Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism: General advice for every social occasion

My copy of ‘Little Dorrit’ by Charles Dickens has been languishing for months, way down in the pile of books that I’m currently reading. After I’d had to return the audiobook to the library just short of halfway through, I didn’t find enough chunks of time to keep up the momentum of the plot or the plethora of characters. When I start to forget who’s done what in a novel, I’m unlikely to ever finish it, however, while in the library earlier this week I made the decision to rescue my read, and loan out the audiobook for ‘Little Dorrit’, round two.

It took a while for my memory to kick in, but I’ve been enjoying the Dorrit family’s grand tour of Switzerland and Italy, now their fortunes have changed. I knew I was back up to speed when I roared out laughing at the ludicrous advice of Mrs General, the ‘varnisher’ of manners, employed by Mr Dorrit to polish up his daughters for polite society. While Fanny is luxuriating in the family’s new found wealth and position, little Amy is bereft. None of her qualities are valued or desired within gentile society, and she longs to be able to care for her father as she used to, and worries about him. As far as Mrs General is concerned, Amy is a lost cause, and advises Mr Dorrit to be firm with her.

Father is rather vulgar, my dear. The word Papa, besides, gives a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism are all very good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable, in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company – on entering a room, for instance – Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism, prunes and prism.

Dickens magnificently conjures the superficial preoccupations of the bourgeoisie with Mrs General and her attempts to instill appropriate manners into her charges, and the Dorrit family’s attempts to scotch all reference to their previous financial predicament.

little dorrit - Mrs general

I haven’t yet seen the BBC adaptation of ‘Little Dorrit’, but I’m so glad Mrs General is played by Pam Ferris – sterling casting!

The good news is that I’m right back into the story and hope to finish it within the week. Even better than that, I now have the perfect mantra for such times as I find myself in company or about to enter a room full of strangers – ‘Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism’, all delivered in clipped 1940s received pronunciation. What could possibly go wrong?