each one of Dickens' novels seems to follow a theme, and show every possible permutation of it. Little Dorrit is about prison. The most obvious prison is the Marshalsea, a debtor's prison that Dickens knew well. When people like Dickens' father could not pay his bills, he was sentenced there by his creditors. A debt-convict could not leave until he satisfied those creditors in full. In the meantime, your family moved in with you (to save expense) and other family members on the outside paid your meager bills inside. Your sons and wife could seek work during the day. They had to be back at the prison before dark so they could be locked in.
Food was not free. A better prison cell cost money. Tobacco and clothing. All of that. Thus some were more wretched than others, based upon how many people did for them on the outside. It skewed the value of clearing up debt. Once you were in, you didn't have to do for yourself any more.
The Dorrit Family
Amy Dorrit's father, a gentleman, is sentenced to the Marshalsea. Eventually Amy is born there, which makes her an object of fame and of pity. She is small because she never got enough to eat. She went to the prison church and her uncle got her basic schooling. Otherwise, there is no reason for her to understand morals better than the rest.
Her father has long since given up trying to get out of debt, and instead uses his status as a gent and a "long-lived tenant" to beg from other prisoners. The way he receives alms is as a sign of appreciation for the "tone" he sets at the prison. If someone goes about this alms-giving without the proper manners, Mr. Dorrit is hurt beyond bearing. He is a scam artist, but the person he has scammed the best is himself--and his other two children.
His eldest son is a ne'er do well who cannot keep a job. Her sister works in a dance hall, and is not averse to blackmailing society ladies whose sons are infatuated. The combination of pretension and self-deception, despair and acceptance have ruined this family. Except Little Dorrit, who continues to work, and who refuses to be less than honest with herself. She is a remarkable lady. As in all Dickens, the remarkable ladies are always a bit of a doormat, but she has a way of making her opinions known when necessary.
There's a moral in this for today--the way people are ruined and self-ruined. The way it passes onward. How remarkable it is when somebody doesn't buy into the value system they're given. How hard it is for them.
Other Prisons, Other Rooms.
There is Mrs. Clennam, who has made a name for herself in business. In guilt for what she has done, has imprisoned herself in a bedroom and a wheelchair. She gives herself no joys, she tells her every visitor, and yet at three in the afternoon some servant brings her a plate of perfect oysters, wine, and dry bread. This is a prison of guilt and spite, a proud prison. It satisfies no guilt, and it spreads misery.
Then there is the young girl who has been lovingly imprisoned in good parental care and wealth--so much so that she does not recognize a respectable brigand. She makes a bad marriage--another prison.
Many of the prisons in this story are quite genteel: those of the upper class, the bureaucracy, the social climbers, the cynical, the oblivious, and the resentful with money to spare. Yet there is Mr. Dorrit, genteel for a living. He tries to get little Amy to flirt with the Warden's son. An eminently respectable thing to do, if you were on the outside, yes? Be nice to the important man, darling. Little Dorrit's hand comes up. It covers her father's mouth. There is nothing he won't do now for a favor, for a chance at a cigar or someone to look up to him. Except the one quiet voice says 'no'. It tears the veil away, for one half-hour. He is nothing without it. She helps him put it back. Later, when he unexpectedly gets out, he is still a prisoner to his habits of mind.
Little Dorrit goes on to a happy ending. And in Dickens' lifetime, the Marshalsea was torn down. He saw it as a triumph. Nobody knows what happened to its dependents. Dickens just wanted no more of them.