Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Charles Dickens > Text of Little Dorrit

A short story by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit

Title:     Little Dorrit
Author: Charles Dickens [More Titles by Dickens]

MANY years ago, when people could be put in prison for debt, a poor gentleman, who was unfortunate enough to lose all his money, was brought to the Marshalsea prison, which was the prison where debtors were kept. As there seemed no prospect of being able to pay his debts, his wife and their two little children came to live there with him. The elder child was a boy of three; the younger a little girl of two years old, and not long afterwards another little girl was born. The three children played in the courtyard, and on the whole were happy, for they were too young to remember a happier state of things.

But the youngest child, who had never been outside the prison walls, was a thoughtful little creature, and wondered what the outside world could be like. Her great friend, the turnkey, who was also her godfather, became very fond of her, and as soon as she could walk and talk he brought a little arm-chair and stood it by his fire at the lodge, and coaxed her with cheap toys to come and sit with him. In return the child loved him dearly, and would often bring her doll to dress and undress as she sat in the little arm-chair. She was still a very tiny creature when she began to understand that everyone did not live locked up inside high walls with spikes at the top, and though she and the rest of the family might pass through the door that the great key opened, her father could not; and she would look at him with a wondering pity in her tender little heart.

One day, she was sitting in the lodge gazing wistfully up at the sky through the barred window. The turnkey, after watching her some time, said:

"Thinking of the fields, ain't you?"

"Where are they?" she asked.

"Why, they're--over there, my dear," said the turnkey, waving his key vaguely, "just about there."

"Does anybody open them and shut them? Are they locked?"

"Well," said the turnkey, not knowing what to say, "not in general."

"Are they pretty, Bob?" She called him Bob, because he wished it.

"Lovely. Full of flowers. There's buttercups, and there's daisies, and there's--" here he hesitated not knowing the names of many flowers--"there's dandelions, and all manner of games."

"Is it very pleasant to be there, Bob?"

"Prime," said the turnkey.

"Was father ever there?"

"Hem!" coughed the turnkey. "O yes, he was there, sometimes."

"Is he sorry not to be there now?"

"N--not particular," said the turnkey.

"Nor any of the people?" she asked, glancing at the listless crowd within. "O are you quite sure and certain, Bob?"

At this point, Bob gave in and changed the subject to candy. But after this chat, the turnkey and little Amy would go out on his free Sunday afternoons to some meadows or green lanes, and she would pick grass and flowers to bring home, while he smoked his pipe; and then they would go to some tea-gardens for shrimps and tea and other delicacies, and would come back hand in hand, unless she was very tired and had fallen asleep on his shoulder.

When Amy was only eight years old, her mother died; and the poor father was more helpless and broken-down than ever, and as Fanny was a careless child and Edward idle, the little one, who had the bravest and truest heart, was led by her love and unselfishness to be the little mother of the forlorn family, and struggled to get some little education for herself and her brother and sister.

At first, such a baby could do little more than sit with her father, deserting her livelier place by the high fender, and quietly watching him. But this made her so far necessary to him that he became accustomed to her, and began to be sensible of missing her when she was not there. Through this little gate, she passed out of her childhood into the care-laden world.

What her pitiful look saw, at that early time, in her father, in her sister, in her brother, in the jail; how much or how little of the wretched truth it pleased God to make plain to her, lies hidden with many mysteries. It is enough that she was inspired to be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that something, different and laborious, for the sake of the rest. Inspired? Yes. Shall we speak of a poet or a priest, and not of the heart impelled by love and self-devotion to the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life?

The family stayed so long in the prison that the old man came to be known as "The Father of the Marshalsea;" and little Amy, who had never known any other home, as "The Child of the Marshalsea."

At thirteen she could read and keep accounts--that is, could put down in words and figures how much the bare necessaries that they wanted would cost, and how much less they had to buy them with. She had been, by snatches of a few weeks at a time, to an evening school outside, and got her sister and brother sent to day-schools from time to time during three or four years. There was no teaching for any of them at home; but she knew well--no one better--that a man so broken as to be the Father of the Marshalsea, could be no father to his own children.

To these scanty means of improvement, she added another of her own contriving. Once among the crowd of prisoners there appeared a dancing-master. Her sister had a great desire to learn the dancing-master's art, and seemed to have a taste that way. At thirteen years old, the Child of the Marshalsea presented herself to the dancing-master, with a little bag in her hand, and offered her humble petition.

"If you please, I was born here, sir."

"Oh! you are the young lady, are you?" said the dancing-master, surveying the small figure and uplifted face.

"Yes, sir."

"And what can I do for you?" said the dancing-master.

"Nothing for me, sir, thank you," anxiously undrawing the strings of the little bag; "but if, while you stay here, you could be so kind as to teach my sister cheap--"

"My child, I'll teach her for nothing," said the dancing-master, shutting up the bag. He was as good-natured a dancing-master as ever danced to the Insolvent Court, and he kept his word. The sister was so apt a pupil, and the dancing-master had such abundant time to give her, that wonderful progress was made. Indeed, the dancing-master was so proud of it, and so wishful to show it before he left, to a few select friends among the collegians (the debtors in the prison were called "collegians"), that at six o'clock on a certain fine morning, an exhibition was held in the yard--the college-rooms being of too small size for the purpose--in which so much ground was covered, and the steps were so well executed, that the dancing-master, having to play his fiddle besides, was thoroughly tired out.

The success of this beginning, which led to the dancing-master's continuing his teaching after his release, led the poor child to try again. She watched and waited months for a seamstress. In the fullness of time a milliner came in, sent there like all the rest for a debt which she could not pay; and to her she went to ask a favor for herself.

"I beg your pardon, ma'am," she said, looking timidly round the door of the milliner, whom she found in tears and in bed: "but I was born here."

Everybody seemed to hear of her as soon as they arrived; for the milliner sat up in bed, drying her eyes, and said, just as the dancing-master had said:

"Oh! you are the child, are you?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I am sorry I haven't got anything for you," said the milliner, shaking her head.

"It's not that, ma'am. If you please, I want to learn needlework."

"Why should you do that," returned the milliner, "with me before you? It has not done me much good."

"Nothing--whatever it is--seems to have done anybody much good who comes here," she returned in her simple way; "but I want to learn, just the same."

"I am afraid you are so weak, you see," the milliner objected.

"I don't think I am weak, ma'am."

"And you are so very, very little, you see," the milliner objected.

"Yes, I am afraid I am very little indeed," returned the Child of the Marshalsea; and so began to sob over that unfortunate smallness of hers, which came so often in her way. The milliner--who was not unkind or hardhearted, only badly in debt--was touched, took her in hand with good-will, found her the most patient and earnest of pupils, and made her a good workwoman.

In course of time, the Father of the Marshalsea gradually developed a new trait of character. He was very greatly ashamed of having his two daughters work for their living; and tried to make it appear that they were only doing work for pleasure, not for pay. But at the same time he would take money from any one who would give it to him, without any sense of shame. With the same hand that had pocketed a fellow-prisoner's half-crown half an hour ago, he would wipe away the tears that streamed over his cheeks if anything was spoken of his daughters' earning their bread. So, over and above her other daily cares, the Child of the Marshalsea had always upon her the care of keeping up the make-believe that they were all idle beggars together.

The sister became a dancer. There was a ruined uncle in the family group--ruined by his brother, the Father of the Marshalsea, and knowing no more how, than his ruiner did, but taking the fact as something that could not be helped. Naturally a retired and simple man, he had shown no particular sense of being ruined, at the time when that calamity fell upon him, further than he left off washing himself when the shock was announced, and never took to washing his face and hands any more. He had been a rather poor musician in his better days; and when he fell with his brother, supported himself in a poor way by playing a clarionet as dirty as himself in a small theatre band. It was the theatre in which his niece became a dancer; he had been a fixture there a long time when she took her poor station in it; and he accepted the task of serving as her guardian, just as he would have accepted an illness, a legacy, a feast, starvation--anything but soap.

To enable this girl to earn her few weekly shillings, it was necessary for the Child of the Marshalsea to go through a careful form with her father.

"Fanny is not going to live with us, just now, father. She will be here a good deal in the day, but she is going to live outside with uncle."

"You surprise me. Why?"

"I think uncle wants a companion, father. He should be attended to and looked after."

"A companion? He passes much of his time here. And you attend and look after him, Amy, a great deal more than ever your sister will. You all go out so much; you all go out so much."

This was to keep up the form and pretense of his having no idea that Amy herself went out by the day to work.

"But we are always very glad to come home father; now, are we not? And as to Fanny, perhaps besides keeping uncle company and taking care of him, it may be as well for her not quite to live here always. She was not born here as I was you know, father."

"Well, Amy, well. I don't quite follow you, but it's natural I suppose that Fanny should prefer to be outside, and even that you often should, too. So, you and Fanny and your uncle, my dear, shall have your own way. Good, good. I'll not meddle; don't mind me."

To get her brother out of the prison; out of the low work of running errands for the prisoners outside, and out of the bad company into which he had fallen, was her hardest task. At eighteen years of age her brother Edward would have dragged on from hand to mouth, from hour to hour, from penny to penny, until eighty. Nobody got into the prison from whom he gained anything useful or good, and she could find no patron for him but her old friend and godfather, the turnkey.

"Dear Bob," said she, "what is to become of poor Tip?" His name was Edward, and Ted had been changed into Tip, within the walls.

The turnkey had strong opinions of his own as to what would become of poor Tip, and had even gone so far with the view of preventing their fulfilment, as to talk to Tip in urging him to run away and serve his country as a soldier. But Tip had thanked him, and said he didn't seem to care for his country.

"Well, my dear," said the turnkey, "something ought to be done with him. Suppose I try and get him into the law?"

"That would be so good of you, Bob!"

The turnkey now began to speak to the lawyers as they passed in and out of the prison. He spoke so perseveringly that a stool and twelve shillings a week were at last found for Tip in the office of a lawyer at Clifford's Inn, in the Palace Court.

Tip idled in Clifford's Inn for six months, and at the end of that term sauntered back one evening with his hands in his pockets, and remarked to his sister that he was not going back again.

"Not going back again?" said the poor little anxious Child of the Marshalsea, always calculating and planning for Tip, in the front rank of her charges.

"I am so tired of it," said Tip, "that I have cut it."

Tip tired of everything. With intervals of Marshalsea lounging, and errand-running, his small second mother, aided by her trusty friend, got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into the hop trade, into the law again, into an auctioneer's, into a brewery, into a stockbroker's, into the law again, into a coach office, into a wagon office, into the law again, into a general dealer's, into a distillery, into the law again, into a wool house, into a dry goods house, into the fish-market, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks. But whatever Tip went into he came out of tired, announcing that he had cut it. Wherever he went, this useless Tip appeared to take the prison walls with him, and to set them up in such trade or calling; and to prowl about within their narrow limits in the old slipshod, purposeless, down-at-heel way; until the real immovable Marshalsea walls asserted their power over him and brought him back.

Nevertheless, the brave little creature did so fix her heart on her brother's rescue that, while he was ringing out these doleful changes, she pinched and scraped enough together to ship him for Canada. When he was tired of nothing to do, and disposed in its turn to cut even that, he graciously consented to go to Canada. And there was grief in her bosom over parting with him, and joy in the hope of his being put in a straight course at last.

"God bless you, dear Tip. Don't be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune."

"All right!" said Tip, and went.

But not all the way to Canada; in fact, not further than Liverpool. After making the voyage to that port from London, he found himself so strongly impelled to cut the vessel, that he resolved to walk back again. Carrying out which intention, he presented himself before her at the expiration of a month, in rags, without shoes, and much more tired than ever.

At length, after another period of running errands, he found a pursuit for himself, and announced it.

"Amy, I have got a situation."

"Have you really and truly, Tip?"

"All right. I shall do now. You needn't look anxious about me any more, old girl."

"What is it, Tip?"

"Why, you know Slingo by sight?"

"Not the man they call the dealer?"

"That's the chap. He'll be out on Monday, and he's going to give me a berth."

"What is he a dealer in, Tip?"

"Horses. All right! I shall do now, Amy."

She lost sight of him for months afterwards, and only heard from him once. A whisper passed among the elder prisoners that he had been seen at a mock auction in Moorfields, pretending to buy plated articles for real silver, and paying for them with the greatest liberality in bank-notes; but it never reached her ears. One evening she was alone at work--standing up at the window, to save the twilight lingering above the wall--when he opened the door and walked in.

She kissed and welcomed him; but was afraid to ask him any question. He saw how anxious and timid she was, and appeared sorry.

"I am afraid, Amy, you'll be vexed this time. Upon my life I am!"

"I am very sorry to hear you say so, Tip. Have you come back?"


"Not expecting this time that what you had found would answer very well, I am less surprised and sorry than I might have been, Tip."

"Ah! But that's not the worst of it."

"Not the worst of it?"

"Don't look so startled. No, Amy, not the worst of it. I have come back, you see; but--don't look so startled--I have come back in what I may call a new way. I am off the volunteer list altogether. I am in now, as one of the regulars. I'm here in prison for debt, like everybody else."

"Oh! Don't say that you are a prisoner, Tip! Don't, don't!"

"Well, I don't want to say it," he returned in unwilling tone; "but if you can't understand me without my saying it, what am I to do? I am in for forty pound odd."

For the first time in all those years, she sunk under her cares. She cried, with her clasped hands lifted above her head, that it would kill their father if he ever knew it; and fell down at Tip's worthless feet.

It was easier for Tip to bring her to her senses than for her to bring him to understand that the Father of the Marshalsea would be beside himself if he knew the truth. Tip thought that there was nothing strange in being there a prisoner, but he agreed that his father should not be told about it. There were plenty of reasons that could be given for his return; it was accounted for to the father in the usual way; and the collegians, with a better understanding of the kind fraud than Tip, stood by it faithfully.

This was the life, and this the history, of the Child of the Marshalsea, at twenty-two. With a still abiding interest in the one miserable yard and block of houses as her birthplace and home, she passed to and fro in it shrinking now, with a womanly consciousness that she was pointed out to everyone. Since she had begun to work beyond the walls, she had found it necessary to hide where she lived, and to come and go secretly as she could, between the free city and the iron gates, outside of which she had never slept in her life. Her original timidity had grown with this concealment, and her light step and her little figure shunned the thronged streets while they passed along them.

Worldly wise in hard and poor necessities, she was innocent in all things else. Innocent, in the mist through which she saw her father, and the prison, and the dark living river that flowed through it and flowed on.

This was the life, and this the history, of Little Dorrit, until the son of a lady, Mrs. Clennam, to whose house Amy went to do needlework, became interested in the pale, patient little creature. He followed her to her home one day and when he found that it was the debtor's prison, he walked in. Learning her sad history from her father, Arthur Clennam resolved to do his best to try to get him released and to help them all.

One day when he was walking home with Amy to try to find out the names of some of the people her father owed money to, a voice was heard calling, "Little mother, little mother," and a strange figure came bouncing up to them and fell down, scattering her basketful of potatoes on the ground. "Oh Maggie," said Amy, "what a clumsy child you are!"

She was about eight and twenty, with large bones, large features, large hands and feet, large eyes, and no hair. Amy told Mr. Clennam that Maggie was the granddaughter of her old nurse, who had been dead a long time, and that her grandmother had been very unkind to her and beat her.

"When Maggie was ten years old she had a fever, and she has never grown older since."

"Ten years old," said Maggie. "But what a nice hospital! So comfortable, wasn't it? Such a 'e'v'nly place! Such beds there is there! Such lemonades! Such oranges! Such delicious broth and wine! Such chicking! Oh, AIN'T it a delightful place to stop at!"

"Poor Maggie thought that a hospital was the nicest place in all the world, because she had never seen another home as good. For years and years she looked back to the hospital as a sort of heaven on earth."

"Then when she came out, her grandmother did not know what to do with her, and was very unkind. But after some time Maggie tried to improve, and was very attentive and industrious and now she can earn her own living entirely, sir!"

Amy did not say who had taken pains to teach and encourage the poor half-witted creature, but Mr. Clennam guessed from the name "little mother" and the fondness of the poor creature for Amy.

One cold, wet evening, Amy and Maggie went to Mr. Clennam's house to thank him for having freed Edward from the prison, and on coming out found it was too late to get home, as the gate was locked. They tried to get in at Maggie's lodgings, but, though they knocked twice, the people were asleep. As Amy did not wish to disturb them, they wandered about all night, sometimes sitting at the gate of the prison, Maggie shivering and whimpering.

"It will soon be over, dear," said patient Amy.

"Oh, it's all very well for you, mother," said Maggie, "but I'm a poor thing, only ten years old."

Thanks to Mr. Clennam, a great change took place in the fortunes of the family, and not long after this wretched night it was discovered that Mr. Dorrit was owner of a large property, and they became very rich.

But Little Dorrit never forgot, as, sad to say, the rest of the family did, the friends who had been kind to them in their poverty; and when, in his turn, Mr. Clennam became a prisoner in the Marshalsea, Little Dorrit came to comfort and console him, and after many changes of fortune she became his wife, and they lived happy ever after.

[The end]
Charles Dickens's short story: Little Dorrit