The Artist at Work

May 24, 2021

Mike Stern joins us in presenting a passage from 'Little Dorrit.' Mrs. Plornish's Happy Cottage is detailed and the simple joys it brings to the characters in the story. We are also given a look into Mike Stern's personal connection with this passage and the memories that are attached to it.



Hi—I’m  Mike Stern, with another of my favorite Dickens passages as part of the Dickens Universe’s Dickens-to-Go series.

The passage is from Chapter 13 of Little Dorrit. It’s a long one, so bear with me.

Mrs Plornish’s shop-parlour had been decorated under her own eye and presented…a little fiction in which Mrs Plornish unspeakably rejoiced. This poetical heightening of the parlour consisted in the wall being painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage…The modest sunflower and hollyhock were depicted as 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. A faithful dog was represented as flying at the legs of the friendly visitor, from the threshold; and a circular pigeon-house, enveloped in a cloud of pigeons, arose from behind the garden-paling. On the door (when it was shut), appeared the semblance of a brass plate, presenting the inscription, Happy Cottage, T. and M. Plornish…No Poetry and no Art ever charmed the imagination more than the union of the two in this counterfeit cottage charmed Mrs Plornish. It was nothing to her that Plornish had a habit of leaning against it as he smoked his pipe after work, when his hat blotted out the pigeon-house and all the pigeons, when his back swallowed up the dwelling, when his hands in his pockets uprooted the blooming garden and laid waste the adjacent country. To Mrs Plornish, it was still a most beautiful cottage, a  most wonderful deception; and it made no difference that Mr Plornish’s eye was some inches above the level of the gable bed-room in the thatch. To come out into the shop after it was shut, and hear her father sing a song inside this cottage, was a perfect Pastoral to Mrs Plornish, the Golden Age revived. 

This passage has a deep personal meaning for me, as well as a literary-critical one. Fifty years ago, I was in graduate school at the University of Cambridge, writing my thesis on Dickens and Stendhal. My late wife, a painter, was teaching art at the Worker’s Educational Association, and needed to get some special materials. There wasn’t a good art supplies store in Cambridge, and Barb discovered that the best one in all of England, Lawrence Art Supplies, was nearby in London—and, of all places, in Bleeding Heart Yard! I was so excited. Bleeding Heart Yard was real! We were going to visit an actual place that Dickens had seared into my imagination when I first read Little Dorrit. I still remember our first trip to Lawrence’s.  The shop was a block-long, dimly-lit, ramshackle, two-story labyrinth of counters, shelves, ladders and cubbyholes, where clerks disappeared for seemingly endless stretches before returning with exactly what you had asked for, no matter how arcane or rare it was. I was in awe of treading where Dickens once had, in a place that that seemed like a cross between Krook's rag-and-bottle shop, Mr. Venus’s junk store, and the “faded glories” of the Plornish’s domain. These days, Lawrence’s has long since moved away, and the Yard, while still there, has been modernized and gentrified beyond recognition. But I have never forgotten the frisson of walking into the courtyard for the first time back in 1971. 

I moved on from Cambridge to Yale to get a PhD in English. My dissertation was about models of society in classical sociology and 19th century fiction and the struggle of political theorists and artists to understand and represent the industrial revolution as it was happening. The passage from Little Dorrit became the centerpiece of my chapter on Dickens. It was the age of theory, but I was a throwback, a putative Marxist of Frankfurt School extraction rather than a deconstructionist. So, the Plornish’s mural became my touchstone for the exhaustion of the romantic imagination and Dickens’s resignation over capitalism’s defeat of the emancipatory power of art. His fiction, like the “little fiction” of the mural, was a “most wonderful deception,” an opiate for the people. It merely covered up the brutal struggle for existence under capitalism, rather than holding out the promise of genuine happiness (per Stendhal and Adorno) and the possibility of imagining an alternative to the way we live now. I spent a hundred pages or so recapitulating how the realist novel recorded the democratization of the singular anguish of the romantic poets’ alienation from a debased, industrialized nature into the ordinary experience of death-in-life of the London masses, imprisoned in their literal and figurative Marshalseas, whether Grosvenor Square or Bleeding Heart Yard. Mrs. Plornish’s mural of a “Happy Cottage” was at best a cruel illusion--a retreat from the social action that might create authentic community, not a gesture of hope. And so on. It would have been hard to be more dogmatic or boring than that (as my ever-grumpier thesis advisor didn’t hesitate to tell me, more than once), but I persisted in that vein for the relatively short duration of my academic career. 

Critics always pay special attention to depictions of art in fiction, since they can be read as keys to a novelist’s own aesthetic theory. I like to think that I’m a bit wiser as well as older now. As a Dickens Universe attendee in 2018, when we last tackled Little Dorrit, I was able to relish the sheer comic exuberance of the passage. It exemplifies Dickens as both the maker and the connoisseur of common pleasures and simple delights, the master of high and low, of comedy, melodrama, and tragic realism.  The passage now evokes for me not so much Adorno’s aphoristic despair about commodified art’s “abjur[ation] of its autonomy” but two other touchstones about the making of Dickens’s art. One is the description of Physician’s practice in Chapter 25 of Little Dorrit: “Few ways of life were hidden from Physician…He went, like the rain, among the just and unjust, doing all the good he could…Where he was, something real was”, surely an allegory of Dickens himself at work. The other is from Chapter VII of Great Expectations, where Joe the blacksmith recites his little poem about his dead father to Pip:  “Joe recited the couplet with such manifest pride and careful perspicuity, that I asked him if he had made it himself. ‘I made it,” said Joe, ‘my own self. I made it in a moment. It was like striking out a horseshoe complete, in a single blow.’” Long before Stephen Dedalus set out, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race,” the fiery forge of Dickens’s sovereign imagination struck out the inimitable journalism and fiction that still endures as the conscience of his time and ours.



Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

What are your favorite passages? We hope you will make a video too! Email Courtney Mahaney for video submission guidelines.