Background.

Little Dorrit

Context.

Quotation said by the character Mr. Meagles who is talking to Arthur Clennam. Meagles is complaining about being confined into a quarantined area of Marseille, potentially with people who are unhealthy, when he arrived as well as ever I was in my life.

In Book 1, Chapter 2 of Little Dorrit, a group of travellers are being quarantined in the French town of Marseille, having come from the Far East on their way to England. Amongst the English in the group are Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, their daughter, Pet, and maid Tattycoram, the businessman Arthur Clennam and a mysterious woman known as Miss Wade.

The group would almost certainly have been confined to an area of northern Marseille known as the Lazaret, an area where travellers and cargo that had arrived from places known to have disease could be held in quarantine pending a clean bill of health. People infected with disease could potentially mix with healthy people. Mr. Meagles, with this quotation, is expressing how difficult being confined in isolation is.

Illustration from the original publication of Little Dorrit by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) of Little Dorrit leaving the Marshalsea prison.


Quarantining in Marseille.

At the time Little Dorrit, is set, the port of Marseille was France’s main stopping point for ships from Africa, the Middle East and beyond to gain a clean bill of health. Ships that arrived from areas known to have outbreaks of disease would initially dock at the island of Pomègues, in Marseille harbour, where they could be assessed by health officials. In the town itself there was a segregated area known as the Lazaret (the word being derived from the figure Lazarus of Bethany in Christian religion) where people and cargoes could be kept for a period of time until they are deemed to be clean of any infection. Cargo such as raw cotton was particularly suspected of bringing plague to Europe at the time and a ship transporting such a load may have to sit out a quarantine period with its crew at Pomègues. During the nineteenth century a number of mercantile areas across Europe also had their own lazarets (also known as a lazaretto) including Corfu and Malta. Most ports across Europe banned ships arriving from areas known to be infected with plague so those with lazarets offered places for a crew to isolate and be monitored and obtain a certificate of clean health.

A vessel has arrived within the last half hour, from Alexandria. Four her crew died on the voyage of the plague, which, at the time of her sailing, raged in that city with greater intensity than could remembered by the oldest inhabitant! It is scarcely necessary say, that in consequence of this alarming information, the most rigorous quarantine has been established here.

Letter sent to a London mercantile house from Marseille. Reproduced in Saunders’s News-Letter, and Daily Advertiser. Wednesday, 13 July 1825.

The Lazaret is vast edifice, situated to the north of Marseille, extending nearly a mile along the shore; it was built in 1666, but has been, different timer, much enlarged. It consists a great number of buildings, separated into seven divisions, each surrounded with walls; four of these are destined for persons performing quarantine, and the three others for the cargoes. The largest of these latter divisions is divided into two parts, the upper and the lower; in the lower part the cargoes are put to undergo the proper quarantine; the upper part contains the powder magazine, the house of the Captain of the Lazaret, the inn, the avenues leading to the six other divisions, a prison for the refractory among those who are confined, and parlor where they who wish to speak to the persons under quarantine may communicate with them across a deep ditch, divided vertically with an iron grating.

Oxford University and City Herald. Saturday 3 November 1821.

Characters.

Mr. Meagles.

Meagles is a jovial, convivial man who puts his family above all else. A self-made businessman, he likes to think of himself as practical. However, in reality he gets worked up about things and this clouds his judgement, making him not very practical at all. Meagles is particularly discomforted by the idea of Pet marrying Henry Gowan and also by the idea of the stranger, Miss Wade, holding influence over his vulnerable servant girl, Tattycoram.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Book 1, Chapter 2 (Fellow Travellers) of Little Dorrit:

‘No more of yesterday’s howling over yonder to-day, Sir; is there?’

‘I have heard none.’

‘Then you may be sure there is none. When these people howl, they howl to be heard.’

‘Most people do, I suppose.’

‘Ah! but these people are always howling. Never happy otherwise.’

‘Do you mean the Marseilles people?’

‘I mean the French people. They’re always at it. As to Marseilles, we know what Marseilles is. It sent the most insurrectionary tune into the world that was ever composed. It couldn’t exist without allonging and marshonging to something or other—victory or death, or blazes, or something.’

The speaker, with a whimsical good humour upon him all the time, looked over the parapet-wall with the greatest disparagement of Marseilles; and taking up a determined position by putting his hands in his pockets and rattling his money at it, apostrophised it with a short laugh.

‘Allong and marshong, indeed. It would be more creditable to you, I think, to let other people allong and marshong about their lawful business, instead of shutting ’em up in quarantine!’

‘Tiresome enough,’ said the other. ‘But we shall be out to-day.’

‘Out to-day!’ repeated the first. ‘It’s almost an aggravation of the enormity, that we shall be out to-day. Out! What have we ever been in for?’

‘For no very strong reason, I must say. But as we come from the East, and as the East is the country of the plague—’

‘The plague!’ repeated the other. ‘That’s my grievance. I have had the plague continually, ever since I have been here. I am like a sane man shut up in a madhouse; I can’t stand the suspicion of the thing. I came here as well as ever I was in my life; but to suspect me of the plague is to give me the plague. And I have had it—and I have got it.’

‘You bear it very well, Mr Meagles,’ said the second speaker, smiling.

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I am like a sane man shut up in a madhouse.

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