A classic story comes alive thanks to the magic of technology.
For a couple years now – ever since I discovered David Copperfield and fully renounced A Tale of Two Cities – I have been trying to convince people that Charles Dickens’ novels aren’t ponderous 19th-century doorstops but hilariously funny contemporary critiques. It usually doesn’t work given that many of his books are the size of 25 Kindles stacked atop each other – not what the modern reader (i.e., commuter) is looking for these days. Even if people believe that Dickens is a fun read, they’re reluctant to get caught up in it: It’s too much of a commitment, and too low-fi.
So I have a recommendation: BBC Audio’s dramatised (Brit spelling, that) version of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Available on iTunes or at Audible.com, and worth the relatively steep price ($23.95), the adaptation isn’t merely a dry audiobooks experience. Instead, it’s a lively abridged idea of the book, with much of the language and plot intact, but without all that pesky folderol about the miseries of the French prison in Marseilles or the fluffy side plots with which Dickens tantalized serial readers. This Dorrit is all meat, no potatoes. It’s presented as a mystery and a love story. Ian McKellan, at his rumbling best, reads a few paragraphs and then the audio cuts to the scene itself: We hear footsteps on cobblestones, huffing breaths as people climb stairs, crackling fires and Dickens’ even more crackling dialogue, voiced by marvelous British actors, all inhabiting their parts completely. There isn’t a moment that isn’t completely gripping; whether on the trolley, in bed, walking down the street, sitting at restaurants – all my surroundings fell away as I found myself in England, standing on the bridge over the gurgling river, listening in as Little Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham stumbled to understand each other. People passed me in mid-century finery; horses clomped by, kicking up dust and dirt. I was utterly there, and when I turned my iPhone off and looked around, the 21st-century world seemed absurd. Where was I again? I was dislocated every time.
The story concerns the generous, sweet, admirable and largely faultless Arthur Clenham, who, upon his father’s death, returns to London from China, where he’s lived for 20 years. In the audio version, his father’s dying words are about a watch inscribed with the initials DNF for “Do Not Forget,” which leads the guilt-prone Arthur to assume his family has done something horrible. He asks his mother about the inscription, but she and her awful servant Flintwinch (shades of Uriah Heep) reject his entreaties and cast him out.
But not before he gets a look at his mother’s seamstress, a girl called simply Little Dorrit. As is typically frustrating with the audio version, it’s assumed that you understand certain facts without being told them, like how old Little Dorrit is. I was thinking 10 when it turned out she was in her 20s. No matter. It all becomes clear soon enough, when Arthur follows her home from work one day to find she lives in the Marshalsea Prison, a debtors’ prison, with her father.
Dickens’ father was imprisoned at Marshalsea, material he mined again and again, though never so directly as in Dorrit. In the book he takes a shot at articulating the horrors of incarceration (partly informed by his visit to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary). But there is much laughter and merriment in Marshalsea too, and that’s what the audio makes the most of. The scenes in the prison are richly evocative and amusing.
The story proceeds when Arthur becomes obsessed with Little Dorrit’s position in the world and decides he’ll do anything to help her, which leads him on a bizarre journey. Along the way we meet a host of classic Dickensian characters, including the Father of Marshalsea; Uncle Frederick, who says, “yes yes yes” all the time though he has no idea what’s going on; Mr. Tite Barnacle and the other Barnacle family members, who run the government’s Circumlocution Office; kind, oft-heated Mr. Meagles and his beautiful daughter Pet, who’s inconveniently engaged to an artist (gasp!); and the buffoonish, meddling Flora, Arthur’s lover prior to his exile in China. There’s even a Bernard Madoff double, who makes you realize that nothing really new ever happens.
Most of all, we fall in love with dear sweet Little Dorrit, who keeps her family together by sheer force of her good heart. I won’t say more because that would spoil the mystery and the fun, but it’s all very captivating. After I listened to audio -- as compulsively as I once watched episodes of Mad Men and Dexter – I found myself surprised by an unavoidable conclusion: I had to read the book. And though I’m only a little ways into it, I can already see how much richer it is than the BBC’s audio version. Of course.
So who says new technology will be the death of publishing? The audio version led me straight back to print. Although, to be honest, I am reading the book on my iPhone. It just seems less … long.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014