The story of Little Dorrit plays out in and around the Marshalsea prison, one of London's best known gaols and one with which Dickens was well acquainted, since his father spent some months incarcerated there for debt. The prison, which, unusually, was very much like a village behind bars, had been shut down by the time the author came to write Little Dorrit but relics of it remained. He describes how it looked when he returned on a research trip in his preface to the book:
"I found the outer front courtyard metamorphosed into a butter-shop; and I then almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent 'Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey', I came to Marshalsea Place, the houses in which I recognised, not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose to my mind's eye when I became Little Dorrit's biographer...Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years."
All that is left of the Marshalsea today stands in the remnant of St. George's Church (right) yard where a simple and uninformative plaque put up by the council does little to commemorate the spot. The church itself can also still be seen, although it is hopelessly cut off by a busy road loop. Inside it is the font where Dickens has Little Dorrit baptised, the altar where he has her married and the vestry where he makes her sleep, with the burial-book for a pillow.
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published by permission of the author.
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