Little Dorrit’s Political Wisdom.




I prefer non-fiction to fiction, but a friend talked me into reading “Little Dorrit” by Charles Dickens, published in 1857.


The story is about a London seamstress, Amy Dorrit, who attracts a customer’s son, Arthur Clennam, a businessman recently returned to England after 20 years in China.  Arthur takes up a partnership with a brilliant engineer who assigns him the machine shop and a significant patent, then goes off to help build St. Petersburg.  “Little Dorrit” is a saga of love and loss that ends when the heroine and hero marry.


Although the work is a novel, it is also a political treatise on wealth-destruction in a complex society.  The story is woven around government that does not enforce the law, that blocks access, that cannot get through its own process, and that allows corruption and nepotism.


Dickens believed that evil government could sink Britannia, but his approach in 1857 was humorous.  For example, he called government administration the “Circumlocution Office” and the families that dominated it the “Barnacles”.  He popularized the terms “Do- Nothings” and “red tape”.


Societies that take the political wisdom of “Little Dorrrit” seriously restrict their civil servants to value-added work, encourage innovation through respect for patent law, minimize inefficiency, corruption and nepotism; they become wealthy as a result.  Dickens pointed out this productive path and we should be grateful for his guidance.


Then the plot thickens.  Arthur engages in a speculation and hurts the partnership.  To show regret and perhaps for his own safety, he admits himself to debtor’s prison.  There he is visited by a Barnacle from Circumlocution. 


Assuring Arthur that he will soon be released, Barnacle importunes him to give up pursuit of the patent.  Dickens tells us that Barnacle is frank, courteous, gentlemanly, and concerned that the Circumlocution has hurt Arthur.  (It hasn’t.  The speculation did Arthur in, although the struggle for the patent exhausted him.)


Like today, these were very complex times.  There was military conflict with Russia and balance of trade issues with China.  Modern branch banking and the “joint-stock” company (the limited liability corporation) had just been allowed.  These were difficult to regulate and financial speculation was rife.  Barnacle is portrayed as competent but bewildered, courageously, “sanguinely” devoted to passivity.  As he is there to govern and to be seen to govern well, the paradox of his nature suits him for the circumstances.  He is a brave, polished Do-Nothing.


In the 1850s, England was at the height of its power.  Sometimes, the top of the rollercoaster is the scariest place of all. 


Note to readers:  There is a 1988, six-hour British film, “Little Dorrit” by Christine Edzard.  Also there is a 2008 BBC miniseries.  


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