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?