The Little Woman's Shadow

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Little Dorrit

Copyright: Charles Dickens


The reason Amy loves to hear Mr. Clennam call her "Little Dorrit" is because it makes her unique. The girls he once loved are conventionally referred to as "Flora" and "Miss Meagles", but she – his "poor child", his understanding listener, his friend – is the only one to whom he gives a nickname. He may have other lovers someday; for all he claims to be too old for courtship, no one with eyes like his, and especially a heart like his, was meant to live alone. But he will never have another Little Dorrit, and that makes her secretly, selfishly glad.


It's not only for her family that she hides her food away instead of eating it. It's because the slimy oysters, greasy steaks and heavy chocolate cakes left over by the Clennam household make her nauseous. Rich food is an indulgence she isn't used to, and it feels wicked and selfish to indulge in anything while her father lives on prison fare. It's also a point of pride for her – I am strong, she tells herself. I can survive on half of what they give me. So she wraps Affery's leftovers in a napkin, holding her breath against the smell, and takes them home to Father with a brave smile on her gaunt little face. If nothing else, at least she is in control of her own body.


She likes the river best in its wildest, darkest moods, just before or during a storm. She often stands under the awning of a nearby building and watches the water surge against its banks, like a trapped animal fighting for freedom. She often runs through the rain on some errand or other from Father, Fanny or Tip, so fast her heart begins to pound, and tips back her face to let the rain fall on her burning cheeks. She always feels guilty afterward, because what would happen to them all if she fell ill? But if she did, how long would it take for them to notice?


She doesn't mean to be unfair to Young John Chivery, but she can't help it. He makes it too easy, with his pleading eyes and unconditional devotion, like a puppy waiting to be kicked. So before she knows it, she finds herself giving Young John a message to Mr. Clennam – "tell him I send my deepest love" – not only to let Mr. Clennam know, but also, if she is honest with herself, to see the flash of hurt in Young John's eyes. To prove that, poor and plain and childlike as she is, she still has a woman's power over one person at least. Except that the moment she does see it, Young John's innocent blue eyes clouding over as if he's close to tears, she would give anything to have those words unsaid. She recognizes the Marshalsea taint, the Dorrit family taint, and it terrifies her to know that after all these years of trying to stay pure, it has gotten to her after all.


When William Dorrit dies, the fits of tears shaking her small body like an autumn leaf are not for the reason everyone assumes. They are tears of pity for Frederick, lost and left behind; tears of unreasonable rage at Mr. Clennam, for separating them all from a prison which, if confining, at least was safe; tears of shame for not grieving the way she ought to – but mostly tears of relief, because her father is at peace now, and she is free of him at last.