Charles Dickens: Fattist!

photograph of Ruth Jones as Flora Finching

Ruth Jones as Flora Finching

I’m currently in the throes of the 2008 BBC production of Little Dorrit and just got to the part where young Arthur Clennam, having returned from China and Points East, encounters his childhood sweetheart, Flora Finching, née Casby. (I sincerely hope I got that née right.) Arthur is  taken aback because Flora is now fat, but nonetheless as flirtatious as ever. He is forced to sit through a meal, during which he notes Flora’s gluttony:

a screen shot of the passage in Little Dorrit where Dickens describes Clennam's thoughts on Flora: "Once upn a time Clennam had sat at that table and thought of nothing but Flora; Now the principal heed he took of Flor was to observe, against his will, that she was very fond of porter, that she combined a good deal of sherry with sentiment, and that if she were a little overgrown, it was on substantial grounds.

He finally makes his escape at the end of the meal, and returns to his quest, the main narrative of the story, learning the mystery that links his family and that of Amy Dorrit, who he will marry at the end of the novel and who, btw,  is described as “a slender child in body.”

Normally I wouldn’t even make that big of a deal about this. I don’t (truly!) go around looking for things to get aggravated about. But in the production I’ve been watching, Flora was so over the top–literally stuffing her face with cakes in a sort of cross between Violet Beauregarde and Marie Antoinette (the Sofia Coppola version)–that I went and looked at the original text, and it’s all there, as seen above.

still photo from the movie "Marie Antoinette" showing Kirsten Dunst as Marie antoinette reclinign with many cakes around her and a maid giving her a pedicure

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette

Then I found this, on the blog “Jane Austen’s World,” which is obviously a completely fantastic destination that you should all check out, but back to Dickens:

The character of Flora Finching is based on a true person in Charles Dickens’ life. In 1830, when Dickens was 18 years old he fell madly in love with Maria Beadnell, the pretty and flirtatious daughter of a highly successful banker. He courted her for three years, but her parents objected to Charles, who was a struggling young court reporter, and Maria broke off their relationship.  Dickens was heartbroken over the break up and never forgot Maria. It is said that Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield was based on his memory of her.

Dickens and Maria began to exchange letters in 1855, when she contacted him 20 years later. She was now Mrs. Henry Winter and described herself as being “toothless, fat, old and ugly.” Dickens, whose marriage was in trouble, did not believe her description. After he and Maria exchanged several passionate letters, Dickens arranged for his wife Katherine to invite Mr. and Mrs. Henry Winter to a private dinner.  He was appalled to find out that Maria had indeed altered as she said. She was in her forties, fat, and dull.* After this meeting, in which she gave him her cold, and in which he rebuffed her flirtatious attempts, his letters to her became short and formal.  Later, when she again tried to renew the relationship, he broke it off for good.

And this:

In later years Dickens observed about his youthful love: “We all have our Floras, mine is living, and extremely fat.”

Dick! Ens!

I don’t even actually care that much but it is interesting as a data point, especially for when people post that there was some fat-positive prelapsarian period in Western history.

I like Bleak House better.

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