I’m currently revising a chapter on European travel in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, and have been pondering for the last couple of days the way in which, as in Bleak House, Dickens’s narrator suggests to us something of a framework for reading the patterns of mobility and interconnections in the novel. In the early pages of Little Dorrit, Miss Wade’s “cold farewell” to her fellow quarentined travellers at Marseilles comprises of these lines:
“In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us, from many strange places and by many strange roads, and what is set to us to do to them, and what is set to them to do to us, will all be done.”
“you may be sure that there are men and women already on their road, who have their business to do with you, and who will do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds, thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now; they may be coming, for anything you know, or anything you can do to prevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.”
And after this, we then get another iteration of this sentiment by the narrator on the next page:
“And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.”
Coming from reading Bleak House, these lines immediately call to mind that novel’s central statement on the narrative interconnections that arise from mobility: “what connexion can there be […] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” In both novels there’s a sense of “great gulfs” being crossed, of travel providing the means for endless possibilities of curious connections. Yet in Bleak House the statement rings as an open question that is never fully answered – what connection can there be?, we are constantly led to ask, the novel constantly entertaining that sense of curiousity such that the limitless possibilities of chance encounters remain an on-going possibility until the end.
But by Little Dorrit this seems to have shifted away from the openness of random interactions towards a greater sense of inevitability: while the narrator’s iteration entertains the more random sense of travellers going “to meet and to act and react on one another” (I have a mental image with that phrase of atoms bobbing about in a jar…), Miss Wade’s words emphasise the idea of individuals being drawn specifically to one another by a magnetic pull – “we shall meet the people who are coming to meet us” and “who have their business to do with you” both stressing the fated nature of encounters. Little Dorrit seems to recognise that the limitless possibilities afforded by travel is only a conceit; the freedom of the multiple open roads ahead is but an illusion, and all journeys have their appointed end.
On the one hand, this reads like the self-conciousness of a writer who knows that the apparent chance encounters of the novel are of course intricately plotted and pre-planned; the narrative of Little Dorrit does away with much of the illusion of randomness that Bleak House so relishes in, in part because the pared-down cast affords less opportunities for characters to “meet and act and react” on one another in unexpected ways, and because the narrative resolution inescapably rests upon tight plotting. Little Dorrit might be less complexly plotted, but it’s also more assured in not working to conceal the networks on which the narrative depends.
But there’s also a shift here in the possibilities of place afforded through movement. Some 100 or so pages later in Little Dorrit, Dickens returns again to a recapitulation of this phrase: as Affrey dreams one night, the narrator asks
“which of the vast multitude of travellers […] journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and re-act on one another, which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey’s end, be travelling surely hither?”
That “hither” is a vital inclusion in this latter phrase: now we have not just the idea of fated interactions, but a specific locatedness that draws all possibilities of journeying towards a particular time and place. The openness that Bleak House entertains in its phrase “curiously brought together” has now completely gone: all is travelling towards a particular moment that can be located in place and time – heading towards a vanishing-point. This is of course the final resolution that the novel reaches: as Clennam reflects,
“Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing-point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it […] beyond there was nothing but mere waste, and darkened sky”
Everything has its time, place and meaning, its moment that makes sense of everything. What’s perhaps most interesting about this plotted inevitability is that it underscores and further iterates the confinement throughout the novel, resisting the possibility to break free from the literal and figurative bonds that pervade Little Dorrit. But I’m still curious as to what this does to the sense of place and mobility in the novel: why this insistence on locatedness and on drawing everything into an end-point, and what does this tell us about the novel’s handling of movement and mobile cultures? Is Dickens suggesting the entrapment of a modernity that purports to provide limitless freedom? or something more to do with the changing sense of space that is emerging through new mobile networks? And what is the effect of this on how we read the novel’s enclosed spaces throughout the text?