Cross-cultural reconfiguration of spatiality: The case of Little Dorrit
The image of London as a vast, impenetrable mystery, one which is a recurrent trope in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-57), is illustrated by Little Dorrit’s impression of the metropolis when she leaves her ‘home’ and ventures into the darkness in search for the theatre in which her sister, Fanny, works. For Little Dorrit, the city is a vast, ‘barren’, and ‘wild’ place which invokes her sense of fear; it is also a place which is beyond her comprehension. The contrast between the security and peace which a home provides and the turbulence of the outside world, the opposition of which underlines the Victorian ideal of the domestic, is succinctly captured in this description, despite the fact that Little Dorrit’s home is a room behind bars. Beyond the domain of home lie the labyrinthine streets of London, which, together with the prison-like built structures in the narrative, have barred the protagonists from uncovering the truth of their identity and their past. London in Dickens’s portrayal in Little Dorrit, then, on the one hand captures the changing perception of the urbanscape – and by extension modern life – as experienced by the Victorians, on the other hand it both stands for, and helps construct, a bewildering world where the truth is concealed. As Jeremy Tambling says of Dickens’s depiction of the London cityscape in his works: ‘One sees the space created in the novels as responding to London as a pre-given, social reality which, however intimidating, must be faced. The other is intrigued by the possibility of finding other spaces, not mappable, in that given space of the city (7).’ That idea of London as a ‘pre-given, social reality’ can be interpreted as referring to both the physical attributes of the city and the perception of it by those who inhabit it. At the same time, the metropolis is also characterised by the existence of other spaces that are ‘not mappable’, a phenomenon which is best understood by what Henri Lefebvre describes as the social space that is often marked, and formed, by
particular social conventions and practices (Lefebvre 236). The social, or abstract, space which Dickens creates is often used to critique some of the social phenomena of his day; to understand the multifarious dimensions of Dickens’s portrayal of London, then, is to a large extent predicated on his readers having a certain level of knowledge and experience of local topography and architectural traditions. Questions thus arise as to how, and to what extent, Dickens’s representation of London – and more broadly, spatiality in his narrative – can be captured when the text is adapted and transformed in another culture which has a very different architectural tradition and topography.