Taking Care of Number One—& the answer in Dicken’s novel Little Dorrit

How Can I Take Care of Me & Be Fair to You: A Woman’s Urgent Question

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit

Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit
Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit in the 2008 TV series

Pretty early people come to feel that fairness to others is not what takes care of us. After all, just thinking about others takes time away from ourselves. I wanted very much to believe I was a “fair” person, but what I went by actually had little to do with fairness. What I felt is expressed by Ellen Reiss, in her commentary to an issue of The Right Of:

   “The way to take care of myself in this world is not to bother about most of it—but to see 95 percent of reality as uninteresting or something to fear. The way to take care of myself is to…manage and own selected items from a world I scorn…” [The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known,  #1213:1]

This is a description of contempt, which Aesthetic Realism defines as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” While the feeling of supremacy in it is very attractive, it ruins our lives. I didn’t see it was against what really takes care of a person, described by Ellen Reiss in these sentences:

 “This world not myself is very large, and I have to do with all of it. I want to use the hours of my life to know and be fair to the world—it’s what I was born for.”

It’s made a huge, happy difference in my life and in the life of every woman I’ve had the privilege to teach in Aesthe­tic Realism consultations, to learn that our deepest desire is honestly to like the world, be fair to it.

Being Fair to People & Our Own Expression—What’s the Relation?

In her first consultation we asked Shelley Wainwright (the name has been changed), a young woman who had a sweet­ness and quiet assurance in her manner, a question Mr. Siegel asked in Aesthetic Realism lessons: “What do you have most against yourself?” And she told us:

Shelley Wainwright: I guess, not being more understanding of people. Or actually I should say forgiving.
Consultants: Well, do you think that if you were more understand­ing, you might be more forgiving?
SW: Yes, perhaps I would.

Ms. Wainwright told us she’d recently begun seriously dating a man she’d met through work, Hugh Keller. She was worried because in a previous relationship she had found it difficult to talk about what she felt. She said:

SW:  I hope to overcome my fear of expressing myself. I do have a problem there. I haven’t always understood a person’s reaction to what I would say.

We asked her something that surprised her: “Do you think that you see other people as essentially more like you or more different from you?” 

SW:  That’s a difficult question, because I’ve tried to see people as more like myself, but whether I do or not, I don’t know.
Consultants: So, you tend to feel they’re more different?
SW:     Actually, yes.

We told her that is what we once felt, and nearly everyone we’d asked this question of. And we asked her:

Consultants: Do you also feel that other people are in some way not as sensitive as you are?
SW:  Yes, I have felt that.

This, we said, would be a reason for the difficulty she had described, of expressing herself:

Consultants: Because if you’re going to express yourself, who are you going to express yourself to? It’s going to be to people. But if you don’t think they’re worthy of talking to, then you’re stuck. What do you think the answer might be?
SW: To see people as worthy?
Consultants. To begin with, to see who people really are. Do you think you feel more important when you keep yourself apart from people?
SW: Yes, yes I do.
Consultants: And are you pretty fast to feel somebody didn’t really understand what you were trying to say?
SW: Yes, I am.
Consultants: Do you give people enough of a chance?
SW: No, I really don’t.

Yet, when we asked how she saw men, a quick answer came: “I don’t like them!” Then she qualified it:

SW: I don’t like the way they look at me sometimes.
Consultants:  Do you think that you, like other women, can feel that you haven’t ever been seen right by any man—and at the same time you don’t feel you’re kind in the depths of your heart to men?
SW:  It’s true.

She told us that in grade school, if she liked a boy, she had been “determined” to conceal it from even her closest friends, and in her teens she had spent a lot of time in her room with the door closed—the most painful time of her life. At this point in the consultation we asked Ms. Wainwright to read Christina Rossetti’s (1830-1894) poem “Who Shall Deliver Me?” which has these lines: 

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out,
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?

 “Is this what you felt?,” we asked. She nodded. She was surprised, as I was, when I first read this poem, also in my own Aesthetic Realism consultations, that someone had expressed so well, so honestly the feelings she had

We Can’t Like Ourselves Unless We Hope to Like People

Like Shelley Wainwright, I kept my feelings to myself, thinking other people were not capable of knowing them. While at college and after­wards I told myself I was bad at “small talk,” but the unsureness I felt meeting people bothered me a lot. I hoped a man would solve this, because, I reasoned, if you found one person you liked, who liked you, you didn’t need all those millions of other tedious people. However, after two years with David Collier, the man of my dreams, I had thought—I got very worried. I often felt lethargic and I constantly depended on him to make plans, to enliven me. I was angry that he didn’t see it as his job in life to fill all my dull and lonely hours with excitement and adoration, and even when we were together we’d quarrel. I didn’t like me, so how could he?

In the first Aesthetic Realism class I attended with him, Eli Siegel asked me: “What did you condemn yourself most for at various times?” I thought for a moment and said, “For wanting to do nothing.” 

Eli Siegel: The desire not to be bothered is in Keats’ “Ode to Indolence.” Did you also get very angry? People who have indolence can also tear up the place.

Was I surprised by this! But yes, I did “tear up the place.” Though I was mostly quiet and shy in manner, I often would suddenly lash out at a person in fury and be very mean. I thought of my mother, at whom I had screamed “I don’t care what you think!” and “You’re so stupid!”; and of David, who got verbal abuse from me and, once, a book thrown at him.
I began to learn that a wrong idea of taking care of myself had begun very early. As the youngest and the only girl, I was praised a lot by my mother and I took it as my due. I felt she was a push-over, easily fooled, and I increasingly found fault with every­thing she did, and felt quite supreme in the family.  Since I wanted to maintain this feeling, I hoped to be superior to everyone else I met, and looked for their flaws and failings. This was why I hid my thoughts, why I couldn’t talk to people—and why, like Christina Rossetti, I loathed myself. 

I told Mr. Siegel in a class that I felt “a tremen­dous amount of guilt” about my mother, and he said

Eli Siegel.   When one person looks at another, it’s so much easier to say, “This person has given me pain.” If your mother asked you, “Have you been fair to me, Nancy dear,” what would you say?
NH   No.
ES   If you feel you don’t want to like the person—which means you don’t have good will—it can make for guilt. Have you wanted to like your mother?
NH   Only recently.
ES   I’m trying to bring that about.

He did. And after this class something new happened—I conscious­ly wanted to have a good effect on my mother: I wanted to know her; I asked her questions, I listened with a respect I’d never had before. She was amazed and grateful. The guilt began to lift like a heavy weight taken off me. There came to be real friend­ship between us, and a central change in me towards other peo­ple—I wanted the pleasure I felt from having a purpose I could respect myself for. I was really beginning to take care of me!

A 19th Century Novel Comments on Our Subject

“The most beautiful thing a person can do,” Mr. Siegel wrote: 

is to be interested in justice so much that his care is a deep cause of his happiness. However idealistic it may sound, a person not caring enough for justice cannot be definitely happy…. [TRO 274 “Justice, Near and Far]

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, illus­trates these sentences. It is, essential­ly, the story of the Dorrit family—who go through a great deal being poor, then suddenly inherit wealth. Dickens is a critic of that in people which feels, in order to take care of themselves, they must be super­i­or to others, and that money and position are essential to achieve this. 

Amy Dorrit, 20 years old as the book begins, is the Little Dorrit of the title, and it is her character I’ll be commenting on chiefly. We find she was born in a prison: Mar­shal­sea debtors prison, which actually existed in Lon­don, ten­e­ment-like houses with a spiked wall around them. Amy’s father has been imprisoned there for 23 years due to some comp­lex, failed “investment.” His three children grew up there, his wife having died eight years after Amy was born. Little Dorrit arose from Dickens’ beautiful anger with economic injustice, and passionate desire to be fair to people. 

Amy has had a quiet courage in dealing with this degrading situation. She has an instinctive desire to be kind to people  and use­ful: that is how she takes care of herself. Dickens tells of how, though living in a prison, she tries to take care of her father’s needs, and also wants to learn. He writes: 

No matter through what mistakes and dis­cour­age­ments…through how much weariness and hopelessnss, and how many secret tears; she drudged on….At thirteen, she could read and keep accounts….She had been…to an evening school outside, and got her sister and brother sent to day-school….Once, among the…crowd of inmates there appeared a dancing-master…
‘If you please, I was born here, sir.’
‘Oh! You are the young lady, are you?…And what can I do for you?’
‘Nothing for me, sir, thank you…but if, while you stay here, you could be so kind as to teach my sister cheap—‘
“My child, I’ll teach her for nothing,’ said the dancing-master….and he kept his word.

Her inquiries—like this one and when she asks a seam­stress for in­struc­tion for herself—have men and women in the prison who are disheartened and humiliated come to have new life and more hope. Amy sees people as enabling her to be more, and to be useful; she’s not after superiority. 

William Dorrit, Amy’s father, a broken man, is seemingly un­aware of what his children are doing, including Amy, who does needlework to make money. Called the Father of the Mar­shal­sea, Dorrit greets newcomers, maintaining the manner of someone of the upper classes, a “gentle­man.” He habitu­ally asks people for “testi­monials,” meaning money.

Amy Dorrit and her father at Marshalsea Prison
Amy Dorrit and her father at Marshalsea Prison

Amy is troubled by this, and says to Arthur Clennam, the man she comes to love: 

 “I hope you will not misunderstand my father….He has been there so long! I never saw him outside, but I can under­stand that he must have grown different…”
“My thoughts will never be unjust or harsh towards him, believe me.”
“….He only requires to be understood. I only ask for him that his life may be fairly remembered.”

Amy has a good hope for her father and for people, which I did not have as I capitalized on what I saw as my mother’s and other people’s failings in order to feel superior. Amy is trying to be fair to her father—this is the beginning of good will, which Mr. Siegel described as:

  “a oneness of the utmost criticism and the utmost affection….Good will is an aid to scientific perception, because it works against…disproportionate love of self.”

Superiority, Anger, & Feeling Bad

Dickens shows in contrast that the hope to be superior makes a person mean and not able to take care of herself. There is Amy’s  bad-tempered older sister, Fanny, who knows Amy is kind and has reason to be thankful to her.  But Fanny doesn’t like owing anything to her sister. She lashes out at Amy, is sharp-tongued with her, then feels horrible, and crumples on a chair, saying “I wish I were dead. I wish I were dead.”  Then, repentant, Fanny gets sweeter for awhile, and is soon mean again.   

A young man of a very rich family, Mr. Sparkler, seeing Fanny at the music-hall where she dances, is smitten and pursues her. She pronounces him an “idiot,” and is outraged by his mother’s trying to buy her off as unsuitable. Later, the Dorrits inherit wealth and Fanny finds herself in the same social milieu with Mr. Sparkler, and is enjoying his gazes. Amy asks in alarm:  

‘Do you mean to encourage Mr. Sparkler, Fanny?’
‘Encourage him, my dear?’ said her sister, smiling contemptuously, ‘No, I don’t mean to encourage him. But I’ll make a slave of him….I shall make him fetch and carry, my dear, and I shall make him subject to me. And if I don’t make his mother subject to me, too, it shall not be my fault.’
‘Do you think—dear Fanny—that you can quite see the end of that course?’

Fanny, Dickens writes, responds with “supreme indifference.” 

Mr. and Mrs. Sparkler (née Fanny Dorrit)
Mr. & Mrs. Sparkler (née Fanny Dorrit)

I believe Fanny and Amy Dorrit represent two possibilities in every woman. Perhaps we think we aren’t like Fanny, but what woman hasn’t enjoyed the glances of a man, without a thought of being fair to him, thinking even, he’s a fool? 

“If you can’t feel you’re just,” Mr. Siegel said once in an Aesthetic Realism class, “you have to feel bad. If this were known and really seen, how much torture and agony would not have been.” And he asked: 

Can we be just to ourselves without being just to what is not ourselves?… If one does something and doesn’t think well of oneself for doing it, the price paid for the satisfaction is rather high.

Fanny does come to feel very bad: her sharp tongue is incessant­ly re­buk­­ing; she’s irritable, bored, intensely displeased by everything, including herself. 

What occurs between Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam is moving and complex. Near the end of the novel Arthur becomes aware that he loves Amy very much. Dickens writes of his realizing how much she has “influenced his better resolutions.” He feels she stands for his best self—and every man hopes a woman will try to represent this! One thing Arthur says about Amy—and by “whisper in my heart” he means his conscience, or his best self:

“If I, a man, with a man’s advantages and means and energies, had slighted the whisper in my heart…what youthful figure with tender feet going almost bare on the damp ground…would have stood before me to put me to shame? Little Dorrit’s.” 

Little Dorrit: Claire Foy and Matthew MacFadyen

Meeting Our Own Hopes

Shelley Wainwright gave her parents a new chance: her father in particular, with whom she’d been most angry.  She wrote mono­logues of both her parents at the age of 18, before she was born—and she tried to get within their thoughts, to see their hopes and fears, what had affected them that she’d never thought about before.

She also studied and commented on an essay by Mr. Siegel titled “Care for Self,” in which he wrote:

A girl gets revenge on a man by hoping zealously for untinged indifference. We get revenge on existence by hoping for uninterfered with, unmottled nothingness.

What she saw through this was crucial to her whole life, and she wrote:

I got a big triumph in keeping people guessing what I really felt. It would scare me…how silent I could be in a man’s company as a way of punishing…him….It would also scare me that when I wanted very much to express myself I felt I couldn’t….I see the relation between these two directions in me….this is changing!…Mr. Siegel says that the self can never be separate….

She wrote about one thing each day she respected a co-worker for; and a monologue of the man she cared for, Hugh Keller.  She is coming to see that taking care of “me” and being fair to “you” are deeply the same. I end with part of what she wrote in a letter expressing the changes in her life:

Before I met Aesthetic Realism….I used the anger I felt… to shut the world out….I’ve seen [my parents] more deeply and….I feel kinder trying to see how my sister sees herself. I feel proud when I try to be just to her….All relation­ships would be sane if people could study what we are learn­­ing!…It is thrilling to me that love can be educa­tion.