A review of Little Dorrit (audio book) by Charles Dickens

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Little Dorrit
By Charles Dickens
BBC Audio CD (Full Cast Dramatisation)
March 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1602835610, 5 hours (Abridged), 49.95(aud),

Though I’ve purchased a number of CD audios for my children over the past ten years, I’d never really seen myself as an audio book girl. I’m such fan of text on the page, that I didn’t really think that audio would appeal to me. But you can’t read everywhere (while driving or jogging for example), and I was pleased to be proven wrong. Listening to an audio like this is like a cross between reading an engrossing book, and watching a theatrical performance. Once I began listening, I was hooked.

The story opens with Arthur Clennam, recently returned from twenty years of life in the Orient, to be with his dying father. Arthur’s father hands Arthur a ring, inscribed with the letters “DNF”: “do not forget”, and tells Arthur to give it to his mother, reminding her that they had committed a crime. Whether or not you’re familiar with the book, this kind of drama immediately pulls in the listener. The story continues in the same way, moving evocatively between dramatic mystery, love and desire, loss and discovery. Of course Dickens’ original was, like much of his work, a serial novel, so listening to small ‘acts’ with the inevitable, and often reluctant limitation of arrival, was probably as akin to the original as reading an entire novel would have been. It certainly made 45 minute journeys to the office more pleasurable. Listening to an audio is a richer experience than watching television. Just as with a written book, the listener is still free to be participant in the image making process. Though the language is, at times, a little old fashioned as any 19th Century novel would be, the acting is so powerful, that it’s easy to suspend judgment and accept all the “dear, dear one” exclamations.

Of course much of the story is utterly classic, and this isn’t lost in the audio. The circumlocution office for example, portrays, with humour and pith, the bureaucratic nightmare of officialdom and Civil Service. The cheerful Ferdinand Barnicle, whom Arthur comes upon as he tries to find out why William Dorrit was imprisoned, is a treasure of a character. The various reversals of fortune form an intricate plot device which is handled masterly and subtly, moving from the big reversals between Arthur and Amy through many more delicate smaller reversals: between Amy’s sister Fanny and her suitor Edmund Sparkler; between Arthur and Daniel Doyce; and between the various inmates at Marshalsea prison to name a few.

The story is narrated by Sir Ian McKellen as Dickens, and he’s a cool beautifully spoken guide through the drama. The rest of the characters are also well played, from the soft spoken sanity of Julian Wadham’s Arthur, to the sweet ernest Amy of Jasmine Hyde. The sound of Dickens’ London is well conveyed, and the whole story is presented in a way that calls to mind the story’s overall timelessness. This is the perfect novel for audio. It’s full of humour, sometimes so outlandish that I often laughed out loud in my car. At the same time, there is pathos, terror, excitement, and real joy. Both Arthur and Amy in particular are richly drawn, and the reader is given a deep understanding of these characters and their mutual attraction: from their painful childhoods, to the way in which they struggle to fit in the ‘dog-eat-dog world’ of Victorian England. There is much, of necessity, that has been removed from the novel to make this audio version. The love story is more pronounced, and various crimes committed, from the Merdle’s fraud, a variety of blackmails, to the crimes of the Clennams, are all given fairly short shrift. But this audio isn’t intended to be a replacement for reading, as an alternative genre entirely. For sheer entertainment alone, it would be hard to beat the relaxation and engagement of listening to such a well done adaptation. For anyone who has to spend time in a vehicle or engaged in an activity that doesn’t allow for a book in hand, this audio is one which will transform the journey into one of pure pleasure.

To purchase the book in Australia, visit the ABC Shop.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader.