Dickens and the Business Cycle: The Victorian Way of Debt
The fund promised high and unwavering annual returns, but you had to know someone to get in on it. And that was really all it took to attract credulous investors, that and the sterling reputation of the banker behind it, a financier revered in privileged circles as “the Man of the Age.”
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“I’ve looked into it,” is how one investor reassured a friend who wondered what would happen if the fund should fail. “Name up everywhere, immense resources, high connections, government influence — can’t be done.”
It’s not Bernard L. Madoff’s fund, it’s the one created — and wrecked — by Mr. Merdle, the legendary London banker who brings masses of wealthy, well-meaning people to ruin in Charles Dickens’s classic “Little Dorrit.” And that uncanny parallel is one of many reasons that this adaptation by Andrew Davies, which begins on PBS this Sunday, is so timely.
Mr. Davies, whose interpretations of the classics include the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice,” as well as “Middlemarch” and “Vanity Fair,” has become the Cecil B. DeMille of the A.P. English canon. Here he flushes out the similarities between The City of Victorian London and 21st-century Wall Street without losing sight of the larger vision of Dickens’s story.
“Little Dorrit” is particularly apt and enjoyable at this moment in history because the story focuses intently on something deeper and more universal than real estate bubbles or bank runs: unfairness.
And there are so many variations on injustice in the tale. Matthew Macfadyen, who starred in “MI-5” and the film version of “Pride and Prejudice,” plays Arthur Clennam, a fair-minded businessman who returns to England after decades in China and finds himself stymied by the Office of Circumlocution, a suffocating, impenetrable government agency.
William Dorrit, played magnificently by Tom Courtenay, is the title heroine’s father, a man of pride and breeding who has spent more than 20 years in the infamous Marshalsea debtors’ prison for unpaid bills he cannot remember, let alone ever repay, while wealthier, better-connected cheats and fat cats elude creditors in government sinecures, private clubs and villas overseas — too fat to fail.
Rent collectors stalk working-class families crammed into a crumbling neighborhood named Bleeding Heart Yard. As soon as they can pay up, the landlord ruthlessly raises the rates.
And there are inequities of feeling as well as of station, like the myopia and self-absorption of a self-deluding father like Mr. Dorrit, who exploits the kindness and filial piety of his youngest daughter, Amy (Claire Foy), who was born in the Marshalsea. Tiny, tender-hearted and taking care of her relatives with what Dickens described as a “pitiful and plaintive look,” Amy is known as Little Dorrit, beloved by the good and the brave and mistreated by almost everyone else.
Dickens heroines are rarely spirited or saucy; his world was not populated by the likes of Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett. Mostly, they are closer to the mold of the meek, self-sacrificing girl in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” who drove Oscar Wilde to joke, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Little Dorrit is boringly good, and that highlights the deliciously bad characters around her. The story’s main villain, the French thief and murderer Rigaud (Andy Serkis), is the exception, Gothic and one-dimensional. “Little Dorrit” is as rich at the margins as at the center with strange, and strangely believable, characters from almost all levels of society, rendered in quick, firm strokes.
Pancks (Eddie Marsan), an unsavory debt collector, is especially well drawn. He seems at first like a heartless and decidedly repulsive specimen, but beneath his coarse speech and strange facial tics, Pancks reveals a good heart and a sharp nose for unraveling secrets; he forms an unlikely alliance with the genteel Clennam to revive the Dorrit family fortunes.
Mrs. Merdle (Amanda Redman) is a great beauty and social tyrant who bullies her banker husband while trying to prevent her idiot son, Edmund (Sebastian Armesto), from marrying Amy’s older sister, Fanny (Emma Pierson).
Fanny, a dancer, is as callous and greedily ambitious as Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, but she feels genuine love for her little sister, though she takes advantage of her kindness and belittles her naïveté.
Even the Marshalsea has its pecking order and social intrigues, and the relationships between jailers and prisoners are as delicate and complex as those in the wealthiest bankers’ drawing rooms. Mr. Chivery (Ron Cook), the turnkey, has kept a watchful eye on the prison for decades, treating Dorrit, despite all his airs and delusions, with courtesy and also calculation.
Mr. Chivery is determined to keep his son John (Russell Tovey) in the family business, and that means helping the young man woo Little Dorrit. John and his father have the power to punish and even coerce their prisoners, but both display unexpected moments of nobility that few other characters can match.
Mr. Davies is well known for giving minor characters their humorous due; he is even better known for spicing up the most strait-laced classics with hints of sex and carnal yearning.
“Little Dorrit” is no exception, adding a hint of lesbian attraction to the opaque friendship between Miss Wade (Maxine Peake) and Tattycorum (Freema Agyeman), a girl adopted and perhaps exploited by the otherwise kindly Meagles family. In the novel Tattycorum is a dark-haired orphan, a status that in Victorian times was likely to condemn her to be treated more as a servant than as a companion. In the television version she is black.
Both Ms. Foy, as Amy, and Mr. Macfadyen, as Clennam, are persuasive and touching. But William Dorrit is at the core of this tale, and Mr. Courtenay does the role full justice, layering the pathos of the elderly debtor with rich swaths of self-pity and vanity.
Mr. Merdle’s fund is too good to be true, but “Little Dorrit” lives up to Dickens’s every word.
On most PBS stations on Sunday nights through April 26 (check local listings).
Adapted for television by Andrew Davies; Dearbhla Walsh, Adam Smith and Diarmuid Lawrence, directors; Lisa Osborne, producer; Anne Pivcevic for BBC and Rebecca Eaton for WGBH, executive producers.
WITH: Claire Foy (Amy Dorrit), Matthew Macfadyen (Arthur Clennam), Tom Courtenay (William Dorrit), Andy Serkis (Rigaud), Emma Pierson (Fanny Dorrit), Eddie Marsan (Pancks), Russell Tovey (John Chivery), Judy Parfitt (Mrs. Clennam), Freema Agyeman (Tattycorum), Sebastian Armesto (Edmund Sparkler), Ron Cook (Mr. Chivery), Anton Lesser (Mr. Merdle), Amanda Redman (Mrs. Merdle) and Maxine Peake (Miss Wade).