Mr. Pancks and Maggy: The Power of Dickens’ Minor Characters

I continue to be fascinated by how sharply Charles Dickens can draw minor characters. Mr. Pancks is one that I really enjoy every time he appears in Little Dorrit. He is immensely practical and I really love the way he handles Mr. F’s Aunt in this scene. She obviously has some form of senile dementia and he is completely unflustered while surprising the reader (or at least me) with his solution.

“Therefore Flora said, though still not without a certain boastfulness and triumph in her legacy, that Mr F.’s Aunt was ‘very lively to-day, and she thought they had better go.’ But Mr F.’s Aunt proved so lively as to take the suggestion in unexpected dudgeon and declare that she would not go; adding, with several injurious expressions, that if ‘He’–too evidently meaning Clennam–wanted to get rid of her, ‘let him chuck her out of winder;’ and urgently expressing her desire to see ‘Him’ perform that ceremony.

In this dilemma, Mr Pancks, whose resources appeared equal to any emergency in the Patriarchal waters, slipped on his hat, slipped out at the counting-house door, and slipped in again a moment afterwards with an artificial freshness upon him, as if he had been in the country for some weeks. ‘Why, bless my heart, ma’am!’ said Mr Pancks, rubbing up his hair in great astonishment, ‘is that you?

How do you do, ma’am? You are looking charming to-day! I am delighted to see you. Favour me with your arm, ma’am; we’ll have a little walk together, you and me, if you’ll honour me with your company.’ And so escorted Mr F.’s Aunt down the private staircase of the counting-house with great gallantry and success.

Another favorite of mine is Maggy.

“Now, Little Mother, let’s have a good ‘un!”

“What shall it be about, Maggy?”

“Oh, let’s have a Princess,” said Maggy, “and let her be a reg’lar one. Beyond all belief, you know!”

Little Dorrit considered for a moment; and with a rather sad smile upon her face, which was flushed by the sunset, began:

“Maggy, there was once upon a time a fine King, and he had everything he could wish for, and a great deal more. He had gold and silver, diamonds and rubies, riches of every kind. He had palaces, and he had —”

“Hospitals,” interposed Maggy, still nursing her knees. “Let him have hospitals, because they’re so comfortable. Hospitals with lots of Chicking.”

“Yes, he had plenty of them, and he had plenty of everything.”

“Plenty of baked potatoes, for instance?” said Maggy.

“Plenty of everything.”

“Lor!” chuckled Maggy, giving her knees a hug. “Wasn’t it prime!”

I particularly love the way Maggy, her mind permenantly that of a 10-year-old, works hospitals into any conversation where comfort is concerned, that institution being the most comfortable place she has ever been in her poverty-stricken life.

The way Little Dorrit and Maggy interact as the story continues makes me think of Charles Dickens’ own experience with his numerous tribe of kiddos. He had to be drawing on experience because it is so natural sounding and, often, so funny because of Maggy’s tenacity on the points she finds most interesting.

I could go on and on. Young John Chivery who defines himself by what he imagines written on his tombstone, which changes depending on his situation; delightful John Baptist, that guileless Italian adrift in a London slum who has won all the locals hearts; Mrs. Plornish who is so proud of her old father’s singing and who prides herself on her “Italian;” Monsieur Rigaud who makes me long to wipe the condescending smile from his face; hapless Mrs. Flintwich who is victim of waking “nightmares.” and so many more to whom I long to introduce you.

I have seen several debates over whether Bleak House or Little Dorrit is Dickens’ finest book. I don’t know how one could choose. Though definitely Dickens, both are so different that I must simply doff my cap to a master of story telling and go on preferring first one and then the other. I feel infinitely rich to have so much more of his work which I haven’t yet explored.

Dickens may not spend a lot of time on his minor characters because he is generally juggling a cast that seems as if it contains the entirety of London. However, his ability to make us care about them is really a rare talent, whether we are rooting them on or hoping they will come to their just desserts.

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