Martin Amis once wrote that Little Dorrit “revolves … on someone leaving money to his nephew’s lover’s guardian’s brother’s youngest daughter”. It’s a polite way of suggesting that the novel has what might be described as one of Dickens’s less memorable (or convincing) plots. A while ago, I came across a version of Little Dorrit which had been adapted into “a domestic drama, in three acts” for stage, the text of which takes up all of eight pages. Having read it in its Penguin edition (985 pages) and also watched the Andrew Davies television adaptation (452 minutes), I was intrigued: how ruthless would you have to be to in editing the book to reduce it to what was, presumably, quite a short play? Looking through the item in question, it soon became clear that you’d have to be very ruthless indeed. The unnamed dramatist has shelved all but a handful of characters (among those dropped were Fanny and Edward Dorrit, Flora Flinching, Miss Wade, and even the unscrupulous Mr. Merdle), apparently ignored most of the second half of the book, and finished the whole thing off rather abruptly with Mr. Dorrit – still alive and well in this version – being elevated to wealth and nobility. In most respects, it bears very little resemblance to the novel at all.
So far, so standard; writers adapting novels for stage and screen have often had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards the original texts. It was only when I started cataloguing the play that I noticed the cast list on the front, which named the actress playing Little Dorrit as Miss Ternan. This was fascinating: was this Ellen Ternan, the young actress with whom Dickens fell in love? Or was it one of her sisters, Fanny or Maria? And if it was one of the Ternans, then was this before or after Dickens first encountered them, in 1857? The item in hand not only lacked any details as to who had done the adapting, but also when this version was written, and where it was staged (it merely claims to be “performed at the London theatres”).
I decided, therefore, to do a little research on this version of Little Dorrit. Some catalogue records have attributed it to a man named Frederick Fox Cooper. An industrious soul, who reworked several of Dickens’s novels for the stage, he apparently took it upon himself to write an adaptation of Little Dorrit in 1856, which ran for seventeen performances at the Strand Theatre in November of that year. The trouble was, in 1856 Little Dorrit was still in the process of being serialised (and, indeed, written), so Cooper only had the first half of the story to work with; he had to contrive an ending of his own. (Interestingly, his ending anticipated Dickens’s in some respects; it’s not clear whether this was because he was able to predict where Dickens was going with the plot, or because, as has been speculated, Dickens saw the play, and – consciously or unconsciously – incorporated elements of it into his own ending.)
However, Cooper’s version at the Strand starred a different cast from the one featured on the cover of the item I had in front of me – Little Dorrit was played by an actress named Emma Wilton, and Arthur Clennam by John Howard. Was this really Cooper’s play? I found an article by Malcolm Morley in The Dickensian (vol. L, no. 311, June 1954) which seemed to think otherwise: this was, instead, “a shockingly bad play” (I wouldn’t quibble with that), which was probably from “about the time of the Strand production or a little later”. Moreover, the Ternan connection, about which I was originally excited, turned out to be not a connection at all: the cast list was “a fanciful selection of the foremost players in London at that period”, and therefore it was no more than coincidence that one of the Ternans was being linked with Dickens’s work. (Which was so disappointing: there would have been something rather neat in the idea that Ellen Ternan once played Little Dorrit, whether it was before or after she met Dickens.) This, Morley concluded, was simply than “an item of curiosity”. My search might have ended there, had I not found one more reference to the play, this time in the Pilgrim edition of Charles Dickens’s letters, where the editors mention both Cooper’s version and its “ingenious conjectures” about the plot, and the item I was cataloguing: it seems that both Cooper’s version of Little Dorrit, and an adaptation of Dombey and Son by T.J. Taylor, which was staged at the Strand under Cooper’s management, were “pirated” in “drastically abridged” form, for provincial stagings of the play.
So, what I was looking at was a pirated version of an already unauthorised dramatisation of the novel. Which would explain why it is so vague about its origins, why it has an illustrious cast list (presumably, they thought that nobody in the provinces was going to check), and why it feels so far removed from Dickens. Dickens himself was profoundly irritated by the various unauthorised stagings of his works: he was apparently so appalled by a performance of Oliver Twist that he attended that he spent most of it lying on the floor of his box. Goodness only knows what he would have made of this …