Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit

They’re still after him, those producers of television drama. And they know that many of us are eager to follow and go after him as well. In a way, we can’t help being After Dickens, to borrow the title of a study on “Reading, Adaptation and Performance” by John Glavin. It’s a sly title, that. After all, we are belated in our pursuit; we don’t just try to catch up. We are bringing something to the most dangerous game that is the act of reading. We make sense and we remake it, too. This time around, Andrew Davies, the writer responsible for the award-winning dramatization of Bleak House, has tackled Little Dorrit (1855-57), one of the lesser-known works in the Dickens canon. Having greatly enjoyed the former when it first aired back in 2005, I am again drawn away from the wireless to go after what’s being shared out, a little at a time, by radio’s rich, distant relation.

Now, it has been some time since I last read Little Dorrit. During my graduate studies, the novel tantalized me with its perplexing nomenclature. Dickens’s uncrackable code of names and monikers inspired me to dabble in the dark art of onomastic speculation. The result of my academic labors, “Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy,” is available online. While Dickens’s names still have a familiar ring to me, some of the faces, as interpreted and fixed for us by the adaptor, seem to have changed. Never mind Arthur Clennam, who is rather younger than the middle-aged man Dickens was so bold to place at the center of his novelistic commentary on the manners, mores and money matters of Victorian Britain. The character of Tattycoram is the one to watch and not recognize: a foundling turned changeling.

In the original story, Tattycoram (alias Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey—the act of naming is that complicated in Little Dorrit) is introduced as a “handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and very neatly dressed.” As portrayed by Freema Agyeman, Tatty certainly fits the bill: a handsome girl with dark hair and eyes, and, my hat off to the costume department, neatly dressed. Hang on, though. The color of her skin has changed; and it is a change that really makes a difference. Has Tattycoram just “growed” that way? Or is this a case of revisionism?
It sure is not simply a case of equal opportunity, if such cases are ever simple. A black Tattycoram transforms the very fabric of Little Dorrit. It imposes an historical subtext on our reading of the story and the young woman’s part in it.

Adaptors, like translators, frequently engage in such updates, if that is the word for what amounts to anachronism. I was not bothered by the Lesbian characters the BBC insisted on sneaking into the staid mysteries of Agatha Christie, even though such reorientations seemed gratuitous and, in their treatment, out of place and time. The transformation of Tattycoram, however, is altogether more complicated.

True, slavery was abolished in Britain well before the story of Little Dorrit commences; but, in the Victorian novel, the black or mulatto figure remained largely invisible, or else was the brunt of derision. One such laughing-stock character is Thackeray’s Miss Swartz, the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” who parades through Vanity Fair being “about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” In Dickens’s Bleak House, sympathy toward blacks is dismissed as the folly of “educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

The BBC revision of Little Dorrit comes across as an un-Dickensian, modern extension of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its sensitive and unsentimental treatment of the girl from Coram, the notorious London hospital recently revisited in Coram Boy. As a result, Tattycoram is less of a caricature than most of Dickens’s typically flat characters. Of the nearly one hundred personages we come across in Little Dorrit—which, according to the Radio Times, were reduced to around seventy-five in the process of adaptation—it is Tattycoram who now stands out as she struggles to emerge from her socially imposed conspicuous invisibility. It is an undue attention, warranted only by her transformation.

Showing a little skin, or skin a little darker, Davies’s retailoring may strike some of us acquainted with the genuine article as a bold new cut. To others, it seems that, in the process of giving the old Empire new clothes, the Dickensian fabric has gotten more than a Little Tatty. It got a new, postcolonial label that makes it seem like a knockoff.

They’re still after Dickens, all right. The question is: do they even try to get him?

18 Replies to “Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit”

  1. You forget one thing; this is a fictional drama not a historical documentary. Therefore there is no reason for the racial backgrounds of actors to be historically accurate. You have to take the drama at face value and just accept the way it has been presented here.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. As someone who likes to play with his food for thought rather than just take it in, I do not feel that I “have to take” anything at its supposed “face value,” let alone “just accept.” If that were the case, I would be content to assume the role of a mute receiver.You are right, Little Dorrit, either as serial novel or television serial, is not a documentary; but Victorian novels most certainly are records of their times; and whether or not we appreciate a new spin on an old story, one of the demands we make on subsequent versions is fidelity to the original. Not to the letter, mind—since the translation is visual—but a fidelity to its essence. Today’s costume dramas take great pains to recreate bygone eras; but less effort is made to recreate the mindset and belief systems of past generations. The casting of Tattycoram imposed a post- or neo-Colonial layer on Little Dorrit, one that was almost as glaring as if poor John Chivery had been put in a track suit.Many viewers were puzzled or at least intrigued by the figure of Tattycoram, to which my visitor statistics attest. Terms such as “Tattycoram” and “black” led many via Google to this entry in my journal. Whether they liked or resented it, they noticed something in Little Dorrit for which they tried to account. They were invited to do so by an adaptation that succeeded in provoking us.

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  3. Visitor via google here and yes they succeeded in provoking me. I will admit that I haven\’t read the book but something about the Tattycoram storyline didn\’t sit right with me. On a side note, Did it seem strange to anyone else when Fanny said \”You\’re cramping my style\” to Amy? Did they really say that back then?

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  4. Thank you, I did check out the link. In the post this question was asked.\”If a usage grates with the audience because it\’s widely perceived as an anachronism (even though it isn\’t) should a writer risk using it?\”I say yes! I found it interesting and fun to learn that this phrase may have even been used before 1700.

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  5. I agree. It strikes me as an intellectual game the adapter is playing with the audience, a contest of wits that only draws attention to the process of adaptation; it neither serves the original nor does much to enhance our engagement with it. Besides, the plot of Little Dorrit is relevant enough; it does not need to sound current.

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  6. I also am a purist and while I think it\’s ok to perfume older stories a bit, it always astounds me when there are wholesale reinterpretations in the midst of an otherwise scrupulous presentation of the architecture, landscape, costumes, courtship rituals, et cetera, in an historical drama.I had the same problem with the Nancy character in the BBC\’s version of Oliver Twist, altho I admire the actress Sophie Okonedo very much — she was absolutely brilliant in Hotel Rwanda. Same with the gorgeous actor Denzel Washington in Branaugh\’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing — it\’s just so jarring that it detracts from the flow of the rest of the artistry. Here in the U.S., the film industry is dominated by Jewish people, who are often cast as the sister, brother or parent of an anglo-saxon or celtic-descended actor. Most people do not recognize the distinctions, I imagine; but having grown up in a neighborhood with generous numbers of all three groups and lots of discussions among schoolmates about what makes us Irish, Scottish, English, Jewish or whatever, these pairings are often quite jarring when I see them; even after generations in America, people retain small mannerisms and vocal inflections that are cause for ethnic celebration in their own right, but detract from the visual and verbal purity of a work of cinema. Go ahead; condemn the discriminating eye, ear and brain for wanting truth in entertainment.

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  7. The revisionism behind some of today’s ethnic leveling is far worse—and culturally far more damaging—than the false hairpieces and anachronistic tresses that marred the costume dramas of the past.As a German, I grew up with dubbed versions of US films; that pretty much erased any regional or ethnic distinctions. North, south, immigrants or puritans—they all sounded the same (if sometimes Bavarian). Even the black characters had white voices (or else sounded cartoonish, a vocal equivalent to black face). It sure gave me the wrong impression of the melting pot; but my fifteen years in New York City provided the necessary corrective.\”Albion Wilde.\” Now, there\’s a name!

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  8. It seems others are thinking the same thing that I did upon first seeing Tattycoram in this most recent BBC production. I am not as familiar with \”Little Dorrit\” as I am with other Dickens\’ novels. However, being African-American, a lover of history, and huge anglophile, it did make me wonder how I did not know about this character. Which ultimately led me to this blog. :-)I appreciate filmmakers that do push the envelope and try to cater to the multi-cultural world in which we live. However, it even bothers me to see such character stretches. And, knowing what I know of the treatment of African people in the US and abroad at that time, it really sounds strange for this Tattycoram to be so belligerent and so upset at her treatment. In the context of the times, she was being treated better than most lower class Englishmen(I mean, look at poor Mrs. Flintwich) Even minorities of different races were not looked upon favorably, even though they were curiosities.Otherwise, I adore any adaptation that Andrew Davies does and look forward to more.I also look forward to reading more of your film essays as we seem to have similar tastes in movies. Many of these look like a TCM lineup, which is the only bit of television I actually watch.

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  9. Thank you very much for your comments, Stacy. Judging from the hits this entry in my otherwise obscure journal receives, Tattycoram has everyone talking. She was a caricature to begin with, flat yet memorable as most of Dickens’s characters are. Now Tatty has unexpected depth—but, as a result, she is no longer Dickensian, no matter how much she is mistreated even in the process of revision(ism). Indeed, she becomes an outcast of historicity.Do you write about film? I would like to hear your views on Hollywood classics like Imitation of Life (1934; 1959).

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  10. To be honest, and blunt, I HATE the character of Tattycoram in the new adaptation of Charles Dicken's Little Dorrit. Um, she was not african-american/black in the novel. Ridiculous. Also, the \”lesbian\” focus was unnecessary and made for tense scenes. It just doesn't fit and doesn't make sense. And, despite the consensus of others, I have generally been disgusted with Andrew Davies' latest adaptations, especially Northanger Abby. He is trying to be too modern instead of true to the spirit of the original works. I personally prefer the BBC adaptations from the eighties.

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  11. And we kno that she was not black in the original novel because . . . . in the white western novel all characters are white unless stated otherwise right? It is s curious fact that white people are nnot identified and I'm not just speaking of the 19c novel but of most white peoples writing. White people are raceless while everybody else has to be labeled. I think that this new Dorrit plays with that trope in a very meaningful way. Would have been better perhaps had the character\\r not been one who in real life had her roots in the English countryside but it nevertheless works. Why don't we assume in thei colour blind raceless world of Dickens that some of his characters were black. After all, there has been a black community in London for 400 years.And people, she's not a b b****y African-American, she's as English as the day is young!

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  12. Just catching up on Little Dorrit on DVD & love it but, like so many others, am completely baffled by Tatty. Admittedly, I haven't read this book but love Dickens & love BBC dramatizations. Overall, I am addicted to this version but after reading this post & the comments wish Tatty were truer to her character on the page. Thanks for an excellent post & for hosting such a great debate.

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  13. I read the novel and watched the program. They actually diminished Tattycoram’s role and we don’t get her plea for redemption and Mister Meagles sanctimonious speech to her in the end of the program. I adore Freema Agyeman, and hopefully the next period piece she gets will be something written specifically about a woman of color as she would have lived in that time. I first have to object to those poster, who have mistakenly labeled Freema an African-American. Freema’s father is from Ghana, but according to her bio, Freema was born, raised and educated in England. Therefore, although she has an African heritage she is an English woman, not an African-American. That said: I was one of those people who rather liked Mrs. Wade's dialogs in the novel, especially her comments about poverty and imprisonment, if not necessarily the character. I was amused by Mister Meagles 'practical' solution to rescue a twelve year orphan from her pitiful condition by taking her home and making her an unpaid servant to his daughter. He would be arrested for taking a child out of foster care and taking her home as unpaid labor in this time — and from Mrs. Wade’s comment I have to wonder, although it was a common practice, (Dickens himself was put to work in his uncle’s factory at twelve years old to help settle his father’s debt) was it considered truly moral then? According to what I have read on the Coram Foundling home, young women, if sponsored, supposedly had a small dowries that could be claimed by their husbands if they married. They were educated/apprenticed usually as domestics, nurses, or in factory work, and expected at fifteen to find positions. In the novel Mister and Mrs. Meagles truly seem to think they are giving Harriet a home, her nickname is giving, Meagles claims with love and affection, although their generosity stops short of adoption–which they could have afforded. It is never clear what was to happen to Harriet, the unpaid, and untrained ladies’ maid, when Pet married. Was she to travel with Pet as part of her dowry? As portrayed in the PBS/BBC program; this relationship seems all the more tragic/comic as Mr. Meagles obviously loves Tattycoram as much as his own daughter, Pet. However, by changing the character's complexion what the audience perceives is Tattycoram as Hagar rather than Ruth, if that makes sense. We do not expect Victorian English gentlepeople to adopt a child of color. As late as the Edwardian period people of color were working as unpaid servants in England.

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  14. Thanks for an interesting discussion. I've read \”Little Dorrit,\” and enjoyed the BBC version of \”Bleak House\” very much, and was excited to find this latest series available on ITunes. Yeah, I was so puzzled by the character/casting of Tattycoram that I followed everyone elses' well-beaten path to this blog. I definitely think the casting is disruptive of the story: It's a giant anachronism, and it stretches the plausibility of the family relationships beyond . . . beyond plausibility. It's ludicrous to suggest an English family of that class (or possibly any class?) at that time would bring a black young women in \”as a member of a family\” Are we to believe this wouldn't, at the very least, make all the other incidental characters and walk-on characters stop and stare? At the very least? I'd like to read what the rationale was behind the casting. Note: I'm white, and my (adopted) daughter is black. And PS: Yes, it's interesting to learn that \”cramping my style\” was used way back when, but using it in this context comes across as if the screenwriter were vying for first place in a Cleverness Competition. It brings the story to a halt as the viewer talks back to the screen: \”Hang on! Did people talk like that back then? Let me go to Google, and…\” Bad choice. PPS: I LOVE the actor who plays Dorrit pere. Tho, as I recall in the book, he constantly called his daughter \”My Dear\” in conversation, and I don't hear that here…..

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  15. According to this BBC site, black people were living in the UK, and after slavery was made illegal in the 1700s were sometimes treated in the manner Tattycoram is portrayed.http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/black_britons_01.shtmlSo it may be a revision of a history previously made more white than is realistic. After all, we meet the male lead on his return from China. Not an expert just a thought.Mira Nair's Vanity Fair also made India (and UK Colonialism) visible in a very interesting way

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  16. Came here to see if Tattycoram was written as a Black woman, which would have surprised me for Dickens, and I came across these comments, many of which express surprise not just at the casting of an Anglo-African woman, but at the fact that Black people were present in nineteenth century Britain. Victorian writers seldom mention Blacks, and almost never in any positive way, but that was more a reflection of the increasingly racist mindset of the white British than any historical truth. It would have been unusual for a Black Harriet to be adopted by a white family, but not unheard of. There are actually several famous examples from the time, one of which involves a nobleman who raises his wayward son's Black daughter along with her white half-sister. Actually, it was probably more likely that the Meagles would have adopted a Black companion for their daughter in the Regency period (1820s) than a generation later in the Victorian period. The 1820s society was full of fops and dandies, but also abolitionists (slavery, abolished in England in 1807, was still legal in British colonies until 1830 or 1833) and people who considered it their moral imperative to raise the education and social standing of newly emancipated Blacks. Dickens, like most Victorians, was fairly racist, but the London of either time period would, in fact, have been quite diverse. Just because non-white British people are largely absent in Victorian fiction, doesn't mean they were not present in Victorian–or Regency–life. Dickens is writing about the 1820s from the perspective of the 1850s, so the 21st century filmmakers are showing Regency life through the lens of Victorian satire. With so many removes, a little license is allowable.I think the casting of Harriet \”Tattycoram\” was brilliant, and I don't think it took from the film or the character at all. Contrary to yet another comment, people would not have been stopping and staring at her; in fact, there really should have been *more* people of African and Indian descent in the background crowd scenes. I think the problem is that we are used to seeing the nineteenth century–and history in general–depicted in an essentially unrealistic way, i.e., as full of only white people. Any attempt at more accurate representations seem jarring because so little effort is really made to incorporate a more diverse environment. Dickens' descriptions were purposely vague, so that his wide readership can fill in the blanks themselves. Why do we condemn a segment of that readership for deciding that Tattycoram is Black? No one is complaining about Doyce being Indian, and I don't think he was described as such in the book either. I am surprised how accepting people seem to be of the contrived lesbian subtext between Harriet and Ms. Wade. She seems to me to be Dickens version of a suffragette or feminist, and I can't conceive of a mainstream Victorian writer consciously making any allusions to an improper relationship of *that* sort. That put me off, not Doyce's or Harriet's casting. A costume drama strives to be representative both historically and literarily. That becomes difficult with authors like Thackeray and Dickens who focused on urban life but also subscribed to the norms of the period, which demanded that people of color be invisible or else villains. I think the producers made the right call with Doyce and Harriet, and only wish they had gone a little further with the extras. Quite frankly, I'll watch anything that makes an intelligent attempt to show a more representative reality. Britain, like the US, is a pretty diverse place, yet you'd never know it based on the filmic and television representations of everyday life–past, present, or future. Actually, I think many sci-fi shows attempt to broaden their demographic by casting more people of color, but what does that say about society? That we should expect ethnic inclusion to arrive around the same time as interstellar space travel? Yeesh!

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  17. Hi Stacy, while I enjoy this character (Tattycoram) in this production, I think I became confused enough to look her up. I, too, did not understand how this family treated her badly because there was no context as far as I could tell. If there had been context in that the family had been shown mistreating her, I would not have had this confusion and the character would have progressed more smoothly. These are actors doing a job and I see no problem here. I like seeing all colors of people playing various characters as long as they are doing a great job as in this case. Frankly, I had more of a problem that Mr. Clenam was not better looking but soon got used to him and came to like him. Of course, Derek Jacobi is a hard act to follow in my opinion.I agree with you about TCM. (Sorry this is a late post as I just bought the video.)

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