Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

A Fresh Hope Squandered

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)

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. (pp. 79-80)

This was the novel that finally changed my mind about Dickens. In my foolish (and, alas, largely wasted) youth I thought of him as a sentimental populist who had churned out massive, painfully dull novels with an eye on feeding his legion of children (he got paid by the page, I was eager to point out) rather than literary merit. I had always liked Great Expectations, but I thought of it as a bit of an outlier.

My wanderings through the world of picaresque novels, however, eventually brought me to Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, and I began to appreciate that side of Dickens. I made one or two unfortunate detours that seemed to confirm my earlier opinion (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield) but then I came to Little Dorrit and I was, as they say, changed.

Little Dorrit has the gallery of Dickensian characters, running the gamut from high to low, that you would expect, and the combination of pathos and humour that Dickens does so well. But the commentary on high finance and politics (and the connections between the two) remain incisive in the age of Bernie Madoff and bank bailouts (see the chapter “In which a Great Patriotic Conference is holden”), and the scenes in the Circumlocution Office would do Pirandello or Ionesco proud.

But returning to the passage quoted above.

The “brave little creature” is Amy Dorrit, the heroine of the novel and the “Little Dorrit” of the title. Tip is her brother, a ne’er-do-well for whom she can’t quite bring herself to relinquish hope.

Here Canada represents a land of opportunity where those who have failed to succeed in England can get a second chance, outside the rigid social and class system that controls so much of English society and makes upward mobility difficult. Of course the implication is that getting ahead in the New World will still require hard work – anathema to Amy’s brother Tip.

And Dickens, it’s worth noting, actually knew something of Canada, having visited it on his North American trip in 1842. (This doesn’t make him a “Canadian writer;” I’m always irritated by the slightly desperate way we Canadians claim as our own any famous person who happens to live here for a while. I think of Malcolm Lowry as the classic example: essentially a nomadic Englishman, but we try to possess him by virtue of his having lived in Vancouver for a few years.)

The following quotes are from Dickens’ book American Notes:

In the spring of the year, vast numbers of emigrants who have newly arrived from England or from Ireland, pass between Quebec and Montreal on their way to the backwoods and new settlements of Canada. If it be an entertaining lounge (as I very often found it) to take a morning stroll upon the quay at Montreal, and see them grouped in hundreds on the public wharfs about their chests and boxes, it is matter of deep interest to be their fellow-passenger on one of these steamboats, and mingling with the concourse, see and hear them unobserved.

The vessel in which we returned from Quebec to Montreal was crowded with them, and at night they spread their beds between decks (those who had beds, at least), and slept so close and thick about our cabin door, that the passage to and fro was quite blocked up. They were nearly all English; from Gloucestershire the greater part; and had had a long winter-passage out; but it was wonderful to see how clean the children had been kept, and how untiring in their love and self-denial all the poor parents were. (Chapter XV)

Dickens had witnessed first-hand the journey Amy hopes Tip will take. Note particularly the reference to the “backwoods and new settlements of Canada” – clearly nothing is going to be easy. Dickens conceived of Canada as Montreal and Quebec precariously perched in a sea of wilderness – which at the time was probably a fairly accurate impression.

Here are his parting words on Canada:

But Canada has held, and always will retain, a foremost place in my remembrance. Few Englishmen are prepared to find it what it is. Advancing quietly; old differences settling down, and being fast forgotten; public feeling and private enterprise alike in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system, but health and vigour throbbing in its steady pulse: it is full of hope and promise. To me – who had been accustomed to think of it as something left behind in the strides of advancing society, as something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep – the demand for labour and the rates of wages; the busy quays of Montreal; the vessels taking in their cargoes, and discharging them; the amount of shipping in the different ports; the commerce, roads, and public works, all made TO LAST; the respectability and character of the public journals; and the amount of rational comfort and happiness which honest industry may earn: were very great surprises. The steamboats on the lakes, in their conveniences, cleanliness, and safety; in the gentlemanly character and bearing of their captains; and in the politeness and perfect comfort of their social regulations; are unsurpassed even by the famous Scotch vessels, deservedly so much esteemed at home. The inns are usually bad; because the custom of boarding at hotels is not so general here as in the States, and the British officers, who form a large portion of the society of every town, live chiefly at the regimental messes: but in every other respect, the traveller in Canada will find as good provision for his comfort as in any place I know. (Chapter XV)

The phrase here that seems most relevant to the mention of Canada in Little Dorrit is “full of hope and promise” – Dickens saw Canada as a land of new beginnings, especially for the poor.

But let’s note, in passing, some of the other words and phrases that come up:

“advancing quietly”

“nothing of flush or fever in its system”

“steady pulse”

“respectability”

“rational comfort and happiness”

“cleanliness”

“safety”

“politeness”

How many common ideas of Canada are already here! We’re polite, we’re steady, we’re respectable, we’re not fiery – at the end of this paragraph one already has a strong sense of Canada as very nice, really, but a little … well … dull, no?

Still, it’s what you would call an “overall positive review,” which is about the most one can hope for.

Too bad about the inns.

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4 thoughts on “A Fresh Hope Squandered

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