We are having a power outage here at the moment. I have been going back and forth on the question of whether I should write a little note about Little Dorrit. I get used to the power of Charles Dickens’ language, especially in his descriptions of social and political hardship. And then I forget that he can we as sweetly charming as anyone, as he is in this passage.
Here is the context. Arthur Clennam, the principal character, has always been rich and now, suddenly, he is poor and is living in the Marshalsea debtors prison, where Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit) has lived her whole life until she recently became rich. Being suddenly poor and dishonored is hard and it makes Arthur ill and barely cogent.
One day, this happens to him.
Beside the teacup on his table, he saw, then, a blooming nosegay: a wonderful handful of the choicest and most lovely flowers. Nothing had ever appeared so beautiful in his sight. He took them up and inhaled their fragrance; and he lifted them to his hot head, and he put them down and opened his parched hands to them as cold hands are opened to receive the cheering of a fire.
I like each piece of that. I enjoyed “inhaling the fragrance;” I enjoyed “lifting them to his hot head;” I enjoyed “opening his parched hands to them.” That one is my favorite and I want to return to it.
But more than anything I like the order. “Inhaling the fragrance” is something anyone could have written. I could have written it. “Lifting then to his hot head” is surprising. It isn’t that the flowers are cool; it is that they are beautiful. Being beautiful, they are therapeutic to his head. But even that does not prepare us for “opening his hands to them.” Especially not parched hands.
Dickens is drawing here on a very common experience. Your hands are cold and you find a fire or even a warm surface and you open your hands to it, multiplying the surface of the skin the warmth can reach. Everyone has done that. But Clennam opens his hands to the beauty of the flowers. Multiplying the skin surface does not address this question or make sense of the response. Yet we do understand it.
The flowers do nothing for his hands open that it would not do closed. We could say that he opens his heart to the flowers, and in doing that opens whatever he can. He opens himself to the flowers and his body follows his lead.
It’s just beautiful writing and I have been enjoying it. Tonight, I am enjoying it in a blackout.