Oxygen Debt: Little Dorrit’s Pneumatics

Oxygen Debt: Little Dorrit’s Pneumatics

Steven Connor

This is an extended version of a talk first given at the Birkbeck Little Dorrit Day, 28 September 2002.


All references to Little Dorrit are to the Penguin edition of the novel, ed. John Holloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), by book, chapter and page number. References to Dickens’s letters are to The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, eds. Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, 12 Vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-2002), volume and page number.

Let us take a deep breath and limber up with a bit of elementary physiology. During muscular exercise, oxygen supply is increased to meet increased needs for a substance known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is the source of energy for all muscle contractions. ATP is normally produced through aerobic reactions, which is to say reactions which use oxygen. However, when physical demands are very great, oxygen cannot be supplied to muscle fibres quickly enough to meet the need. Oxygen may then be borrowed from haemoglobin in the blood, from myoglobin, a similar substance in muscle, and from bodily fluids. In addition to this, a secondary process known as anaerobic glycolysis may be called upon in order to produce extra ATP. A byproduct of this latter process is the pooling in the muscles of lactic acid which can be painful and cause fatigue. Once exertion has ceased, extra supplies of oxygen are needed to disperse this lactic acid by catabolising it into carbon dioxide and water, to replenish stores of ATP in the muscles, and to pay back any oxygen had on tick from other sources. The amount of oxygen that must be taken into the body after vigorous exercise to restore all these systems to their normal states is called ‘oxygen debt’. It is for this reason that one breathes deeply or pants after exercise. The understanding of these processes owes much to the work of the British scientist A.V. Hill, who shared the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1922 for his work. [‘Oxygen Debit’,http://www.brianmac.demon.co.uk/oxdebit.htm

My concern in this paper will be what is in the air of Little Dorrit: the forms that air takes, what it does, in and to the novel, and what is done with it, by the novel’s characters, by the novel itself. To begin with, I want briefly to riddle out some of the different forms or allotropes of air that Dickens conflates in the novel.

First of all, air is physiological. It feeds and requires the economy of breath of all land-dwelling living beings, breathing air being the fundamental process by which an individual organism derives sustenance from its environment. Air ties us to the body, and the body of the earth.

But air is also spiritual or, to borrow the Greek term that passes through the Stoics into early Christianity, pneumatic. Detaining one in the body, it is also the nature of the breath to take leave of it. Many cultures conceive of the soul, that part of the person which exceeds and survives the body in terms of breath. This is a borrowing of the body of the breath to image the ghostly, or bodiless. There is only occasional uneasiness that this seems to equate the liberated soul, not to mention the inspiriting, creative breath of God, with exhaust, toxic waste.

Air is light, empty ( ‘thin’!), intangible, translucent, immaterial, a kind of nothing that is nevertheless substantial, has weight and force. In its investigation of the physical correlatives to the state of ‘insolvency’, Little Dorrit plays on the paradoxical nature of air, which is more or less fluid and more or less solid. The most palpable form of air is odour and we will see that Little Dorrit is dense with odours of various kinds.

Air has a powerfully kinetic aspect, in the movements of wind, storm and wave, and in the various ways in which human beings have borrowed or mimicked these kinetic powers: in sailing ships, windmills, wind instruments and the instrument of the voice, along with the other engines that harness the huge elastic and compressive powers of vapour, most notably in Little Dorrit, steam engines.

Since movements of air provide the most powerful forms of heat-exchange, air is therefore also the vector of thermodynamic energies and transformations.

We are surrounded by air – but there is much more air above us than about us. As Gaston Bachelard has emphasised in his study of the imagination of air, air always has the dimension of eminence and ascension. [Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movements, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988).] It belongs to and brings with it the imagination of lift, lightness and height – as we say, ‘aspiration’, a word which might be glossed as ‘breathing upwards’ – and thus also of fancy, dream and hallucination.

This can make air a kind of materialisation of light itself. The transparency of air can sugest a conflation between air and that which either passes through it unobstructed, or is retarded, scatered and refracted by it. Air can thus appear as the pseudo-body of light.

Air, which is not itself an element, but a mixture of gases, is characterised by commixture. Little Dorrit abounds in quasi-aery substances which mix themselves with air and can be taken metonymically for it, like smoke, fog, steam, vapour, snuff, dust, powder, and other finely particulate substances.

What keeps all these different aspects of air in communication with each other is the fact that air itself is endlessly in circulation. Once cannot do without air, but one can never hold on to it either: holding one’s breath is as sure a way to suffocation as being deprived of air. What makes the metaphorical economies of air so rich and alive in Little Dorrit is the fact that air is in its own nature already economic. One is always paying borrowed air back to itself, and yet one is also in the same breath immediately again in arrears to it. We live our lives, as the Irish gag has it, ‘expecting every breath to be our next’.

All of these different aspects of air – the physiological (breath), the pneumatic (spirit), the kinetic (wind), the thermal (flame), the olfactory (odour), the immaterial (ether), the elevated (sky) and the commingled (smoke) are present and active in the metaphorical economies of Little Dorrit.

The politics of air had become a substantial concern by the mid-nineteenth century, though they had been growing for a long time. The first notable protest against air pollution, which arose in fact not from industrial causes but from the domestic burning of sea coal, was John Evelyn’s Fumifugium of 1661. [John Evelyn, Fumifugium: Or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated (London: W. Godbid for Gabriel Bedel and Thomas Collins, 1661). William Frend pointed out in 1819 that ‘The Smoke of London, first view’d from a distance, affords a sight which strikes a foreigner with astonishment’. [William Frend, Is it impossible to free the atmosphere of London, in a very considerable degree from the smoke and deleterious vapours with which it is hourly impregnated?] But the middle years of the century were characterised by vigorous concerns to reduce air pollution, especially in the capital. W.K. MacKinnon mounted an eight-year campaign from 1843 to 1851 against air pollution with a series of private member’s Bills to establish smoke abatement legislation. All were defeated, but his cause was not, for Palmerston ensured the successful passage of the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act through the House of Commons in 1853, two years before Dickens began Little Dorrit. Smoke abatement clauses were subsequently included in the Sanitary Acts of 1858 and 1866 and in the Public Health Act of 1875. [Peter Brimblecombe, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London Since Medieval Times (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 90-107.] An article on the issue, entitled ‘Smoke or No Smoke’, appeared in Dickens’s Household Words, 9 (1 July 1854), p. 464. However, I do not here mean to represent Little Dorrit as a novel that is explicitly concerned with the sanitary politics of air, as, say, Bleak House might be represented as a novel concerned with the politics of disease. Rather, I want to suggest that the sustained concern with and recourse to air as actuality and figure is an instance of Dickens’s material imagination at work.



Little Dorrit begins in the condition of oxygen debt that will characterise much of the novel. We are offered what looks like a slight relief from the glare and stare of the hot Marseilles sun, only for it to reassert its locked uniformity in the mode of breath: ‘The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves’ (I. 1, 39). The whole sequence concludes on a pneumatic note: ‘The very dust was scorched brown, and something quivered in the atmosphere as if the air itself were panting’ (I. 1, 40). It is a typical Dickensian escalation of logic; when you pant, you do so for want of air, as a way of making good your oxygen debt; but when the air itself pants, what can it be in want of? Air has here become more than a substance; in order for it to share in the universal breathlessness it has had to be changed into a breathing organism – given a body that it may lack itself.

It has often been noticed that Little Dorrit shows a world in which the shadow of the prison falls on everyone and everything. Among the most remarkable features of the general atmosphere of immurement in the novel is that it seems to take the very air into custody. We read that ‘A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement’ (I. 1, 41). The climax of the novel comes with Clennam drawn in, as though by a needy, greedy lung, into the Marshalsea. There, we read,

[h]is dread and hatred of the place became so intense that he felt it a labour to draw his breath in it. The sensation of being stifled sometimes so overpowered him, that he would stand at the window holding his throat and gasping. At the same time a longing for other air, and a yearning to be beyond the blind blank wall, made him feel as if he must go mad with the ardour of the desire. (II. 29, 823).

Mr Meagles, like so many other characters in the novel – even a representative of the Barnacle clan at one point – also finds himself hoovered up into the Marshalsea, like a Dorothy picked up by the most sluggish imaginable sort of cyclone. Even though he is there to complete Arthur’s release, Meagles too experiences it as a literal asphyxiation: ‘ “I can’t live without breathing.” ‘ he says to Tattycoram. ‘ “This place has taken my breath away, and I shall never get it back again until Arthur is out of this place.” ‘ (II. 33, 883). He says almost the same thing a moment later: ‘ “I can’t live without breathing freely; and I can’t breathe freely until Arthur is out of this Marshalsea. I am stifled at the present moment, and have scarcely breath enough to say this much.” ‘ (II. 33, 883). The want of air even affects inanimate objects, like the ‘wash of sheets and table-cloths [which] tried (in vain, for want of air) to get itself dried’ (I. 22, 302) in the back-yard of the tobacconists where the love-lorn Chivery pines. Dickens hints at the connection between Chivery’s doldrum condition, sitting listlessly amid the flapping linen ‘like the last mariner left alive on the deck of a damp ship without the power of furling the sails’ (I. 22, 302) and other rudderless sailing ships which feature in the novel – Mr Casby, relying on the energetic tugboat of Mr Pancks (I. 13, 191), and Edmund, taken helplessly in tow by Fanny (II. 14, 651).

Throughout the novel, characters will be shown breathing fitfully, panting, puffing, gasping and, like Flintwinch, struggling against ‘shortness of breath’ (II. 10, 602), or, like Affery, ‘recovering her breath’ (I. 15, 228). The intermissions in Flora’s torrential volubility come only when she has ‘talked herself out of breath’ (I. 13, 194). This condition of apnoea is also conveyed in the novel through the prevalence of various kinds of blocked or imperfectly articulate speech. In the opening chapter of the novel, the evocation of the guillotine draws a sinisterly premonitory sound from Blandois, who ‘spat suddenly on the pavement, and gurgled in his throat’. This cutting off of speech is then transferred to the jail itself: ‘Some locks below gurgled in its throat immediately afterwards, and then a door clashed’ (I. I, 42). The novel renders the breathy cries of ‘Whew!’, uttered by Meagles (I. 10, 159) and ‘Whoof!’, the sound with which Blandois accompanies his fiendish nicotine-fuelled reveries (II. 28, 819; II. 30, 855), along with William Dorrit’s havering ejaculations of ‘ha’ and ‘hum’. Then there is the conspicuous snorting of Pancks, the ‘half-suppressed gasp’ we hear from the guests at the end of the Merdle dinner party (II. 12, 626), and the yawning that Mrs Gowan senior adroitly conceals behind her fan (II. 8, 574) and transmits to Fanny (II. 24, 758). There are, too, many coughs sobs and similar syncopes of breath, for example in the remarkable effect of the mountain air on the travellers at the beginning of Part II of the novel, which imparts ‘a sensation of a catching in the breath, partly as if they had just emerged from very clear crisp water, and partly as if they had been sobbing’ (II. 1, 483); or in ‘the sob that checked the clumsy laugh’ in Little Dorrit’s account of Maggie’s life (I. 9, 144); or when Clennam hears from Doyce of Meagles’s doubts about Gowan: ‘ “There—” Clennam choked, and coughed, and stopped. “Yes, you have taken cold,” said Daniel Doyce’ (I. 17, 253). The novel is full of gestures and figures of choking: Gowan’s dog straining to attack Blandois, ‘regardless of being half-choked by his collar’ (II. 6, 546), Tattycoram, described at one point by Meagles as ‘that vehement panting creature’ (I. 27, 372) who cries out in Miss Wade’s ‘airless room’ (I. 27, 375) ‘with her bosom swelling high, and speaking with her hand held to her throat’ (I. 27, 379), Flintwinch’s cravat with its habit of forming a slipknot around his neck (II. 10, 602), and the unappealing choice which Flintwinch himself offers Affery:

‘What’s it about? Who is it? What does it mean? Speak out or be choked! It’s the only choice I’ll give you!’

Supposing Mistress Affery to have any power of election a the moment, her choice was decidedly to be choked; for she answered not a syllable to this adjuration. (I. 30, 396)

As in other Dickens novels of this period, secrets and confined knowledge abound. As he approaches the vicinity of his mother’s house, Arthur reflects that the streets all seem ‘depositories of oppressive secrets… [which] ‘imparted a heaviness to the air’. Even the river is a store of such concealment, ‘as it rolled its turbid tide between two frowning wildernesses of secrets, extending, thick and dense, for many miles, and warding off the free air and the free country swept by winds and wings of birds’ (II. 10, 597).

The novel is full of unwholesome air – it can be no surprise that Edward Dorrit will eventually suffer a bout of malaria, which means, simply, ‘bad air’ (II. 24, 762) – and lingering odours, like those of the Sparklers’s drab lodgings, which are suffused by ‘a perpetual smell…of the day before yesterday’s soup’ (II. 24, 757; II. 33, 874) The tightness of the Barnacles is suggested not only by the fact that barnacles make the progress of wind-drawn vessels sluggish, but also by their capacity to prevent the diffusion of odours. Clennam makes his way to the residence of Tite Barnacle in one of ‘two or three small airless houses at the entrance end of Mews Street’ and presents himself at number 24. (How wonderfully diminishing it is actually to give the house a number! The docketing of the Barnacle residence will be contrasted a little later in the novel with the card which intimates the house – actually in the Grosvenor square vicinity of Tite Barnacle’s house – in which Miss Wade will be found: ‘No number…’, remarks Meagles to Clennam, ‘No anything! The very name of the street may have been floating in the air.’ (I.27, 373). ) Number 24 is apprehended and presented almost entirely in terms of the sense of smell:

To the sense of smell the house was like a sort of bottle filled with a strong distillation of Mews; and when the footman opened the door, he seemed to take the stopper out… The footman was to the Grosvenor Square footmen, what the house was to the Grosvenor Square houses… both in complexion and consistency he had suffered from the closeness of his pantry. A sallow flabbiness was upon him when he took the stopper out, and presented the bottle to Mr Clennam’s nose…. At the inner hall-door, another bottle seemed to be presented and another stopper taken out. This second vial appeared to be filled with concentrated provisions and extract of Sink from the pantry. (I. 10, 151-2).

Odour clings around other members of the Barnacle clan, such as Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, who is presented at the wedding of the Gowans, ‘in the odour of Circumlocution – with the very smell of Despatch-Boxes upon him’ (I. 34, 455). The ‘odour of sanctity’ is what emanates from the holiest of persons in life, but, more particularly after death, as in the saints whose bodies are miraculously preserved from decomposition. The miserable miracle effected by the Barnacles is here their capacity to arrest and box up time through the very opposite of ‘Despatch’, procrastination, drawing out. The sensitivity to air, especially to confined air, makes this among the most aromatic and, so to speak, rhinocentric of Dickens’s novels. Since smell is the most melancholy, spectral and elegiac of the senses, odour provides a good way of suggesting a present haunted or suffused by its past. The Casby residence, ‘the sober, silent, air-tight house’, where Arthur will meet Flora again is one such. Standing at the door, Arthur thinks ‘The house…is as little changed as my mother’s, and looks almost as gloomy. But the likeness ends outside. I know its staid repose within. The smell of its jars of old rose-leaves and lavender seems to come upon me even here.’. When the door is opened at his knock, we read that ‘those faded scents in truth saluted him like wintry breath that had a faint remembrance in it of the bygone spring.’ (I. 13, 186).

Elsewhere, Dickens uses the fact that odour both clings and is diffused, to suggest the paradox of a sort of mobile or portable confinement. The signature of Flora Finching’s physical person in the air is ‘a singular combination of perfumes…as if some brandy had been put by mistake in a lavender-water bottle, or as if some lavender-water had been put by mistake in a brandy-bottle’ (II. 17, 680). A similar duality of spread and concentration is suggested in the musty person of Mrs. Plornish’s father, who spends most of his time bottled up in the Workhouse, ‘in a grove of two score and nineteen more old men, every one of whom smells of all the others’ (I. 31, 414). It is one of the many jokes of this kind that Dickens effects, that this Orwellian evocation should occur at the beginning of a chapter entitled ‘Spirit’. In fact, the idea of spirit is played on and with throughout this novel in which a number of characters pride themselves on the maintaining of their ‘spirit’. But spirit, which literally means ‘breath’ and therefore conspires with words like ‘respiration’ ‘aspiration’ and ‘expiration’, is usually either a breathless, or a puffed-up affair in the novel. Spirit is therefore something volatile, an essence whose essence is to be impermanent, impalpable or unreliable, like a smell.


Snuffing It

The fact that most of the light in the novel is provided by candles gives Dickens a chance to suck light itself into his economy of air. Snuffing is as prominent as sniffing in Little Dorrit. Illumination is experienced not as a condition, but as a finite and easily-exhaustible quantum. The light of the novel is for the most part, humid and hazy. In contrast to Bleak House, in which the danger of combustion seem to hover dangerously about every naked flame, Little Dorrit offers fluttering, guttering or rasping flatus rather than explosion – even though Dickens did at times feel pretty explosive himself in writing the novel, as he explained to Macready: ‘I have been blowing off a little of the indignant steam which would otherwise blow me up’ (4 October 1855, Letters, 7.716). Merdle is presented throughout the novel as a candle struggling to remain alight, and apt to be extinguished by his domineering staff. He is made of ‘the commonest clay, with as clogged a wick smouldering inside of it as ever kept an image of humanity from tumbling to pieces’ (II. 12, 611). His Physician warns him ‘ “You must expect to go out, some day, like the snuff of a candle” ‘ (II. 25, 775). Merdle’s flame-retardant quality extends to his house, in which, on the night of his death ‘[a] footman of rainbow hues, in the public eye, was sitting up for his master–that is to say, was fast asleep in the kitchen over a couple of candles and a newspaper, demonstrating the great accumulation of mathematical odds against the probabilities of a house being set on fire by accident’ (II. 25, 773). In his easy snuffability, Merdle resembles the consumptive light that burns night and day in Mrs Clennam’s room:

The varying light of fire and candle in Mrs Clennam’s room made the greatest change that ever broke the dead monotony of the spot. In her two long narrow windows, the fire shone sullenly all day, and sullenly all night. On rare occasions it flashed up passionately, as she did; but for the most part it was suppressed, like her, and preyed upon itself evenly and slowly. (I. 15, 221)

Despite the promise of ignition in his name, Flintwinch finds it hard to get a candle lit on the night of Blandois’s arrival:

he groped about for a phosphorus box. When he found it, it was damp, or otherwise out of order; and match after match that he struck into it lighted sufficiently to throw a dull glare about his groping face, and to sprinkle his hands with pale little spots of fire, but not sufficiently to light the candle. (I. 30, 398)

When he sums Mrs General up as ‘[a] cool, waxy, blown-out woman, who had never lighted well’ (II.2, 503), Dickens switches the word ‘light’ from illumination to ignition, turning her from a potential photograph subject to a potential bonfire.

Yet oxygen is in fact highly combustible, and it is in the nature of air, like all gases and vapours, to spread. The false reputation of Merdle is presented as such a contagious inflammability: ‘As a vast fire will fill the air to a great distance with its roar, so the sacred flame which the mighty Barnacles had fanned caused the air to resound more and more with the name of Merdle’ (II.13, 627).



It seems like a mockery that the novel should be so full of characters who attempt to put on airs, or exude different kinds of ‘air’. Right in the first chapter, Blandois has a ‘theatrical air’, ‘a certain air of being a handsome man–which he was not; and a certain air of being a well-bred man–which he was not’; he is all ‘blustering assertion’ (I.1, 49). The Circumlocution Office similarly displays a ‘bamboozling air’ (I. 10, 149). If much of the novel pants for want of air, it also frequently presents a condition of pneumatic surfeit or hyperventilation; of fluttering, gusting, flustering, blustering. When Little Dorrit is out in the streets, especially in that tellingly oxymoronic condition Dickens devises for her of being ‘locked out’, the weather is nearly always gusty and squally, suggesting that when one is not being starved of air, one is being buffeted by it, both conditions that inhibit free respiration. Let us recall that Affery is made to undergo the exclusion ‘by the door blowing upon her in a violent gust of wind and shutting her out’ (I. 29, 392).

The wind, that traditional Romantic symbol of freedom, aspiration and vision, which gusts so intemperately through this novel, also has a custodial function, which it exercises over itself:

The morning light was in no hurry to climb the prison wall and look in at the Snuggery windows; and when it did come, it would have been more welcome if it had come alone, instead of bringing a rush of rain with it. But the equinoctial gales were blowing out at sea, and the impartial south-west wind, in its flight, would not neglect even the narrow Marshalsea. While it roared through the steeple of St George’s Church, and twirled all the cowls in the neighbourhood, it made a swoop to beat the Southwark smoke into the jail; and, plunging down the chimneys of the few early collegians who were yet lighting their fires, half suffocated them. (I. 9, 130)

The prison is not only a kind of vacuum, enfeebled through want of air, it is also a kind of bubble, or an air that maintains its own separation from the larger atmosphere. We read in the opening chapter of the prison at Marseilles that ‘Like a well, like a vault, like a tomb, the prison had no knowledge of the brightness outside, and would have kept its polluted atmosphere intact in one of the spice islands of the Indian ocean.’ (I. 1, 41). This motif of self-imprisoning air is brilliantly evoked in the idea of the vortex or whirlwind, another phenomenon of air that, turning upon itself, takes away your power of taking breath. When Arthur returns to his family house in the city, its deathly languor is emphasised by its smokiness and the feeble currents of air obtaining inside it:

the ceilings were so fantastically clouded by smoke and dust, that old women might have told fortunes in them better than in grouts of tea; the dead-cold hearths showed no traces of having ever been warmed but in heaps of soot that had tumbled down the chimneys, and eddied about in little dusky whirlwinds when the doors were opened. (I. 5, 94)

Dickens is here both indicating how pathetically little air can get in through the cracks of the Clennam house and intimating what turbulence there is in store for it. Others are affected by premonitory kinds of vortex. Here is John Chivery for example, struggling with his complex feelings on seeing Arthur Clennam brought to the Marshalsea:

‘When you first came upon me, sir, in the Lodge, this day, more as if a Upas tree had been made a capture of than a private defendant, such mingled streams of feelings broke loose again within me, that everything was for the first few minutes swept away before them, and I was going round and round in a vortex. I got out of it. I struggled, and got out of it. If it was the last word I had to speak, against that vortex with my utmost powers I strove, and out of it I came. (II. 27, 793-4)

Dickens carefully reminds us of these ineffectual little vortices when eventually Mrs Clennam rises to her feet to leave her prison, the house that, as though held together by her force of will, will crash to the ground as soon as she leaves it: ‘companions pausing and standing aside, whispered one another to look at this spectral woman who was coming by; and the sweep of the figure as it passed seemed to create a vortex, drawing the most idle and most curious after it’ (II. 31). Dickens says she is ‘made giddy by the turbulent irruption of this multitude of staring faces into her cell of years, by the confusing sensation of being in the air, and the yet more confusing sensation of being afoot’ (II.31). The general turbulence of the scene allows the ambiguity of that phrase ‘in the air’ to work: just for a second, we think of Mrs Clennam not only ‘out in the air’, but also witchily aloft in it.

The title of II.26, ‘Reaping the Whirlwind’, finally makes explicit the connection with the rebuke of Israel’s idolatry in Hosea 8.7, which we can imagine Mrs Clennam herself often quoting: ‘they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’. When the house itself falls, it is as though it were being torn down by the storm of a great, vengeful wind, though we should by now have been taught to see it as contiaining or itself constituting a vortex:

As they looked up, wildly crying for help, the great pile of chimneys, which was then alone left standing like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked, broke, and hailed itself down upon the heap of ruin, as if every tumbling fragment were intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper. (II. 31)



If there is a consistent parallel between money and air, we have become accustomed at leas since the late seventeenth century to thinking of a particular malaise of the economy in terms of an excess of air. When an economy is filled with air, rather than with substance, then, we have become accustomed to say, it is suffering from ‘inflation’. The South Sea Bubble produced many satires which pressed the analogy between greedy expectation and flatulence to its extremes Indeed, the condition of oxygen debt that is insisted on throughout Little Dorrit is combined with an inflationary economy. The flabby, broken-winded debtors of the Marshalsea are balanced by the puffy, distended windbags of Society, the Law and the City. Distension and inflammation seem to be general conditions. Tormented by Fanny, poor Edmund Sparkler is reduced to vacuous and issueless engorgement: ‘that peculiarity in his appearance of seeming rather a swelled boy than a young man, became developed to an extraordinary degree of ruddy puffiness’ (II. 7, 560). Merdle’s name is made by puffing (II. 12, 611), and, although he has cut his throat, the general verdict on the cause of his death – ‘Pressure’ (II. 25, 775) – hints at a more Krook-like fate. Mr Pancks is the character who is most regularly described as puffing, normally to suggest a kind of purposive blowing off of excess steam, rather than the unhealthy puffing up which affects so many other characters. But there are times when even Mr Pancks’s puffing-billy enthusiasm acquires an ominous air::

‘And you have really invested,’ Clennam had already passed to that word, ‘your thousand pounds, Pancks?’

‘To be sure, sir!’ replied Pancks boldly, with a puff of smoke. ‘And only wish it ten!’ (II. 13, 640)

Puffiness is found in the prison as well as outside it. It features in Little Dorrit’s birth, in which assistance is sought from an insolvent doctor and his assistant, ‘two hoarse, puffy, red-faced personages seated at a rickety table, playing at all-fours, smoking pipes, and drinking brandy’ (II. 6, 100). Bleeding Heart Yard has sunk in comparison to ‘the aspiring city’ which has ‘become puffed up in the very ground on which it stood’ (I. 12, 176). The unflappable Mr Casby is ‘a boiling-over old Christian’, who lends money to Pancks at twenty per cent; Ruggs, by contrast, who has ‘no more benevolence bubbling out of him, than out of a ninepin’ asks only ten (I. 35, 461-2). But the epitome of inflation is provided by Tite Barnacle in whom buttoned-up breadth – in contrast to the unbuttoned Lear on the savagely airy heath – gives the illusion of weight:

Mr Tite Barnacle was a buttoned-up man, and consequently a weighty one. All buttoned-up men are weighty. All buttoned-up men are believed in. Whether or no the reserved and never-exercised power of unbuttoning, fascinates mankind; whether or no wisdom is supposed to condense and augment when buttoned up, and to evaporate when unbuttoned; it is certain that the man to whom importance is accorded is the buttoned-up man. Mr Tite Barnacle never would have passed for half his current value, unless his coat had been always buttoned-up to his white cravat. (II.12, 621)

If Tite Barnacle lives in a house in which the air is tightly stoppered, then other members of the clan are characterised by their oppressive and obstructive lightness. The younger Barnacle is characterised as ‘airy’ (I. 10, 57), while Bar is ‘gossamer’ in his handling of him (I. 12, 614). In the same chapter, Lord Decimus Barnacle is described as a fast-growing flower, which, shooting upwards, shuts out light and warmth from others (II. 12, 623), and then displays a more massive, blimp-like buoyancy: ‘After some delay, and several stretches of his wings which came to nothing, he soared to the drawing-room’ (II. 12, 623).

The novel is full of levity, elevation and updraught. The movement outwards from the prison is simultaneously a movement upwards into the mountains. ‘In the mountains, there you feel free’, we read at the beginning of Eliot’s The Waste Land, but in Little Dorrit the ‘frosty rarefied…air’ (II. 1, 483) of the Alps does not bring the clarity and freedom that one might expect. Even in the Alps, there is still rising odour, ‘a smell within, coming up from the floor, of tethered beasts’ (I. 2, 485) Not only is the air too cold too breathe, all is wrapped in nebulous indistinctness:

Up here in the clouds, everything was seen through cloud, and seemed dissolving into cloud The breath of the men was cloud, the breath of the mules was cloud, the lights were encircled by cloud, speakers close at hand were not seen for cloud, though their voices and all other sounds were surprisingly clear. Of the cloudy line of mules hastily tied to rings in the wall, one would bite another, or kick another, and then the whole mist would be disturbed: with men diving into it, and cries of men and beasts coming out of it, and no bystander discerning what was wrong. (II. 1, 484)

Even though the next morning brings with it a promising brightness, in which the mists clear and ‘the mountain air was so clear and light that the new sensation of breathing it was like the having entered on a new existence’, we are straight away told that this is a ‘delusion’, assisted by the fact that ‘the solid ground itself seemed gone, and the mountain, a shining waste of immense white heaps and masses, to be a region of cloud floating between the blue sky above and the earth far below’ (II. 3, 504). Dickens seems at times to have been unnerved by this sort of groundlessness. He wrote in 1854 to Angela Burdett-Coutts of the previous year criticising the arrangement of the furniture in Urania House: ‘The little bookcase in the glass opposite the fire must positively have below it a table…the bookcase as it stands, is quite insanely perched in the air, without appearing to have any root in the ground’ (1 November 1854, Letters, 7.456). And yet he also seems to have conceived Little Dorrit in something of a hovering, or suspensive manner. He wrote to John Forster on the 4th February 1855 that he had ‘motes of new books in the dirty air’, and seems to have been pleased by the conceit, for he repeated it in a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts of two days later, in which he informed her ‘I am going to Paris… having motes of new stories floating before my eyes in the dirty air, which seem to drive somewhere in that direction’ (Letters, 7. 523, 526).

During the period in which he was beginning work on Little Dorrit, he wrote jokingly to Thomas Beard from Folkestone (addressing him as ‘Boreas’ because he had supplied the part of the North Wind in the play The Lighthouse) that his friend:

having nothing particular to do – except a new book, twenty months long – Household Words – and other trifles – has taken to expend his superfluous vitality in swarming up the face of a gigantic and precipitous cliff in a lonely spot overhanging the wild sea-beach. He may be generally seen (in clear weather) from the British Channel, suspended in mid-air, with his trousers very much torn, at fifty minutes past 3 P.M. (23 August 1855, Letters, 7.693)

Individuals seem everywhere to be subject to this habit of hovering and lift in the novel. Even the stolid Mrs General is at one point imagined to be sitting on a flying carpet (II. 5, 524-5). We are reminded of the economic dimensions of this kind of uplift in the lisping testimony of Bleeding Heart Yard that it was only men of the eminence of Merdle ‘that knowed the heighth to which the bread and butchers’ meat had rose, and it was such and only such that both could and would bring that heighth down’ (II. 13, 628).

Hair is particularly prone to this kind of ascension. Lord Decimus, ‘the windiest creature’ at the wedding breakfast offers his congratulations to the couple ‘in a series of platitudes that would have made the hair of any sincere disciple and believer stand on end’ – the running title reading ‘High Company’ at this point (I. 34, 458). Pancks’s uneasiness as he listens to Clennam’s warnings about investing with Merdle is displayed in the fact that ‘he occupied his hands during the whole recital in so erecting the loops and hooks of hair all over his head, that he looked, when it came to a conclusion, like a journeyman Hamlet in conversation with his father’s spirit’ (II. 13, 642). The lifting of hair is not always enforced or factitious: the heroic stand which Frederick Dorrit makes against Fanny’s disparagement of Amy is marked by the fact that ‘his grey hair rose on his head’ (II. 5, 538). And Plornish provides an instructive inversion of the pattern in enunciating his philosophy of life’s ups and downs in the wake of the Merdle bust: ‘He had heerd it given for a truth that accordin’ as the world went round, which round it did rewolve undoubted, even the best of gentlemen must take his turn of standing with his ed upside down and all his air a flying the wrong way into what you might call Space’ (I. 27, 79).

Dickens always had a great sensitivity to substances in a ground, milled or particulate condition, dust, ashes, cosmetic powder. In this novel, it is the lightness rather than the undifferentiatedness of powder that is to the fore. Having one of his families run a tobacconist’s shop gives Dickens the hint for a substance that clinches the connection between air and powder, in the first view we are given of Frederick Dorrit: ‘Under one arm he carried a limp and worn-out case, containing some wind instrument; in the same hand he had a pennyworth of snuff in a little packet of whitey-brown paper, from which he slowly comforted his poor blue old nose with a lengthened-out pinch’ (I. 8, 119) Mrs General is similarly powdery, with her ‘floury appearance, as though from living in some transcendently genteel Mill’ (II. 2, 503). Powdered wigs abound at Merdle’s dinners, at which ‘[p]ulverous particles got into the dishes, and Society’s meats had a seasoning of first-rate footmen’ (I. 21, 295). Gowan jokes that he has not entirely forsworn society since taking up painting, and is still ‘glad enough to smell the old fine gunpowder now and then, though it did blow me into mid-air and my present calling’ (II. 7, 562). The chronic dyspepsia that predicts Merdle’s demise is suggested by ‘black traces on his lips where they met, as if a little train of gunpowder had been fired there’ (II. 16, 674). Even the final collapse of the Clennam house is presented as a kind of triumph of a kind of precipitating lightness, foretold by the faint light sounds heard by Affery: ‘A tremble, a rumble, and a fall of some light dry matter’ (I. 29, 395)


Wind Machines

Dickens himself was of course a great lover of open-air exercise and altogether a prodigious fresh air engine. ‘Hot rooms and society, worry me more than you can easily imagine’, he wrote in a jaded moment to one Madame Jacquet in February 1856, adding ‘but the open air will set me right’. (Letter to Madame Jacquet 12 February 1856, Letters, 8, 55). He kept up his usual rate of vigorous exercise during the writing of Little Dorrit, reporting to his wife from Dover in May 1856 that he had been taking ‘twenty-mile walks in the fresh air’ (Letters, 8.108). Little Dorrit is a novel of machines and machinery, and, given the general concern with air, it is not surprising that so many of the machines evoked in this novel should be wind-driven, and that, when musical instruments are referred to they should usually be wind instruments, and of a mechanical kind at that. Mrs Clennam sits at her desk with her cabinet towering before her ‘as if she were performing on a dumb church organ (I. 5, 84). Arriving at Frederick Dorrit’s house, Clennam discovers that ‘[t]here were so many lodgers in this house that the doorpost seemed to be as full of bell-handles as a cathedral organ is of stops’ (I. 9, 132), and indeed finds himself stating his case at the Circumlocution Office in a ‘barrel-organ way’ (I. 10, 156); for all his perseverance, he anticipates in this the feeble vocalism of ‘that poor little reedy piping old gentleman’ (I. 31, 414), Mrs Plornish’s father, with the ‘small internal flutterings and chirpings wherein he would discharge himself of these ditties, like a weak, little, broken barrel-organ, ground by a baby’ (I. 31, 414-15). Even Flora has a leaning toward the instrument, gabbling to Mr Dorrit that ‘ “I have said ever since I began to recover the blow of Mr F’s death that I would learn the Organ of which I am extremely fond but of which I am ashamed to say I do not yet know a note, good evening!” ‘ (II. 17, 683-4).

It is no surprise to hear the airy young Ferdinand Barnacle describing the operations of the Circumlocution Office in terms of a windy machinery that is very different from the productive engines of Doyce & Clennam: : ‘ “Believe me, Mr Clennam,’ said the sprightly young Barnacle in his pleasantest manner, ‘our place is not a wicked Giant to be charged at full tilt; but only a windmill showing you, as it grinds immense quantities of chaff, which way the country wind blows” ‘ (II. 28, 804). In fact, the most prevalent kind of wind engineering in the novel is devoted to the artificial production and stimulation of air. Naturally, a ‘Brother Bellows’ is among those assisting at Merdle’s dinner party (I. 21, 295). Fans abound. Sometimes they are used to cool and restore equilibrium, as in Mr Meagles’s laborious fanning of himself in the Marshalsea (II. 33, 879). Mrs Bangham, ‘expert in sudden device’, uses a cabbage leaf to fan Mrs Dorrit and keep off the flies in her confinement (I. 6, 101).Sometimes fanning is reviving, as when we read early in the novel of ‘the smouldering embers of curiosity and interest which Mrs Flintwinch had fanned’ in Arthur regarding Flora Casby (I. 13, 185) Sometimes fanning attempts to maintain the flickering spark of life amid oppressive air, as when Amy Dorrit fans the feverish brow of her father, (I. 35, 471), though in the end the motion of her hand slackens and fails (I. 35, 473) In the hands of Mrs Gowan, who seems never to venture out without her ‘shady ambuscade of green fan’ (II. 8, 574), Mrs Merdle and the emblematically-named Fanny Dorrit, fans are used to dissimulate, to fascinate, to provoke and to control. The most dangerous kind of fanning in the novel is the fanning of ‘the sacred flame’ of belief in Mr Merdle’s fortune (II. 13, 627), but the fan also becomes a weapon in the hands of its most expert and ruthless practitioner, the aptly-named Fanny. ”In the triumphant exaltation of her feelings, Miss Fanny, using her Spanish fan with one hand, squeezed her sister’s waist with the other, as though she were crushing Mrs Merdle’ (II. 6, 551); ‘Fanny…took up her favourite fan (being then seated at her dressing-table with her armoury of cruel instruments about her, most of them reeking from the heart of Sparkler), and tapped her sister frequently on the nose with it, laughing all the time’ (II. 7, 558). In both creating artificial wind and expressing the attentuation of spirit and vital force, these machines mediate between the two economies of short-windedness and hyperventilation that predominate in the novel.



But there is a human activity, more prominent in this novel than in any other by Dickens, which mediates between these economies even more extensively. One of the earliest hints that the Marseilles and the Marshalsea inhabit the same atmosphere is the prominence of tobacco in both. The turnkeys of the Marshalsea prison are also its tobacconists – ‘Chivery and Co., Tobacconists, Importers of pure Havannah Cigars, Bengal Cheroots, and fine-flavoured Cubas, Dealers in Fancy Snuffs, &C.&C.’ (I. 22, 301-2) and John Chivery’s courtship of Little Dorrit is assisted by the gifts of cigars which form his testimonials to the Father of the Marshalsea (I.18, 259).

Dickens was himself a regular smoker, though of cigars rather than cigarettes (which latter were only beginning to become common around the time of Little Dorrit, when they were brought back by soldiers returning from the Crimean War). In a letter to Forster of 11 October 1846 he describes a vigorous smoking party led by a cigar-loving mother and daughter, who offered him a cigar ‘which would quell an elephant in six puffs’ (Letters, 4.634). Just after finishing Little Dorrit, he wrote a letter of gratitude to a Captain E.E. Morgan who had sent him a gift of cigars, in which he promised ‘I will inaugurate the first chapter of the next book…by fumigating it in MS with a Cigar reserved from this very box’ (24 September 1857, Letters, 8.453) Smoke is in this respect an ambivalent substance, a little like grease and fat, which evoke both disgust and vitality. Smokng atmospheres can sometimes suggest comfort and abundance, as for example in the vision of Mrs F’s Aunt at breakfast, ‘basking in a balmy atmosphere of tea and toast…Bending over a steaming vessel of tea, and looking through the steam, and breathing forth the steam, like a malignant Chinese enchantress engaged in the performance of unholy rites, Mr F’s Aunt put down her great teacup and exclaimed, ‘Drat him, if he an’t come back again!’ (II. 9, 589). The trompe l’oeil painting on the wall of Plornish’s parlour in Bleeding Heart Yard depicts sunflowers and hollyhocks ‘flourishing with great luxuriance on this rustic dwelling, while a quantity of dense smoke issuing from the chimney indicated good cheer within, and also, perhaps, that it had not been lately swept’ (II.13).

However, smoking usually has more negative connotations in Little Dorrit. Chivery’s cigars assist in the petty violence of superiority, as it is enforced by Dorrit senior

the Father of the Marshalsea refreshed himself with a whiff of cigar. As he walked up and down, affably accommodating his step to the shuffle of his brother, not proud in his superiority, but considerate of that poor creature, bearing with him, and breathing toleration of his infirmities in every little puff of smoke that issued from his lips and aspired to get over the spiked wall, he was a sight to wonder at. (I. 19, 266)

This makes it apt that the reminder of the oppressive prison air which seems to begin William Dorrit’s decline is furnished by John Chivery bringing him a gift of cigars. Dorrit’s reaction is slyly telling: ‘Mr Dorrit glared on the young man, choked, and said, in the mildest of tones, ‘Ah! Young John! It is Young John, I think; is it not?’ ’ (II.18, 691) Dickens carefully binds these smoky objects into the gaseous conceit of this chapter, which is entitled ‘The Castle in the Air’.

Building away with all his might, but reserving the plans of his castle exclusively for his own eye, Mr Dorrit posted away for Marseilles. Building on, building on, busily, busily, from morning to night. Falling asleep, and leaving great blocks of building materials dangling in the air; waking again, to resume work and get them into their places. What time the Courier in the rumble, smoking Young John’s best cigars, left a little thread of thin light smoke behind – perhaps as he built a castle or two with stray pieces of Mr Dorrit’s money. (II.18, 696-7).

Gowan smokes abundantly. Clennam declines his offer but Blandois is happy to be his smoking partner (II.3, 504). Of course, Blandois is the most determined smoker in the novel (Dickens suggests at one point that he even smokes through his nose (II. 28, 818).). As he takes his ease after his dinner and reviews his projects and prospects, his smoking provides an image of his empty, but sinister menace: ‘Mr Blandois, having finished his repast and cleaned his fingers, took a cigar from his pocket, and, lying on the window-seat again, smoked it out at his leisure, occasionally apostrophising the smoke as it parted from his thin lips in a thin stream’ (I. 30, 402). Smoke is dangerous, not only because it chokes and, by blocking vision, deceives, but also because it images the violent reduction of the world to lightness, as imaged once again in smoking bluster of Blandois in Clennam’s cell: ‘ “Whoof! The fair Gowana!” he said, lighting a third cigarette with a sound as if his lightest breath could blow her away. “Charming, but imprudent!” ’(II. 28, 819). Many of the characters of the novel are deprived of air because they are captured in the atmospheres, in the very breath, of others like Blandois. Blandois is even provided with an ironic halo of smoke: looking back at the convent, Little Dorrit sees him ‘backed by the convent smoke which rose straight and high from the chimneys in a golden film, always standing on one jutting point looking down after them’ (II. 3, 509)

There are other smoky characters in this novel of metaphorical tugboats and steam-engines. Pancks is shown with ‘a lighted cigar in his hand’ and brings with him ‘airs of ale and tobacco smoke’ (I. 32, 436). When Mr. Rugg appears a little later, he will also have ‘a halo of ale and tobacco smoke’ (I. 32, 438). However, Pancks’s basic trustworthiness seems to be evidenced swiftly enough, since ‘he put his cigar to his lips (being evidently no smoker), and took such a pull at it, with his right eye shut up tight for the purpose, that he underwent a convulsion of shuddering and choking.’ (I. 32, 436). When Pancks is disastrously infected by the fever of Merdleism, it seems to be signified in ‘the violent conflict that took place between the breath he jerked out of himself and the smoke he jerked into himself’ (II. 13, 641).


An Air of Taking Credit (II. 15, 670)

Dickens loses few opportunities to elaborate the links between the economies of getting and spending, borrowing, owing and reparation, and the diverse operations of the breath. This is a novel in which one is likely to ‘scent’ a creditor, as Plornish thinks he does in Clennam, rather than, say, spot them coming (I. 12, 179). The perennially deprived condition of the inhabitants of the Marshalsea is first glimpsed by Clennam in the tribe of intermediaries and suppliers of goods to the prison, whose parasitic relationship of indebtedness to the irretrievably indebted is instanced in their coughs:

All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker’s. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction (I. 9, 131).

The fact that one can draw on a bank account as well as draw breath allows Dickens to bring together the realms of financial and physiological obligation. In search of information at the Circumlocution Office about the nature of Dorrit’s debts, Clennam is told ‘ “Shut the door after you. You’re letting in a devil of a draught here!” ’ (I. 10, 156). The many allowances that have to be made by Mrs Gowan’s crammed Hampton Court neighbours in order to maintain their genteel fiction of graceful and expansive living (‘Callers looking steadily into the eyes of their receivers, pretended not to smell cooking three feet off’, (I. 26, 360) ), are summarised as ‘the small social accommodation-bills…which the gypsies of gentility were constantly drawing upon, and accepting for, one another’ (I. 26, 360). The air-starved Merdle does his best ‘to satisfy Society (whatever that was), and take up all its drafts upon him for tribute’ (I. 21, 293). ‘ “You will draw upon us to-morrow, sir” ‘, says the unintoxicatable Flintwinch at the end of his drinking session with Blandois (I. 30, 412). These words become a code for Blandois’s blackmail plot, as when he says to Miss Wade ‘ “I have a good banker in this city, but I would not wish to draw upon the house until the time when I shall draw for a round sum” ‘ (II. 9, 587). A more intriguing use of the term occurs when we hear of Mrs Gowan ‘[r]esigning herself to inevitable fate by making the best of those people, the Miggleses, and submitting her philosophy to the draught upon it, of which she had foreseen the likelihood in her interview with Arthur’ (I. 33, 439). This may imply both a withdrawal or debit from Mrs Gowan’s philosophy and a more literal application of cool air to it.

Smoking belongs to the system I have called ‘oxygen debt’ in the novel, too, because smoking and tobacco are caught up in economies of prison exchange. This is actual (tobacco is a commodity to be traded and exchanged within the prison walls), and also symbolic. Cigarettes furnish ironic commentary on the trapped condition of the characters, since they reveal that air is always escaping. Gowan’s credo provides a perfect concentration of the vaporous values of lightness, His aim, he tells Clennam, is

‘To help myself in my turn, as the man before me helps himself in his, and pass the bottle of smoke. To keep up the pretence as to labour, and study, and patience, and being devoted to my art, and giving up many solitary days to it, and abandoning many pleasures for it, and living in it, and all the rest of it—in short, to pass the bottle of smoke according to rule. (I. 35)

All the elaborate bargains, transactions and swindles whereby Gowan makes his airy living is reduced to the circulation of ‘bottles of smoke’. For all his solemnity and apparent gravitas, the blown-up, buttoned-up Tite Barnacle is just such a bottle of smoke.

There are in fact two kinds of insolvency marked out by these figurations of air in Little Dorrit. There is the insolvency of the hopeless debtor, the one who will never get the books to balance. Dickens could not help feeling anxiety about and revulsion against the kind of paralysing irresponsibility and detachment from things to which a failure to pay one’s way and meet one’s debts could lead. But there is also the insolvency that comes from too exact and claustrophobic a passion for retribution – which, for all his zeal to uncover the secrets of unpaid debts, Arthur Clennam shares with his mother. Governed by the invoice ‘Do Not Forget’, that comes to her like ‘a voice from an angry cloud’, Mrs Clennam will never write off the debt she believes she is owed, or allow it to be paid. Dickens presents this in terms of a failure to breathe any other air but her own: ‘she still abided by her old impiety–still reversed the order of Creation, and breathed her own breath into a clay image of her Creator’ (II. 30, 844). The characters of Little Dorrit all breathe the stale air of insolvency. Air and money are held together for Dickens in what David Trotter has identified as the principle of ‘circulation’. [David Trotter, Circulation: Defoe, Dickens and the Economies of the Novel (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988).] To breathe is to exchange air with one’s atmosphere, and to assist in the general recirculation of air. The debtors of Little Dorrit are unable to participate in this circulation, and so, like Mrs Clennam, or like Blandois, in colloquy with his own smoke, or Mr Dorrit, building in the air of his own fancy, they can only breathe and rebreathe their own stale air.

In the year after completing Little Dorrit, Dickens wrote to Wilkie Collins with an idea for a Christmas story, which would concern a disappointed person who withdraws from the world to some secluded house and with one servant, ‘resolved to shut out the world and hold no communion with it’. The point of the story would be to show the impossibility of such seclusion:

Everything that happens – everybody that comes near – every breath of human interest that floats into the old place from the village, or the heath, or the four cross roads near which it stands and from which belated travellers stray into it – shews beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world. (6 September 1858, Letters, 8.650)

Air is a kind of universal solvent, not because it wipes away debts, or promises some utopia of ‘the gift’, despite its conventional associations with freedom, but because, existing only in being drawn in, expelled, recycled, it suggests that the books can never be got into balance, that individual and collective life, human and natural life conspire to maintain a condition of unpayable debt.