Most of Dickens’ novels made their first appearance in serialised form, either included in magazines along with the work of other authors or else, because Dickens was so massively popular, standing alone in monthly instalments. Remarkably productive but habitually writing close to deadline, with the printers waiting, the novelist sometimes altered his plots to accommodate readers’ wishes, expanding the roles of characters who had proved particular hits with his audience.
Little Dorrit was published in nineteen monthly instalments between December 1855 and June 1857. By this time Dickens was at the height of his powers. He had made his reputation nearly twenty years earlier with Sketches of Boz and Pickwick Papers. His string of hits included Oliver Twist (1837-1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Bleak House (1852-1853). Three further masterpieces, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), lay ahead.
Little Dorrit is set partly in Marshalsea, the notorious debtors’ prison in Southwark, London, where William Dorrit lingers as an inmate for two decades, tended by his loving daughter Amy (the "Little Dorrit" of the title) but scorned by other family members. Dickens’ dislike of the prison had a personal basis; his impecunious father was incarcerated there during the author's youth.
The novel stingingly satirises the inefficiencies of Victorian bureaucracy. The Circumlocution Office (one of Dickens’ most memorable inventions) is described as the ‘most important Department under Government’, having a ‘finger in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart’. ‘If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match,’ Dickens writes in Chapter 10 (contained in the February 1856 instalment), ‘nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.’
In each of the monthly instalments, the text is preceded by several pages of advertisements and a couple of full-page illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne, an English artist whose collaboration with Dickens spanned most of the author's career. The Library's first-edition set was purchased in May 1979 from London-based antiquarian bookseller Francis Edwards. The signature of a previous owner, N E Harington, is visible on the covers of some of the parts.